Is the Cambridge History course really that sexist?
Clumsy complaining can undermine focus on the real issue of female underperformance
Cambridge’s History course has long been the target of criticism, with the gender disparity of achievement coming under particular fire.
Academics have called out the limited range of teaching methods, over-reliance on exams, and most recently, Dr Lucy Delap rightly challenged the use of ‘culturally male’ language in lectures, such as ‘genius’ and ‘flare’.
All too often, however, student criticism has been more convoluted than constructive, linking female underperformance with an inherently sexist Tripos course, which doesn’t have enough women in it. This claim is not unfounded, but the accusation does not really pinpoint the fundamental issues. If we brand the ‘system’, the ‘establishment’ and the ‘patriarchy’ as the sole actors, we individual students are denied agency.
As a second year history student, it goes without saying that I’m outraged at being less likely to get a First than my male peers. But I find it an insult to my intelligence to suggest that I might perform better if I was spoon-fed content with more women in it, and fewer men. I also reject the widely accepted idea that the supervision system caters better to a male style of learning. This follows from condescending and false notions of boisterous and aggressively argumentative students doing better, and applies presumptions of gendered behaviour on all students.
I make no generalisation when I say that most female undergraduates at Cambridge are socially liberal, left-wing and outspokenly feminist. As are most male students, for that matter, which only contributes to the most saturated of echo-chambers within the thick walls of the Cambridge bubble. These views are not a problem in and of themselves, but rather that they too often go unchallenged and are expressed without substantiation.
Such a progressive, forward-thinking worldview mixes with history like oil to water. As a discipline, history is – in the mainstream, at least – opaquely masculine. Mary Beard’s quote about ‘big books by blokes about battles’ rings true within the context of popular and classroom history. And in making the leap from history at school to university, you would expect the subject to diversify. Although there is a more level playing field within academia, you’re still mostly learning about a world ruled by men – regardless that your lecturers and supervisors could all be women.
Accepting that history does just have a lot of men in it is difficult and, honestly, a bit depressing. Yes, history as a discipline began proper with the writings of privileged, imperialist Victorian gentlemen – whose writings have long since been discredited. And yes, you have to plough through the quite uninspiring male historians of the twentieth century before you get to today’s female academics, many of whom will personally be teaching us.
But the oh-so-Cambridge mentality of going at everything wanting to change the modus operandi is helpful to no-one in the context of a history degree. However accommodating supervisors and DoSs are, we can't design for ourselves a ‘progressive’ degree. However many queens, noblewomen and female writers we study, we will always find that they were exceptions to the status quo.
We can write essays on the oppressed, apply (however anachronistically) Marxist theory to every argument we make, and can infuse our writing with the invective of the indignant liberal millennials that we are. But this doesn't make good history, it's not going to get a First, and we're not going to love our subject if we're always taking up arms against it.
Tripos wasn't designed by hardened misogynists, after all. We are required to take two British and one European paper in first year because it makes for a good grounding, not because there's a conspiracy to bind us to white, Eurocentric history while we're still young and impressionable.
This is the real problem with student criticism of the course. So determined are we to apply a feminist and modern agenda to everything and anything, without pausing to find the nuance in things. And, crucially, we spend more energy complaining about things than proactively trying to change them.
The nuance I see in specific regards to our history course is this. First year students choose their papers months before A-Level results day. Many are likely to stick with what they know (hello, Weimar Germany), having been taught it at school and found on the display tables of Waterstones. Many are stuck with modern and distinctly ‘unspicy’ topics for weekly essays, because it was in their comfort-zone as a seventeen-year-old.
This is despite the Cambridge course being distinctive in giving students the freedom to choose whatever time periods take their fancy, and the opportunity to spend three whole years studying one or two specialised sub-disciplines, including gender and women’s history, in a conceptual paper.
As much as I fully support railing against arguments which blame young people, and women in particular, for causing their own problems, there seems a clear case for telling students to be a bit more adventurous in their educational choices before they start complaining.
We’ve got one of the biggest history faculties in the world, and are lucky enough to have a course where nothing is strictly mandatory. If we want to do something different to our supervisor, then they’ll set us up that week with someone who has the necessary expertise – we need only ask.
The accusations so enthusiastically levelled at the course – that women are omitted from it and that we’re not talking about gender enough – should be considered more delicately. By no means are these illegitimate complaints, but they are often made clumsily and can be dangerously undermined by the educational choices we students make for ourselves.