The historian's skills and qualities of mind


When asked by the Quality Assurance Agency to sum up what students should gain from a History degree, a panel of professional historians came up with the following lists:

Generic skills acquired through the study of History:

  • Self-discipline

  • Self-direction

  • Independence of mind, and initiative

  • Ability to work with others and respect others' reasoned views

  • Ability to gather, organise and deploy evidence, data and information; and familiarity with appropriate means of identifying, finding, retrieving, sorting and exchanging information

  • Analytical ability and the capacity to consider and solve problems, including complex problems to which there is no single solution

  • Structure, coherence, clarity and fluency of oral and written expression

  • Intellectual integrity and maturity

  • Imaginative insight and creativity

Skills specific to the study of History:

  • Ability to understand how people have existed, acted and thought in the past. History involves encountering and sensing the past's otherness and learning to understand unfamiliar structures, cultures and belief systems. These forms of understanding shed important light on the influence of the past on the present

  • Ability to read and analyse texts and other primary sources, critically and empathetically, while addressing issues of genre, content, perspective and purpose

  • Appreciation of the complexity and diversity of situations, events and past mentalities. This fosters intellectual maturity

  • Understanding of problems inherent in historical records: awareness of a range of viewpoints and how to cope with this; appreciation of the range of problems involved in interpreting complex, ambiguous, conflicting and often incomplete material; a feeling for the limitations of knowledge and the dangers of simplistic explanations

  • Basic critical skills: a recognition that statements are not all of equal validity, that there are ways of testing them, and that historians operate by rules of evidence which, though themselves subject to critical evaluation, are also a component of intellectual integrity and maturity

  • Intellectual independence: a history programme is not simply a preparation for research in the subject, but it incorporates general research skills - the ability to set tasks and solve problems. This involves: bibliographic skills; ability to gather, sift, select, organise and synthesise large quantities of evidence; ability to formulate appropriate questions and to provide answers to them using valid and relevant evidence and argument

  • Marshalling of argument: in written and oral form.  Such argument should have structure and be relevant and concise. Written argument should be expressed in clear, lucid, coherent prose. Orally, it involves the capacity to sustain a reasoned line of argument in the face of others, to listen, to engage in sustained debate, and amend views as necessary in the light of evidence and argument