Another round of student applications is under way; another batch of budding historians in the making. The trouble is, when they get here, half of them aren’t remotely interested in history and those who turn up to classes are only semi-literate historically. I don’t know what they teach them in schools these days. The lot I get know bits about Hitler and Stalin and the odd one or two have some vague idea that Elizabeth I was a Tudor, but that’s only because of Cate Blanchett. And we’re supposed to be getting applicants with top marks.
I hate the application cycle. Since my neighbours know I’m employed by a university, they send they kids round to ask for advice on how to write a personal statement. Poor little buggers – they spend hours tarting up their statements to show what great all-round human beings they are, little realising that nobody is going to read any of it, because they all say they are sporting aces, dedicated charity workers, helpful future citizens and model students.
I long for the personal statement that says someone is applying to university because it’s a great opportunity to waste parents’ and taxpayers’ money on beer for three years while building a spectacular career on Facebook. If I read a sentence like “I don’t give a toss about helping the elderly and infirm, I don’t read books though I am interested in studying the past lives of other fat slobs like me”, I might feel inclined to offer a place on the grounds of clear-headed honesty. Not that historians are renowned for honesty, but I like to think there’s hope for the future.
“The odd one or two have some vague idea that Elizabeth I was a Tudor, but that’s only because of Cate Blanchett”
What prospective students never know is who actually does read their application forms. Some places hand the whole process over to apparatchiks, while others make a stab at academic judgements. I remember the first time I was dragged in to read some of the applications and tried vainly to get sensible advice. There was, I need hardly add, no such thing as training back then . One bloke told me to ignore the personal statements and focus on the reference; another told me all referees were dishonest. One said I needed to consider the social background of each applicant; another said I should be careful to take only those from good schools. In short, what I got was a blind mass of personal prejudice, bias and ignorance, and the system hasn’t changed fundamentally since those bad old days, I’m sure.
Getting into university is a lottery, and it always was. There’s a semblance of democracy, but that’s just a veneer. Underneath the hype, the same old spitefulness lurks, the same prejudices, the same self-righteousness. Everybody believes standards have dropped and that this generation has been sold short and dumbed down. Each time I hear some incompetent education minister pontificating about how we have the best education system in the world I feel like throwing the radio at the wall.
Next year I shall offer an interactive module on drink, sex and opiates in the Middle Ages to pull the dumbed-down punters in. Naturally I shall dress it up with a fancy title to get it through the quality police, something like “Scatological theories of consumption in the medieval world”. Fat slobs of the past and present, Gloria will unite you.