Faculty of History
After my undergraduate studies in the Bachelor of Humanities, I pursued a master’s in history at the University of Toronto, and then a doctorate in history at the University of Oxford, where I now teach.
Unlike in North America, the British system of education has students focus on history from the age of 16, with very specialized (subject specific) undergraduate degrees. Yet, my broad undergraduate learning served me well in meeting the demands of a British doctorate. Although I was daunted by the specific historical knowledge of my British peers, I soon found that having grasped broad concepts and a variety of disciplinary approaches was a tremendous asset, both during my doctorate and in my research and teaching since then.
I am often asked what my educational background is; when I describe what students read and how they learn in the Great Books programme, people usually say they wish they had such an opportunity as undergraduates. These exchanges are a reminder to me of my intellectual and professional debt to the College, my professors, and classmates.
My undergraduate studies at the College of the Humanities still play a valuable role in my current academic career. Although I had always enjoyed reading and learning, in the Bachelor of Humanities I was taught how to read purposefully as well as widely, and also how to discuss ideas with others.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned from the College was to take ideas seriously, and how rewarding it is to wrestle with the past on its own terms. Even though my research and teaching focus on specific areas of history (eighteenth-century warfare, European empires, and disease), I still find that having studied the fundamental ideas and thinkers across time periods and regions has strengthened my understanding of history.
As a veteran of the Great Books programme, I am better prepared to think about continuity and change in a long-term perspective. Whereas many graduate students and academics are often overwhelmed by competing interpretations and theories, the unique programme at the College of the Humanities allowed me to feel at home in this intellectual environment. It fostered a sense of excitement and pleasure regarding intellectual debate, as well as a strong belief in the social nature of intellectual endeavours, two approaches which have served me well in my career.
Erica Charters is Associate Professor of the History of Medicine at Oxford University.