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History - Benjamin Slingo (PhD student)

I grew up in Buckinghamshire and went to Bedford School, where I took A-Levels in History, Latin, English Literature, and Chemistry. I read for an undergraduate degree in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge before moving to St John's in 2011 for my MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History. I am now in the second year of my PhD, which will explore the political theory of the Jesuits and their interlocutors in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. To begin with my research was funded by a Benefactor’s Scholarship from St John's: though I came here late, I know what a vibrant and generous college it is.

Cambridge is a wonderful place to study History. What struck me especially were the many possibilities, whole fields of study and historical approaches, which I had not even been aware of while at school. Before applying for my undergraduate degree I was torn between History and English; it was only on coming to Cambridge that I was introduced to intellectual history, the study of texts by writers of the past that treat deep political and philosophical questions. Cambridge has been a centre of such study for at least fifty years, and undergraduates can take several papers in the 'History of Political Thought' from Plato and Aristotle through Hobbes and Locke, Marx and Nietzsche, and up to the present day. I first came across this sort of history in my second term, through a paper called 'Nature and the City in Medieval Political Thought', and have been able to persist with it ever since. My PhD, on ideas of political power and its legitimacy in early modern thought, can be traced straight to things I was taught to be preoccupied with as an undergraduate. 

The History Tripos at Cambridge is very diverse: I also took papers on the origins of Islam, the Byzantine Empire, culture and society in early modern Britain, and Europe in the age of the French Revolution. Almost all of these are taught, first and foremost, by means of 'supervisions': a discussion of an hour or so, usually in History one-to-one, about an essay you have written that week. The intellectual attention lavished on you during these sessions is remarkable, and the prospect of being held so accountable for your work is very powerfully motivating. And though you are taught at great length and with great intensity, the system also involves great freedom: you encounter the subject on your own, read around it independently, and only get taught as such at the end of the week once the essay has been written. The lectures the History Faculty puts on to complement the supervision system mean that the experience is not too disorienting.

This academic dimension is only one of several: what made my time here a really formative part of my life were all the people I met. There are countless things you can do in Cambridge, many of which are very enriching in themselves, but they are all most importantly chances to get to know a very wide range of lively and interesting people. And to do so, of course, in a very beautiful city, and with the time and freedom – the work notwithstanding – that you need.

Benjamin Slingo, May 2014