Maintaining The Status Quo?: A Brief History Of History At The University Of Sheffield
Katie Crowley | 6 July 2020
◇ British History | Modern History | Local History
In 1905, the University of Sheffield received its own Royal Charter as an independent red brick university and welcomed at least 114 full-time students through its doors. Since that time, there has been lots of change in how History has been taught at the university: but why and when did things change, and is there more that still needs to be done?
During the first decade of the University’s life, there were two history courses, on Modern History and Ancient History, with one single individual, a Professor H.W. Appleton, in charge of both. As you might expect, the modules mainly consisted of Eurocentric histories, particularly centred on Britain. By 1914, the exams were separated into 4 papers on Ancient History and 3 papers on Modern History, and most of the questions were either focused on the victories and strategies of key battles, or on the significance of political and substantial figures of the time. By 1910 ecclesiastical history became a degree, which again was focused on England.
Excerpts from 1914 Modern History Examination Questions. Used with permission from the University of Sheffield libraries.
Looking at the University Calendars, which record all of the University’s courses, it appears there was little development in the historical content taught at the university between 1910 and 1975. As someone who tends to focus on gender history, it is striking to me that there was no aspiration to teach about women’s roles in British history. There is no evidence to suggest that prominent women such as Emmeline Pankhurst or even the monarch herself were being discussed in history classrooms. There was definitely a desire to emphasise the positive aspects of British history at this University, and this celebratory interpretation seems not to have subsided until the early 1970s. This contributed to generational assumptions surrounding major elements of British history, such as colonialism, that continue to spark debate around how far the Empire shaped the way that we view the world and our place within it.
It is by the 1970s that we begin to see a slight shift towards looking into non-European histories, and sensitive topics such as the Third Reich, Slavery and the Russian Revolution began to be offered to History students to take as part of their degree. There are several arguments to explain this dramatic shift within the education system during the 1960s and 1970s. The political atmosphere during the mid-20th century, with the rise of the student movement, the New Left, and the women’s liberation movement, could have played a role in this change in what was taught. The counter-culture of the mid-1960s, which created a sense of opposition to institutions within society, could explain the move away from ‘traditional’ forms of teaching. Another reason for this change could be the steady increase in undergraduate places in History in Sheffield in the early 1970s, as more opportunities became available to previously disadvantaged minorities: Black, Asian and Minority Ethic (BAME) communities, immigrants and women. However, it must be noted that History taught at BA and MA level still focused on Western history during the 1970s, and there was still a lack of BAME histories being taught despite the growing student population.
In 1975, the Medieval History and Modern History departments were merged into one combined department. As Dr Helen Mathers notes, within two years of the merge, none of the original staff (before the merger) remained. Yet despite these major departmental changes, the university was still rather conservative in terms of how historical topics were approached. For example, the 1976 exam questions on the United States, while wide ranging, had little on the lived experience of slavery and abolition.
Excerpt of 1976 examination questions on the United States. Used with permission from the University of Sheffield libraries.
It was only by the 1990s that we see the first instances of non-Western history being taught at the University of Sheffield. East Asian Studies, already established in 1963 as the Centre for Japanese Studies, saw a large expansion in the number of courses taught by the end of the 1980s, with BA courses offered in Korean Studies in 1980 and Chinese Studies in 1996. By the mid-90s, Sheffield was home to the third largest collection of Korea-related academic materials in Europe. Although these Departments had a focus on economics and social sciences, their courses were offered as part of a dual degrees with History, which allowed History students access to a wider range of historical geographies.
Today, the History department at the University of Sheffield aims to explore different narratives in History, with varied courses from women’s emancipation and Irish republicanism, to the migration and settlement of South Asians. However, more can still be done to give a greater representation to non-Western scholars and histories. There should be renewed efforts to explore different historical narratives in greater depth, helping us to move away from limited understandings and rehearsing old narratives about Britain as a glorious and civilised empire. This can only be accomplished by opening our doors to new stories and by challenging traditional historical arguments. As debates surrounding the removal of controversial monuments such as the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol continue, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this momentum needs to be reflected and be embodied within UK Higher Education.
Katie Crowley is a MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, currently working on documenting and exploring the lives of the women from the Greenham Common Peace Camps for her MA dissertation. This blog is based on a research project on the archived calendars and examination papers held in the University’s Special Collections.
 Christopher T. Goldie, Modernisation and the New Left, Ph.D. thesis (Sheffield Hallam University, 2005). For a wider look at the cultural changes within British universities and the wider student movement of the 1960s, see Colin Barker, ‘Some Reflections on Student Movements of the 1960s and Early 1970s’, Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, 81 (2008), 43-91 and Connor Woodman, ‘The Repression of Student Movements in the UK’, Pluto Press Blog (2019), https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/repression-student-movements-uk/[Accessed 5 July 2020].
 For the history of BAME communities within the education system see Dennis G. Hamilton, ‘Too hot to Handle: African Caribbean pupils and students as toxic consumers and commodities in the educational market’, Race Ethnicity and Education 21.5 (2018), 573-592.
For the history of women’s education during the 1970s, see Eve Worth, ‘Women and Adult Education during the 1970s’, Social History Society (June 2019), https://socialhistory.org.uk/shs_exchange/women-adult-education-1970s/ [Accessed 5 July 2020].
 See a wider history on the University of Sheffield see Helen Mathers, Steel City Scholars: The Centenary History of the University of Sheffield, (London, 2005).
 More on the History of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, see ‘About the School’ page on the University of Sheffield School of East Asians Studies website: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/seas/about [Accessed 5 July 2020]. For history of Korean Studies at the University of Sheffield, see Professor James H. Grayson, ‘The History of Korean Studies’, The University of Sheffield (March 2019) https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/seas/news/history-korean-studies-sheffield [Accessed 5 July 2020].