The British Isles in Oxford – comforting in its familiarity, or repetitive and limiting?

I remember being so relieved when I received an email from my college, all the way back when I was just an offer-holder, telling me to pre-emptively pick a History of the British Isles paper. It was a relief to know that although I was entering an unfamiliar and daunting environment, the content I would be studying wasn’t too far away from what was familiar. However, those naive school days are now far behind me, and with the rose-tinted glasses well and truly off, I feel an honest, whistle-stop tour of the concerns I have with the HBI papers is in order.

Offering history of the British Isles papers to undergraduates does have its advantages, (especially for those of us who have struggled through the UK education system). Discussing topics which are close to home allows students to discuss topics they may have already covered in school, arguably levelling the playing field in terms of differing academic experience. However, this benefit only really helps those of us who did study the British Isles in school, who were force-fed ‘divorced, beheaded, died’ and world war one poetry for years. Therefore, by creating a familiar environment for some students to settle and flourish, do we inadvertently alienate those who have not had the same educational experience? Is this problem only exacerbated by offering a second paper themed around the British Isles in subsequent years, increasing the difference in experience between home and international students?

“England itself is often seen as one homogenous blob, with regional differences acknowledged, but only when they are impossible to miss.”

The specific papers which are offered for the history of the British Isles also raises concern. Apart from two themed papers offered in second year, the History of the British Isles papers all follow the trend of being around 200-year-chunks of history. These chunks fit broadly to what many students are taught in schools, and do not help facilitate the conceptual leap required in order to make the most of a history degree. Although themed papers are a way out of this, the ability of students to actually do these papers in practice is limited by the period requirements of the degree. This means many students are refused the opportunity to study the British Isles in a different and more engaging way, in order to fulfil arbitrary requirements. Is this, frankly old fashioned, way of teaching history really the best way to discuss the history of the British Isles? Or does it simply work to reinforce old-fashioned ideas and prevent us from looking at long term trends and ideas more holistically?

Map of Dorset made circa 1670, illustrating a narrow definition of the history of the British Isles.
“Maps of England circa 1670, Dorset 12 of 40” by rich701 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One could even argue that these histories of the British Isles are not really British Isles histories in practice. With a focus already so narrow, it is shocking how often these papers ignore the other constituent parts of the British Isles in favour of looking at just England, often specifically London and southern England. In Prelims, students are often encouraged by tutors to refer to all of the British isles, however in practice it is often the case that a proportionally brief reference to how ‘Scotland was actually different in x because y’ is enough to satisfy students, tutors, and examiners. England itself is often seen as one homogenous blob, with regional differences acknowledged, but only when they are impossible to miss.

Would you like to discuss one of Oxford’s history modules? Be it the History of the British Isles or any other paper on offer, get in touch with us at or and pitch your idea!

For more on the pros and cons of Oxford’s approach to history, click here.


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