Culture in schools: why abolishing Art History and Classical Civilisation is wrong

In October 2016, it was announced that A-Level subjects Art History and Classical Civilisation would be dropped from the English exam board in 2018. This marks the latest in a cull of ‘soft subjects’ – which in 2015 also saw Anthropology, Performing Arts and Travel & Tourism axed – and has rightly provoked outrage amongst leading cultural figures.

In response to the decision, the AQA stated that the subjects have been scrapped due to the ‘complex and specialist nature of the exams’ and they further affirm that their ‘decision has nothing to do with the importance’ of the respective subjects. The AQA maintains that the determination was not based on financial concerns – although such an outcome must undoubtedly reflect the fact that only 839 students sat A-Level Art History last year.

Unsurprisingly, opinion pieces abound. Articles bewailing the short-sightedness of the AQA and the grandiose importance of classics and Italian art in the formation of Western civilisation; smugly gleeful commentators convinced that this ruling marks a triumphant moment in the quashing of elitism. Both of these miss the point.

There’s no denying that art history and classics have long been the province of the privileged. It’s a fact that richer children are more naturally exposed to the cultural greats – not least because their schools, being vastly better funded, can afford to teach subjects that might not be as usefully practical as those favoured in state schools. It’s also a fact that, when you have lots of money behind you, it’s much easier to go forth and study a subject you love, rather than one that will realistically have a chance of getting you a job. This is a huge problem in the arts world, and one that desperately needs more attention.

I went to state school. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I never had a moment’s hesitation about going to study English Literature and History at university because that was what I loved and what I firmly intended to do with my life. Bets are still out as to whether that will actually happen, but I thoroughly believe that everyone should have the chance to fall in love with arts, literature and culture just like I did.

I’ve never studied Art History or Classics, although they’re both subjects that I’ve always wanted to learn more about and fully plan to study at some point in my life. (My appetite for knowledge is literally insatiable – someone help) If I had been offered the opportunity to study Art History or Classics at school, then most likely I would have jumped at it – it certainly would have been a better use of my time than Media Studies. And that’s precisely the point: school pupils respond to what’s in front of them. The less schools focus on certain subjects, the less people will go on to study them at university and, rather depressingly, the less they will become a priority. More realistically, studying a subject with which you’re unfamiliar – even if it’s only in a more formal, academic setting – is a risk in today’s climate of university-as-a-business. Spending £9000, or whatever the ridiculous English fees are now, is a lot to commit to if you’ve never previously studied a subject before.

I’ve read a lot about how the world of art history is unnecessarily highbrow and snobby. Art history graduates gravitate to the sort of high-profile institutions that it’s difficult to access without prestigious connections. I don’t know enough about the industry to comment on it, but judging by the sort of books that are widely studied in English at school (mostly the same old classics, with nowhere near the amount of engaging potential as similar university courses) this really doesn’t surprise me. School, with its boring curricula and unimaginative courses, quite often fails to inspire students: but does that mean that subjects should be abolished just on this offhand fact?

No. Even if I don’t know much about art history, I do know that art should be for everyone. Art History and Classical Civilisation as subjects should reflect not just a traditional focus on culture – the sort of art world where copies are adored if they’re mistaken for the original, but discarded otherwise – but a more nuanced interpretation of what art actually means to the public.

Criticising these subjects for being inherently elitist is just clinging to the old ideal of art for the ‘upper crust’, not for the masses. Expand and broaden the subjects to widen their appeal and hopefully more British teenagers will become invested in artistic heritage. Even if they don’t, there’s no point cutting off the artistic opportunities for a small band of devotees. It’s about time that Britain started properly appreciating its creative potential – supporting already existing museums is one thing, but what about sustaining a new generation of art lovers across the nation?

Image: Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

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