Why the study of history is more important than ever

The number of students studying history nationally may be falling, but at Ripon Grammar School the subject is thriving, with between 35 and 45 students taking it at A-level every year. Two RGS history teachers explain why they believe the subject is more important than ever, while two former students illustrate how the study of history has served them well both in their lives and their careers

ED LONG (head of history at RGS, pictured above)

I know I'm hugely biased, but to me it is self-evident that history is both the most interesting and useful subject that there is. It's not just that 'we have to learn from the past so that we can avoid the same mistakes in the future'.

The world around us, particularly in these interesting political times, seems insane. I would argue that only by finding out what the long-term causes and trends are that have led to this mad world can we understand why the world is the way it is. In so doing, we will learn amazing stories, evaluate evidence, consider our opinions and then have to justify them. If the latter skills are not profoundly valuable in virtually any area of employment, then dodgy decisions based on a lack or research and unsound reasoning will be the order of the day.

It's not just about defeating 'fake news', it's about understanding why people believe what they believe, and coming to your own point of view on what they say. Quite useful when British and US elections are coming up!

Past pupil AMELIA TEARLE left RGS in 2010 to study history at the University of Cambridge and now works as a Metropolitan Police murder squad detective. While the skills she picked up in history have been surprisingly useful in her job, she chose to study it because she loved the subject

I joined the Metropolitan Police in 2014 and have working in a variety of roles since. This has included working as a uniform officer on an emergency response team, as a borough detective investigating crimes such as burglary and robbery, on a long-term proactive operation tackling the supply of Class A drugs, and most recently as a detective investigating murders on the Met’s homicide command.

People sometimes say that history is about making sense of today, about learning lessons from the past, and that it should be studied to prevent history repeating itself. I disagree with those views.

For me, history is instead a profound curiosity about people, and the great joy of history is the scope to study anyone who has ever lived, throughout all the colourful civilisations of the world. This deep curiosity about people, and the desire to understand what mattered to them, why they made the choices they did, and ultimately to uncover their actions is a significant attribute of an effective detective.

In history, although each set of historical circumstances is distinct, the same tools of historical analysis can be used across different events and across many years. In a similar vein, whilst each investigation is unique, a detective employs the same strands of evidence, including CCTV, phone work, witness accounts and forensic evidence, to conduct numerous wide-ranging investigations.

A university history essay seeks to draw together a number of sources and critiques to present an original argument. A detective writing a case summary for the Crown Prosecution Service draws on a variety of pieces of evidence, carefully using them to rebut claims and accounts which can be disproved, to present a cohesive, well-structured report substantiated by sources which stand up to scrutiny. The similarities are far greater than the differences.

Although it is easy for me to reflect on the elements of my degree which have, perhaps unexpectedly, become useful in my career, it is also significant that I did not foresee joining the police when I was at school or for most of the time I was at university. I certainly did not choose history with a view to it leading to any particular job. Ultimately, studying something which you love and which challenges you on both an academic and an emotional level will provide a wealth of skills and strength to draw upon in whatever career you choose to follow. 

JUDI FELL (RGS history teacher)

The advent of social media has transformed how we communicate, and has made it possible for us all to express our thoughts and opinions with ease, highlighting the profound divisions within our society at local, national and international level. In this connected yet divided world, a discipline which seeks to develop our ability to present a coherent judgement, cogently argued and supported with accurate evidence, not only encourages more considered discourse but also empowers the student of history to critically examine the arguments with which we are continually bombarded. However, the most important reason to study history is to seek to build a sense of common humanity and empathy with individuals and populations separated by time and space, in order to build the potential for a more genuinely connected world.

Past pupil JAMES BARTON, who left RGS in 2002, went on to study ancient history and archaeology at Warwick University and now works as director of operations and recruitment for Mander Portman Woodward independent college group, and as an executive film producer at Pinewood Studios. He says history has equipped him with a will to learn as well as the analytical skills required for a variety of careers

I have studied history for as long as I can remember which sounds cliched really. I still remember GCSE history and A-level history’s 20th Century bias. I was fascinated by World War One and wrote my final A-level dissertation on ‘Lions led by donkeys’. However, it was ancient history and classical civilisation that really inspired me. So much so that I studied it at the University of Warwick for my BA honours degree. There is an intellectual curiosity to the ancient world as well as an inherent enjoyment of the stories that continue to have relevance in our modern world.

History, of whatever period, is critical for our understanding today. Those who study history will always tell you that we learn lessons from studying the past that guide the future. However, it is about the past too and looking at where we came from, admiring the passage of human progression to where we are now. Ancient Rome epitomises this for me as it was more advanced as a society than we were in Britain until midway through our history. The politics, the culture, the empire, the philosophy; history is multi-faceted and we still do not know everything. For example, I learnt a lot at university however, it is only since university that I learnt more about how the empire was able to keep control and the answer was trade, realised when Portus, the great lost harbour of Rome, was found. The point being, I might not study history now but I still love learning about it.

What is does very ably as a subject as well is to teach the skills required for a variety of careers from law to journalism.

The analytical skill required in forensic detail lends itself well to employers and particularly careers that require a high level of detail. It is also just tremendously good fun. Whilst I did not go on to directly use history in my career, I have no hesitation in saying that it has contributed to my professional life.

Skills aside, it has equipped me with a will to learn that will continue to endure and a determination to always seek to understand everything.