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University should not be pre-job training but an opportunity to study something challenging and interesting

Many teenagers who picked up their GCSE grades a couple of weeks ago will now be turning their attention to the start of their A-level courses this month.  Some may be thinking further ahead, about what they are going to spend their three years at university studying.

For some, the course will be business studies.  For others, psychology or marketing or media.  All very interesting, I’m sure, but for me ‘business’ and ‘marketing’ and so on belong in job descriptions and not in university degree titles.  By choosing these sorts of courses, students are shirking a valuable rite of passage and missing out on a time that should be devoted to immersion in less obviously practical subjects, a time when they should be studying for the sake of studying.

I can appreciate why the youth of today (God, that makes me sound old) veer towards business studies or advertising or similarly fashionable subjects.  It’s to get a head start in the overcrowded job market.  Yet it’s almost cheating, like an athlete who sets off before the starter fires his gun.  Meanwhile, students who spent university reading Jane Austen or getting to grips with Hegel and Kant are left scrabbling to catch up.

I’ll admit that I’m biased towards that most ‘useless’ bunch of subjects, the arts, partly because I wasn’t any good at the sciences (or, to be frank, at anything really apart from Latin).  I share the view that university should be a time for plunging ourselves into studies that are not necessarily useful in the old nine to five but which will leave us feeling intellectually or culturally enriched.  English literature, philosophy, or even a good solid non-arts subject like maths.

Students can then start to learn something more vocational once they are out in the real world.  They’re plenty young enough when they graduate.


So now, students: for the ultimate arts subject, how about history?  History has it all.  When it’s not drumming vital reasoning skills into your young minds, it’ll develop that great if now sadly rare skill of writing well and constructing essays.  The study of history will get you considering more than one point of view.  It’s a discipline the Twitter ranters could do with learning.  What’s more, even if you can’t stop yourself rejecting out of hand the other guy’s way of thinking, history will still help you to articulate your own.

This reminds me that I was quite impressed by the tape recordings an A-level history teacher used to play of distinguished professors firmly but politely and eloquently disagreeing with each other on the subject of the Wars of the Roses.  One even claimed that there was no such thing as the Wars of the Roses.  Even better, these conversations inspired Rob Newman and David Baddiel’s TV spoof (hugely popular and much imitated in my university days) in which a drily erudite discussion of the Enclosures Act between two crusty old dons degenerates into an exchange of puerile insults.

But back to your history studies.  The mental tools you will use to interpret what you read in your history books can be applied to texts you encounter in the news media.  All those troubles that are talked about now, from fighting in Afghanistan to white nationalism in the USA, are consequences of events that occurred and policies that were enacted centuries ago.  The world affairs of today are links to and reminders of the past.  And they are the ‘history’ of the future.

So I like to think that a good number of successful GCSE students will in due course put their names down for history degrees.  At the very least I hope that enrolment numbers in 2019 will hold up well against previous years.

For this to pass, students will have to stand firm in the face of parents hassling them into opting for lesser courses, those that look more obviously relevant to their first office jobs.