The UK education system is on its way to losing a key component of the holistic academic canon. As the last exam board in England announces that it will drop subjects like art history and the classics in schools by this year, these fields of study are soon to be made historic A-level qualifications.
The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) is a body in the UK that holds examinations at GCSE, AS, and A2 Levels (these exams are taken at 16, 17 and 18 years of age, respectively). Recently, the AQA has decided to cut down the qualifications offered, removing subjects such as Art history, Classical Civilisation, Archaeology, and Anthropology as exam options. Michael Gove, former Education Minister of the UK, proposes that “cutting the number of creative and art based courses makes way for more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous subjects.” Additionally, Gove justifies the AQA’s removal of such courses by asserting that the main priority is to ensure that “every student gets the result they deserve,” and that “the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject create too many risks on that front.” According to AQA, the problem stems from the small number of students pursuing a wide range of offered subjects. As a result, this dissemination makes it difficult to compare students’ performance in order to set appropriate grade boundaries. Since this decision, there has been much debate surrounding the newest amendment in UK education. While people like Sir Tony Robinson denounce this cancellation as a “barbaric act,” proponents of the decision, like Gove, claim that the labour government is betraying a generation by allowing thousands of students to take “soft” subjects at school.
Evidently, the UK education system fails to understand Art history methods as classes that actually grapple with important philosophical questions regarding dialectics and aesthetics. Similarly, the system also does not appreciate Classical Civilisation courses as mediums through which we can interpret Ancient Greek tragedy as the longest running motif in modern art, culture, and theatre. Sir Robinson, a major opponent of the decision, says that “it feels like Visigoths at the gates of Rome… all of these incredibly valuable and important subjects are being tossed into the fire.” Also, Robinson aptly contends that both creative thinking and an extensive understanding of our past are necessary components in imagining the future. As we shed light on the importance of these courses, we must consider why the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century is more important than the foundations of democracy in Ancient Athens? After all, modern constructs and institutions draw heavily from the structure of Ancient Greek civilisation. The power to decide these things should not be based on a narrowly- accepted conception of complexity and relevance.
By restricting these courses from a national curriculum, the AQA is inadvertently creating a class divide between state and private education. State schools, those funded by the government through taxes, will no longer be obliged to offer these courses. As a result, students pursuing a public education will lack the opportunity to learn about Art history, Classical Civilisation or Anthropology. Those that seek inspiration in our shared past will have to pursue their interests through a separate avenue. Actually, the Association of Art Historians argues that the AQA’s decision could “have a detrimental effect on the wider industry, since students would be far less likely to gain access to the subject if it was no longer made available to them before higher education study.”
The heart of the problem lies in an extreme reduction in incentive; the loss of these A-levels reduces the likelihood of students to seek interest and opportunities in these fields. So, a downward sloping incentive to pursue such subjects causes a reduction in the value that we assign to these fields. Conversely, Guardian columnist, Jonathan Jones, claims that while he was doing “real history” at university, he saw Art history as a “posh subject” studied only by privileged toffs and the Duchess of Cambridge. In pointing this out, Jones attempts to underscore the inherent “softness” that characterize these subjects.
Additionally, Jones challenges the authenticity and objectivity of Art history books, contending that they are written by art critics rather than academics. While Jones chooses to emphasize the lack of practicality and seemingly exclusive nature of the subject, the real danger lies in the possibility of academia being divided on lines based on privilege. Choosing to continue down this path of a differentiated education may prompt us to plunge into a close-minded development of academic material. Huge facets of society will lose immediate academic access to these subjects, ultimately resulting in a more polarized educational system. As school systems harden in polarity, already existent stigmas between the standard of public and private education will be further aggravated.
If Art history is as “obscurantist” as Jones says, then why don’t we open the subject to a wider audience and destigmatise the upper-class accent that has apparently swallowed these “soft” subjects as an exclusive right? The solution should never be to restrict academic access, but rather to expand academic involvement. As the AQA segregates access to education, we continue set a negative precedent that is cemented in exclusivity and a disparity in the scope of educational opportunity.
“Our decisions have nothing to do with the importance of these subjects, and it won’t stop students going on to do a degree in it, as we’re not aware of any universities that require an A-level in these subjects” cries AQA. It is a treat that liberal arts students can choose their courses, as well as change their courses as many times as they want before graduation. However, from the ages of 16 to 18, the UK education system forces students to pick a discipline and continue with this declared field of study for several years. Who will take a risk with Art history or Classical Civilisation if they have never studied it before? The power to choose is rapidly being restricted as administration boards limit the possible fields of engagement.
As an Art History and Classics student, this has been a touchy subject for me. Both of my interests have been cut from the curriculum, and we are at a risk of losing a renaissance in fields that desperately need an injection of modernity, perspective and universality. Classical Civilisation is one of the broadest and most interdisciplinary subjects there is, offering students the opportunity to extend their knowledge-base to several other fields in ways that no other subject in the UK allows. It allows students to engage in the Ancient without the traditional barriers of translation, and it affords English, History, Politics and Philosophy students the opportunity to access key wisdom drawn from the Greats and from ancient historical events.
As the age-old adage goes, in order to understand the present, we must understand and come to terms with our past. In this light, it is necessary to assign the same value to Art history and the Classics as we do to other, more socially-accepted fields of study.
The power to educate is one of the most precious powers in our society. The power to choose what we learn allows for the exploration of potential passions at a very formative time in a person’s life. As the UK exam board makes its final “soft” subject cancellations, it not only undermines the importance of these fields, but also deprives students the opportunity to discover and maximize their academic interests. One by one, Greek tragedies and oil paintings are being burnt in front of us, and Bradbury, Orwell and Huxley, helpless to stop it, are spinning in their graves.