Education


How to Fail Your History Degree

A historian told me this anecdote.

Some years ago, the history department at a certain university was about to award a degree to the most knowledgeable student they had ever known. His examination papers easily warranted a prestigious First Class degree. Before such a degree was awarded, it was the custom to interview the candidate in person, this interview being known as a 'Viva'.

The young man came in. The panel of professors and lecturers greeted him warmly. His papers were so impressive that they hardly knew what to ask him. But just to pass the time, one of the panel genially suggested: "Suppose you were in the year 1540, and you undertook a journey from Bristol to, let us say, London. Tell us about the journey, and what you might have seen along the way."

The young man stared at them. He looked completely flumoxed. "I mean quite simply," the questioner helpfully added, "what sort of conditions there might have been in Bristol, what the countryside would have been like, what other kinds of people, perhaps, you might have met on the road." Still the young man was silent. Others members of the panel tried to come to his aid. Then they began to probe.

And gradually it became clear that this young man, though he'd mastered the most astonishing amount of information, had no picture of the past. It had never come alive, as a living reality, in his mind. He seemed to know everything, but in fact he knew nothing at all. They didn't award him a First.

Now if only he'd been made to write a short story...

Did You Know?
In Manhattan in the early to mid nineteenth century, scores of pigs roamed the streets – about 20,000 of them at peak population in the early 1820’s, a ratio of roughly one pig to every five humans ! Many of them belonged to families. The city was quickly growing in the nineteenth century – in population and wealth disparity. Despite rapid urbanization, non-wealthy New Yorkers continued raising hogs as a means of surviving. A family could always slaughter one of its pigs to feed itself, or sell one of them since pork was a staple of the American diet. Why pigs? Other animals weren’t quite so compatible with urban life. People could let their pigs wander the streets, rummage through trash for the piles of spoiled food that was left out on the street during the day, and count on them to return home in the evening !




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