What is History?
The research and teaching focus of the Historical Studies Department is concerned with placing our own society into a wider regional and global framework. What has shaped the past and the present of Cape Town, South Africa and Africa? How unusual are these experiences? How typical are they? How do they compare to other regions in the southern hemisphere or the wider world? And how do we find out?
The Department rejects the idea that the past can be described in a single way. It encourages its students to work with different methods and materials, to experiment with new ways of thinking and communication. We draw on a rich range of unique resources on the campus and in the city to do this. For example, the Department houses the Centre for Popular Memory, a rich archive of life histories and oral testimonies and has good links with major collections of film footage and photographs.
The Department, uniquely in South Africa, trains its majoring students to do their own research and to produce new knowledge. This is done under the guidance of some of the country’s leading historians. In this way students obtain skills that are highly valued by many employers. They also find that the study of history is a personal journey of discovery and experiment.
Why Study History?
One good reason is provided by William Appleman Williams, a major modern historian of diplomacy and imperialism. At the end of the Second World War, he recalls being discharged from the US Navy to find job offers from General Electric and Boeing. But at school he had had a ‘great teacher’ who had taught him to ‘remain interested in education’. So, he opted for university where he immediately chose history: ‘It was history because I really did want to try and make some sense of what the hell was going on …l reckoned that history was the best way to figure out the way the world ticked… what had been going on in the past and the way the world was going’.
What other majors compliment History?
The majority of our graduates take either Political Science or English as their other major. History compliments social sciences such as International Relations, Sociology, Gender Studies and Social Anthropology, all of which contain strong historical elements. It is also a good combination with cultural majors such as languages, literature, film and media studies.
And from 2012 you can also combine History and Economic History as your majors.
What jobs are there for graduates of History?
Our students have entered a broad range of careers in which research skills, a capacity for informed critical judgment, an effective grounding in written work and oral presentation, and an ability to interpret complex materials and varying viewpoints will prove invaluable. These include fields such as journalism and other media work, research, the heritage sector and the tourism industry, publishing, museums and gallery work, documentary film-making, marketing, public relations, management and administration.
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What is Economic History
More than 85 years ago, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes described the skills that a ‘master economist’ must possess:
“He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard.”
The economic history major at UCT provides students with the skills and knowledge necessary to transform knowledge of the economic past into an understanding of the economic present and future.
Why study economic history?
Have you wondered how the economy of Chinahas (once again) become one of the most powerful countries in the world? Have you thought about why some people think South Africa should imitate the economy of Brazil, but not that of Argentina? Do you know why Wall Street collapsed in 1929 and have you thought about what this can teach us about the current global financial crisis? Majoring in economic history provides a unique opportunity to focus on economic issues in the past and to consider how they influence the present. At its heart, it asks the question, why are some countries rich and others poor?
With the recent global economic crisis, more and more people are turning to economic history for guidance. The most powerful economic policymaker in the world, Ben Bernanke (chairman of the US Federal Reserve) is an economic historian. Economic history investigates the fascinating questions of why and how economic growth began and the ways in which it has continued and faltered. The field is not just about numbers and mathematical models, nor is it about events and dates. Rather, it is concerned with the processes of economic change. As such, economic history is a field full of debate and controversy. It is also not only about markets and businesses but is deeply concerned with politics, geography, institutions, inequality, and the incentives that affect behaviour in societies both large and small.
Typical issues that the subject addresses include: economic globalisation in historical perspective; different patterns of industrialisation and economic growth in twentieth century economies; the role of government policymakers in shaping economic development; and the effects of colonisation on economic growth in Africa.
For a brief insight into the field of economic history, you can consult Robert Allen’s Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
Which other majors compliment economic history?
Economic history is a flexible major that can be combined with an array of other disciplines depending on your interests. In the past, economic history students have also majored in economics, politics, environmental & geographical science, and mathematics, just to name a few. And of course, you can always major in economic history and history.
What jobs are there for graduates of economic history?
Particularly in an emerging market economy, the skills and knowledge developed in an economic history major are useful and highly sought after. A major in economic history equips students with the necessary research, analytical and writing skills as well as concepts and terminology to become informed citizens as well as sought after graduates.
Former UCT economic history students have gone on to work in a vast array of fields including: economic policymaking for government and NGOs; the private financial sector; marketing and advertising; management; and social responsibility in the corporate sector. Our students have also successfully pursued further graduate study in the fields of both economics and history.
From our students:
On the major:
“Economic History tells the stories of development and underdevelopment throughout the world. It helps you understand the political and economic inequality of the world today and empowers you to better understand the present.”
“The skills economic history requires are an analytical mind, stamina for reading and an ability to write coherently. However, an interest in the subject is more beneficial than any of these.”
“[T]his course allows me to be able to read and understand articles about economics shows a vital skill that I have learned. I can now keep up with economic news. In addition, I am now able to understand and criticise the economic policies of political parties (this proved very useful in the recent elections).”
“It offers a refreshing approach to African history which is usually studied in a sociopolitical manner. The inclusion of guest lecturers who work in their fields was great.”
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