Technology, Business and, Ancient History?
On the 23rd May this year I sat my final exam as an Ancient History undergraduate at the University of Manchester. I spent three years of my life and just short of £10,000 of my future earnings on a piece of paper that basically says I know a fair amount about some really old people. When I tell people that I want to pursue a career around technology and business often the first question they ask is some variation of, “how does a history degree help you with that”?
The short answer is that it doesn’t, not directly anyway. It seems unlikely that the life philosophy of the freedman Tiberius Claudius Secundus is going to help me solve a database implementation problem (although if someday it does, I will be sure to write about it). That explicit knowledge is something that may be interesting to me and a small collection of likewise interested people but probably won’t be useful for solving real business problems.
The Careers Service at University will say it is other the skills I learnt that I should promote to employers in future job interviews: time-management, teamwork, research and analytical skills. However, if I am honest, those are all skills that I developed more at the various part-time jobs I had since I was sixteen. Every Arts graduate will likely preach those buzzwords on their CV or in their interview but I am not sure that those skills were worth the thousands of pounds that were paid for them. I would be disappointed if I truly felt that was the most I got out of my degree.
Admittedly, the question stems from the fact I chose Ancient History over other subjects that offered a more direct route to what I wanted to do. Surely choices such as Computer Science, Management, Economics or Business would have all given me a technical knowledge that I could apply straight to future job roles. However, working at Domino’s and in bars and restaurants I realised very quickly that theoretical knowledge will only get you so far. It provides a great framework and demonstrates at least some interest in that field but the majority of what I learnt about running a business and managing people came from actually experience, trail and error. Experience comes from making the right decisions and can only decided which is the right decision after what is learnt from making the wrong ones. When a decision needs to be made a textbook is rarely at hand and is unlikely to offer advice that is directly relevant to the current situation. The thrust of this article has give a rather negative portrayal of my degree. I want to stress that I don’t see it like that, I was able to develop the skills I listed above but the true value of my degree was summarised for me in the first five minutes of my first lecture of university.
It was about the importance of an individuals perseption. I distinctly remember Prof. Parkin telling us that our opinions mattered. This was a sharp contrast from what I had understood at GCSE and A-Level where it didn’t. He encouraged us to go and read various primary sources and consider their individual merits and come to our own conclusions and not to simply regurgitate the theories of other scholars. Our opinions mattered because we will read a passage or view a relief and interpret it slightly differently to what others do. Our interpretation of something is influenced by our own personalities and life experieinces. This was an attitude that was pervasive throughout the Classics and Ancient History department at the University of Manchester. In seminars, you could tell that the lecturers loved watching heated debates. The debates were only possible because one individual had seen a different application of a piece of evidence than another. My degree, and my lecturers, helped me realise the importance of an individuals perception that I had not really appreciated before.
Linking back to the original question, “how does a history degree help you with that”? My understanding of business is that it is fundamentally about people. Being aware that people react to an idea or situation differently because of how and why they formed their perceptions allows you to at least attempt to view something differently. For me, although skills such a time-management and research were developed during the course of my degree, being able to understand someone else’s perspective was perhaps the greatest lesson it taught me. This article has focused on the academic aspect of the time at University but that is only a part of it. Student life is often approached with a mocking tone; the stereotype of drunkard student sleeping through lectures and surviving on a diet of Sainsbury’s basics Flakedcorn bites and pot noodle is prevalent. Yes, that is a part of it and any student that says otherwise is obviously talking to their parents or an interviewer. However, there is still more too it. It gives your loads of opportunities to get involved in different activites. During my time at University I was elected to the Residents Association for my hall, I setup four sports teams to increase community involvement, I promoted higher education at low participation schools and I coached Youth Rugby at a local club. I doubt there are masses of Classics students flocking to IBM, Google and their likes, waving their degree in the air and hoping for a job but hopefully this may serve as an insight to others who want to pursue a career that does not naturally follow on from their degree subject.