What’s the point of studying history? How can the past make any difference to the present?

This blogpost is for all those of us who find ourselves having conversations with sceptical parents and students. It especially addresses the need to persuade people that studying history can contribute to a career. Dr Katharine Burn, Honorary Secretary of the HA and history teacher educator at the University of Oxford, shares with us some quotations about the impact of historical research taken from the recently published Research Excellence Framework. There are super examples we can adapt and use to persuade the, as yet, unenlightened that history can really take you places!

Have you ever found yourself at a GCSE options evening, faced with a Year 9 student keen to take history but accompanied by a doubtful parent insisting that they do something ‘more useful’? Or at an A-level open evening trying to win over a potential applicant torn between history and something more ‘creative’ or practical’?

If you’re looking for hard evidence to convince young people about the importance and power of history and what its study can achieve, take a quick look at the judgements made about the ‘impact’ of history published in May 2022 as part of the UK-wide REF’ (Research Excellence Framework).

This is a massive government-commissioned review of the quality of research produced by universities across all subjects and I am certainly not suggesting that anyone plough through all its published findings! But tucked away on pages 106-7 of the thrillingly entitled Overview Report by Main Panel D is a list of all the different kinds of impact that recent historical research has had on those who have encountered it. Sometimes that has been through books and articles or in commissioned reports that have gone on to shape local, national and even international policy. At others, it has been within museums and galleries, in public performances, on television and in films, at community events, and even in court.  

Of course, historical research has a huge impact within the heritage sector where we would all expect to find it – in museums and archives and in shaping public commemorations.  But its impact is also being felt in many other areas of life. As one of the ‘impact assessors’ – invited to join the panel because of my knowledge of how recent historical research is now informing teachers’ curricular decisions – I was amazed to discover just how many other areas and just how profound the impact could be. The extracts in italics below come straight from the report. A database of all the case studies is due to be published in June, making it possible to draw on individual examples, tailoring them to the interests and concerns of any wavering student!  

Well-being, health and social welfare

There were outstanding examples in shaping understandings and policies in relation to mental well-being, social injustice and inequalities, gender and sexuality, and professional and public understandings of health and illness. Some case studies involved working with and impacting on individuals and communities that are often marginalised or poorly integrated into civil society and health-care services.

Contributions to policy, in local, national and international contexts

These included many outstanding examples in a range of subject areas, including border conflict, land and housing policy, institutional reform, humanitarian policies, climate change, welfare, and poverty.  Several case studies contributed to public enquiries, addressing issues such as historic sexual abuse… Others focused on political discourse, with some outstanding work on debates about terrorism and political extremism, and on Brexit and relations with the European Union. .

Justice attracted an appreciable number of case studies, particularly around civil and human rights, often with international or global dimensions. Research underpinned impressive impact in collaboration with, for example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, International NGOs and the United Nations and its component bodies. There was also a body of case studies on reconciliation, principally in the context of Northern Ireland.

And among those that couldn’t be neatly categorised was a range of diverse case studies that ‘drew on research in local and religious history and other areas of cultural activity, and included the creation of new artworks and performances and at their best made outstanding contributions to society and culture.

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