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History - Karl Williams

Originally from Great Malvern, Karl attended Hanley Castle High School and studied A Level History, German, Mathematics and Chemistry at Hanley Castle Sixth Form. While at St John’s he represented the University of Cambridge at archery. Karl graduated with a 2.1 in 2011 and his dissertation, The Nietzschean Roots of Enoch Powell’s Toryism, was nominated for an interfaculty and a national prize. Following a year of voluntary work Karl began as a Research Analyst at a major global shipbroking firm. 

'The History tripos at Cambridge is wonderfully diverse in the periods and topics covered, and there are few constraints on the particular spread of papers one can choose. This is one of the things that really attracted me to Cambridge and during my first two years, I derived immense enjoyment from pursuing an in depth understanding of various areas of history of which I previously knew little. I specialised from the end of my second year (though I need not have) in intellectual history, specifically the history of political thought, for which Cambridge is renowned. However, in a sense this expanded my intellectual horizons far more, since it necessitated extensive forays into philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics and ethics as well as political philosophy narrowly conceived – psychology, economic theory, jurisprudence, literary criticism, social anthropology, even neurophysiology and socio-biology. My experience of reading History at Cambridge was an antidote against intellectual myopia, quite contrary to my prior educational experiences.

I had always disliked the overly prescriptive teaching of school and sixth form, so the independent, self-directed learning as a historian at Cambridge was fantastic too. This applied to every paper, but most especially to the elective third year dissertation. Researching and writing my dissertation really allowed me to cultivate the discipline and the analytical acumen that enable me to excel at my current job. The third year also brings the Special Subject papers – in depth studies of a particular topic or theme with a rubric written by preeminent historians – historians who also lead seminars in the subject consisting of eight to ten students. I found my special subject paper, Mark Goldie’s The Politics of John Locke, and the process of mastering and debating about the 1,689 pages of primary sources, the most enjoyable and intellectually satisfying experience of my time at Cambridge.    

The seminar-based approached is one of the great things about St John’s College too. The Historical Argument and Practice (HAP) paper is taught in a structured manner not common at other colleges and typically involved a fortnightly seminar on a pre-defined topic (in addition to two or three supervisions a term). I benefitted a lot from this practice and friends reading history at other universities – who had nothing comparable until their third year, if then – certainly envied me for the approach taken at John’s. The Fellows at St John’s supervise on a wide range of periods and topics too, so I never had to forego a paper I liked because all the relevant supervisors from other colleges were oversubscribed. Indeed, history students from other colleges frequently came for supervisions at St John’s. All this helped to make my time at John’s and at Cambridge the most intellectually stimulating of my life to date.

St John’s also has a thriving social life with a variety of sporting, recreational and subject specific societies. Attendance at the historians’ Palmerston Society was always a great opportunity to listen to and engage with eminent historians, journalists and politicians – and the five course annual dinner in the Senior Combination Room was not to be sneered at either! I put a lot of energy into John’s Punt Society, which has the biggest fleet and the most adventurous members on the river. Apart from helping to organise various waterborne musical events (including a production of HMS Pinafore), after Part I exams I punted 204 miles from Cambridge to Oxford in the company of two other Johnians.

In all, I have many great memories from my time at St John’s College and hope to return someday in the not too distant future, to study for an MPhil focusing on the interplay between the biological sciences and political philosophy in the twentieth century.'

- Karl Williams (BA History, 2011)