History teaches you how to run the country

Source: The Times. Article written by Mark Bailey for The Times. It has been shared here as it is of interest to the Branch and its work. The Branch is not the author and does not own the work below.

A PPE degree used to provide the fast track to power but historians know that their skills are now in more demand

A recent report revealed that history is the most common degree among the nation’s MPs, supplanting the old favourite, PPE. More than 15 per cent of all MPs and over 10 per cent of the cabinet are trained historians. In a radio interview yesterday Tony Blair, who as prime minister was sometimes accused of having a poor grasp of history, admitted that he wished he had studied the subject, rather than law, at Oxford.

Nor are parliamentarians atypical among modern leaders. Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, and Sir Howard Stringer, former chairman of Sony, both have history degrees. More than 20 per cent of all head teachers in the UK’s leading independent schools studied history as undergraduates too. Yet history students now comprise only 4 per cent of all students in UK universities.

So how does history, rather than other arts degrees, prepare people so well for leadership? Churchill once suggested that historical knowledge was essential to managing the affairs of state. Historians sometimes bemoan the inability of politicians to learn the lessons of history, but for the most part historical knowledge is not relevant or transferable to leadership in modern government, business or education.

The knowledge that Shakespeare was writing histories about England two centuries before anyone else in Europe wrote about the history of their nation tells us a good deal about the early formation of English identity and may help to keep conversation flowing at certain types of dinner party, but it offers no pointers to the modern leader attempting to devise strategy or manage the workforce.

While a secure grasp of factual knowledge is essential to being a good historian, the transferable skills acquired through a history degree are the fundamental reason that historians are propelled disproportionately into positions of leadership. History is the ultimate multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary subject. Anyone wishing to understand the causes and consequences of the Black Death needs a working grasp of various aspects of microbiology, epidemiology, climatology, theology, economics and sociology. Thus the historian acquires breadth and flexibility, and is able to borrow perspectives from a range of other intellectual disciplines, yet draws upon a robust and distinctive methodological approach rooted in empiricism.

Historical events are invariably complex, often chaotic, and historians have to identify them to describe with precision and concision the most salient. Some evidence may be missing, other evidence may be suspect, so reconstruction involves careful weighing and balancing of available information. The whole process of recovering what happened and explaining why it happened needs an evidentiary base intertwined with hefty dollops of logic, judgment and perspective. No wonder historians get better with age and experience.

So a history degree provides incomparable training in solving complex problems from real life, not abstract examples. It teaches what questions to ask; how to marshal the available evidence to fashion an answer; how to compensate when the evidence is imperfect; and how and when to apply ingenuity, proportionality and judgment. It also places a premium upon communication, whether through high-order literacy or inspired storytelling.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is why do bright people opt to study an ostensibly “non-vocational” degree, such as history, in the first place? One reason is that it tends to be well taught by passionate subject specialists in schools. Able children need stimulation and motivation, and a teacher with excellent subject knowledge and the ability to convey it with an infectious zeal will inspire the able. Another reason is that school history grapples with major world events and poses far-reaching questions, which tend to catch the interest and imagination of bright children.

Or perhaps we should be asking why a degree in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE), the route into Westminster followed by prime ministers such as Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and David Cameron, has been supplanted by history. After all, the politics component in PPE is effectively modern political history, and MPs who have been taught how to think (philosophy) and how UK PLC works (economics) should be prepared for their task. It remains popular and is now offered by most of the UK’s most selective universities.

Yet PPE lacks the focus, the empiricism and the methodological rigour of a history degree. PPE is, after all, a general arts degree, which offers breadth over depth, and a platform for the quick-witted to impress and opine. The academic Trevor Pateman wrote that PPE provides “no training in scholarship, only refining the ability to write short dilettantish essays on the basis of very little knowledge”.

Running a modern enterprise demands a great deal from its leaders. They require the skills to solve complex problems, to communicate in a variety of media, and to exercise judgment even when the evidence is imperfect. They need to be focused, stoical, open-minded, passionate, decisive and transparent.

The future is unknown and the present is fleeting, which means that everything is history. The skills acquired from studying the past provide an excellent foundation for navigating the present and preparing for the future.

Mark Bailey is high master of St Paul’s school and professor of later medieval history at the University of East Anglia. 

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