Should undergraduate historians be forced to take British history papers?

From my first year of primary school, I have a memory of learning about the history of Blackpool Tower, the only true landmark in my hometown; likewise, my memory from the second year contains Anderson shelters. No matter what year I pick, from primary school through to the end of high school, there’s some sort of history, and usually, that history relates to Britain in some way.

But Nathan, you may say, exasperated – what is the point of this monologue? Good question.

I believe that British undergraduate historians should not be forced to take British history papers during their degree – by which I mean, there should not be a compulsory British paper. I’m all for having it as an option, but that’s exactly what it should be, an option.

So why do I think this?

First, there’s some rumour that students in Britain don’t learn about British history. To put it frankly, that’s wrong. As my opening paragraph shows, from the early ages of five and six we students are learning of the history of our country. If you take history at GCSE, as I and many other historians did, you will end up doing a total of eleven years of history, and inevitably some proportion of that per year relates back to Britain, be it the Industrial Revolution, the Roman occupation and the revolt of Boudicca, or the Opium Wars. Taking medieval and modern history at A-level also sees some aspects of British history peeping through, in the form of the Tudors (with an option to do coursework on King John II). Even A-level ancient history can be linked back to the British Isles, since the Romans saw the country as a personal project.

My point is many people who go on to complete history degrees will already have a wealth of knowledge on British history from their time in high school. University should enable one to expand their scope, which, coincidentally, is one of the reasons I chose History (Ancient and Modern) rather than just plain History – the choice to do Roman or Greek history in place of a British paper allows me to have the range that a ‘plain’ historian just won’t have.

This prior knowledge can also be seen as giving British undergraduates the advantage, as they will already know the basic, and in some cases, the more nuanced, points about our history. International students will more than likely not have studied British history directly, and so will be at a disadvantage. Given that universities are all about equal opportunity, and do their best to try and establish this, having two compulsory British papers seems like a redundant thing to do.

There are some, particularly in the older generation, who have a great deal of pride in this country, and who believe that all students, no matter what age, whether they are in primary, high, college, or university, should learn about Britain and her history. For these people I have the following point: Britain has been around so long, and has influenced so many nations, that even if an undergraduate chose to study modules that were not directly related to Britain, they will, no doubt, indirectly link back to the country.

For example, any discussion of the Middle East, perhaps about Palestine or Arabia, must include the British. Learning about France? Who is the enemy? Oh, Britain. China and Britain have a long and controversial relationship, as does India and Britain. In fact, according to Stuart Laycock, a historian who wrote the book All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded, and the Few We Never Got Round To (2012), Britain has invaded 171 out of 193 countries, which works out to be just short of 90%. That means that no matter what country you’re learning about, you’ll probably bump into Britain at some point.

Therefore, I do not believe that British papers should be compulsory for undergraduate historians, for the reasons given above.

Read Lucy Fletcher’s analysis of how useful British history is to undergraduates here.