Letter on the Public Value of History and the Humanities

This letter was sent to the Belfast Telegraph on 7 June in response to its coverage of our vice-chancellor’s public comments on the social value of history education. It is signed by 45 colleagues.

7 June 2016

Dear editor

As staff members of the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast, we are writing in response to recent public controversy over the value of our disciplines to society in Northern Ireland, and indeed more broadly. We were disappointed to read in the interview published on 30th May with our vice-chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston, comments which appeared to question the value of the study of History, and of the humanities subjects more generally. We welcome the subsequent apology made for these remarks, and the vice chancellor’s statement that he has the highest regard for students, colleagues and alumni from History.

At the same time we welcome the opportunity thus raised to discuss the social value of humanities subjects we teach and research. The disciplines of History and Anthropology foster core skills in research, analysis, cultural literacy, critical thinking, communication and persuasion that are valued by a wide range of employers. Our graduates often go on to productive careers in media, heritage, teaching, the civil service, development work and non-governmental organisations, while others find that the skills gained in undergraduate study easily transfer into fields as diverse as software engineering, business management and law. In an uncertain and rapidly changing employment market, we believe the adaptability of our graduates prepares them well for the future. The School has a long tradition of producing outstanding leaders – including three of the eight departmental ministers in the recently appointed Northern Ireland Executive, and senior figures in organisations such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, ITN and the BBC.

University education is not just about employment skills however. Through our disciplines students gain a critical and sophisticated comprehension of how human societies and cultures work, and how they have changed and how that change has been remembered over time (from the ancient and medieval world to our own period). Through this they acquire understanding of social, political and cultural problems not only within our own society, but internationally. We aim to produce informed and critical global citizens.

The great strength of university education for students lies in learning within an intensive research environment. The School of History and Anthropology is well-known globally for the outstanding quality of its research, covering subjects as diverse as Christianity in the Roman Empire, mathematical thought in 6th-century Ireland, popular song in Stuart England, slave emancipation and black culture in the American South, revolution in modern China, gender relations and religious belief systems and practices from New Guinea to the Scottish Highlands, and the emotional power of flags and emblems in Northern Ireland. We bring this knowledge into dialogue with society not just through teaching but via collaborations with a large number of bodies, including museums, theatres and galleries, schools and colleges, national and regional government departments and councils, NGOs such as ‘Healing through Remembering’, as well as via the print and broadcast media.

To take this agenda forward and stimulate further discussion, we will be organising, with our colleagues in other disciplines at Queen’s, a public event in the autumn on the social value of the humanities. We deeply appreciate the widespread support voiced by students, alumni and colleagues at home and abroad over the past week, and see this as testament to a shared belief in the value of historical and anthropological enquiry for understanding our past and present. We look forward to congratulating our graduating students in July and welcoming our new student intake in History and Anthropology in September and seeing them develop as critical thinkers, active citizens and future leaders.


Yours sincerely


Dr Dominic Bryan, Prof. Brian Campbell, Dr Ian Campbell, Dr Evi Chatzipanagiotidou, Dr Marie Coleman, Dr Kieran Connell, Prof. Sean Connolly, Dr John Curran, Dr James Davis, Dr Aglaia De Angeli, Dr Scott Dixon, Dr Elaine Farrell, Prof. Peter Gray, Dr Leonie Hannan, Prof. David Hayton, Dr Andrew Holmes, Dr Zoe Hyman, Dr Martijn Icks, Prof. Lisette Josephides, Dr Brian Kelly, Prof. Liam Kennedy, Dr John Knight, Dr Daniel Kowalsky, Dr Jon Lanman, Prof. Fiona Magowan, Dr Ashok Malhotra, Prof. Christopher Marsh, Prof. Fearghal McGarry, Dr Ida Milne, Dr Eric Morier-Genoud, Prof. Sean O’Connell, Prof. Mary O’Dowd, Dr Sindead O’Sullivan, Dr Olwen Purdue, Dr Emma Reisz, Dr Paulo Sousa, Dr Antony Stanonis, Dr Maruska Svasek, Dr Alexander Titov, Dr Ioannis Tsioulakis, Dr Katy Turton, Dr Immo Warntjes, Dr Joe Webster, Dr Todd Weir, Prof. David Whitehead.




Published by

Prof. Peter Gray

Professor of Modern Irish History School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics Queen's University Belfast Belfast BT7 1NN N. Ireland, UK