When someone asks me why I wanted to study history at university undergraduate degree level, the answer I always give is that it is a subject I enjoy. This answer may seem slightly superficial, especially as I get asked this question almost every other day. However, it’s not the case that I simply have convinced myself that I ‘enjoy’ history, there is much truth in my ready-made answer. Often a question which I am rarely asked, is what is it like to study history at Cambridge? The answer for this question is not one I can readily assemble; to explain to someone what it is like to study history at Cambridge is one in which only the person who has experienced it can fully answer.
History at Cambridge is very different from the subject taught from text books in your everyday secondary school class. At Cambridge, history is a voyage of discovery, a philosophical journey of interpretation, an art of analysis. It is not one single coherent narrative, but a series of competing narratives, that can be influenced by the individual or society. Ultimately, this creates an animated and ever-changing debate of competing interpretations. History comes alive through diaries, journals and personal accounts. Primary sources from the past leave a trail of clues, hidden secrets and forgotten practices for you study.
History is Alive
What excites me about studying history is how unexpected evidence can alter our initial perception, and reveal the hidden truth about a historical event. For example, part of one of my papers on Print and Society organized a trip to the historical printing room in the University Library and provided a hands on demonstration with a 19th century Albion hand press. Rather than copying facts from a secondary book, a hands one demonstration provided by the UL, such as printing our names with a hand press print quite clearly showed just how difficult it was to print text and how delicate an operation it was to print books. By working hands on with what can be termed a ‘primary object’ from the era, was quite extraordinary. The theme of ‘extraordinary’ is something which appears regularly within a historian’s studies, and learning how to hand print our names whilst understanding the precise operation of the hand press print, was one of them.
As a student joining the University, for the first two years you get the opportunity to study a vast number of papers, everything from the Roman era to modern British politics. Each tripos paper is divided into distinct themes or periods, and each week your supervisor sets you an essay title on that particular element of the paper. The pace is quick, and the first year you will find yourself struggling to keep up amongst books, journals and paper. However, the holistic approach to periods and themes, means a much more in depth and satisfying engagement with a period as a whole.
You also will never be without a book. Even if it is the most popular or rarest book – for example Ross McKibbin’s book on Class was a highly popular read in first year, whilst Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars was notoriously difficult to get your hands on. But the range and choice of libraries of Cambridge is immense and will ensure you that whatever book, no matter how popular or rare, you will somewhere in Cambridge, find it. The University Library for example is a copyright library, only comparable to the Oxford Bodleian library or the British Library in London. It has every single copy of every single book published in the UK. Whilst it may appear a slightly sinister and odd shaped building, (Chamberlain referred to it as “this magnificent erection”), it is the place where most historians will visit at least once a week – if they can bear its hideous architecture.
However, whilst this all may sound thoroughly interesting, studying history at Cambridge has its more mundane elements also. Weekly lectures, coupled with weekly supervisions and weekly essays means that by week 5 often you can’t seem to bare the sight of another book. Yet in third year the pace of work and nature of work changes. You can study what you want and at a much more individual level; in much more detail. The scope changes from the entire early modern period for example, to learning about Kentish peasants in 1556. You also have the opportunity to do a dissertation, which is a thoroughly rewarding and exciting experience.
When people ask me why I study history the full answer is somewhat more complex. I am motivated by this voyage of unknown discovery, where past events are dramatic, remarkable, and even in this modern age, sometimes unfathomable. Being a historian at Cambridge is not simply a job of looking through books and writing essays, you’re at the forefront of new historical investigation.
To discover more about studying History at Cambridge, why not take a look at our the History programme at Immerse Education.