A history lesson for the dons

1st November 1996 at 00:00
THE KNOWLEDGE Firsts Among Equals BBC2, Tuesday, November 5 7.30pm.

The history faculty at Cambridge University has a problem: for years men have been getting a disproportionate number of firsts. This half-hour documentary focuses on the faculty's attempt to understand why women students are apparently under-performing, and the university's modest attempts to do something about it.

Dr Jonathan Steinberg, chairman of the faculty - and of the committee investigating the problem - admits that over the last 20 years some women students who didn't get firsts were more able than some men who did. As a female don puts it, the gap between men's and women's performance "is large and persistent".

Professor Peter Clarke characterises male students as adopting a "high-profile, punchy, adversarial style" and being more concerned with style rather than substance. A woman student counters: "Why must history have a strong argument? Does my life have a strong argument?" The programme shows how the students are ultimately judged over the shortest of sprints: a series of three-hour exams. The men are prepared to see these as a game, the women candidates find them stressful. To alleviate this tension, this year the faculty held a mock exam before finals which provided the students with feedback before the real thing.

This may have helped, but men still came out top: this year there were 20 male history firsts to 12 by women. At least it was an improvement on the 23:8 ratio from the the previous year, but "still not good enough in giving able women their due", according to Professor Clarke. He felt that being on the committee had helped him to realise that "there are more ways of doing a first-class answer than I used to think".

The programme implies that some of the male history dons would from now on be looking out for male show-offs and be keen to mark up cautious females. But surely the problem is not just in the dons' ingrained attitudes to the study of history, but in the system they have devised for testing.

The students come close to identifying what is perhaps the real problem: the one-essay-per-week system. They crave more time to deal with primary sources, to achieve more breadth. And might not a dangerous innovation such as course work take some of the pressure off the final exams, and also give the painstaking, balanced women a chance to shine?

There are omissions. We need to know the ratio of male to female students in the faculty and whether they all started from the same base level of ability. And what about the ratio of male to female academics, or who got what in the less rarefied field of second and third-class honours?

This is, nevertheless, a stimulating and watchable documentary

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