Why AQA is wrong to scrap art history

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

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AQA has announced that it will scrap its art history A-level from 2018. This is significant because it was the last examination board to offer it. My colleague, an art history teacher of many years, received a letter from AQA explaining its decision: ‘The existing specification is challenging to mark and award because of the specialist nature of the topics, the range of options and the difficulties in recruiting sufficient experienced examiners.’

Art history has long been maligned as a subject reserved for the elite; it is taught at a tiny minority of state schools, and at a majority of private schools. But it is strange that a subject that has long been central to a classical, liberal-arts education is being axed at the same time that there is a renewed interest in liberal arts. The establishment of the New College of the Humanities and the Benedictus College of the Liberal Arts are two prominent examples of this trend.

Many have criticised AQA’s decision. Art historian Simon Schama tweeted that it represented an act of vandalism perpetrated by ‘cultural pygmies’. Others have been more sanguine. Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones said this was proof that, unlike their counterparts in the sciences, art historians have not embraced ways of bringing their subject to the public. Past art historians such as Ernst Gombrich and Kenneth Clark, who made their knowledge and wisdom accessible to the public, have no modern equivalents. Perhaps this could be an opportunity to give this dusty old subject a much-needed shake up, Jones concludes.

I really hope Jones is right, but I think he seriously underestimates the depth of the problem with arts education. Writing in the Spectator, Laura Freeman argues that a subject so rich should not be axed simply because it is deemed a preserve of the elite – it should be made available to all. I studied art history at my local further-education college. It’s how I fell in love with art. But the study of art for its own sake is anathema to a modern state education system that is obsessed with employability and social mobility.

Of course, art history does not have to be studied by every student. But it is a subject of tremendous worth. Studying art history involves both an appreciation of the past and a development of your own subjective faculties of interpretation and judgement. In the process, you come to learn that the world hasn’t always been interpreted according to the ideas and values of today.

Art history might not fit modern educationalists’ narrow, instrumental criteria. But it is a subject that can truly broaden students’ minds.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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