Thursday, 13 October 2016

A-level art history axed

News that the last exam board to offer A-level art history will axe the subject: see here. The news has been received by many with dismay: see Bendor Grosvenor's blog post, and the Association of Art Historians' statement regarding the decision by the AQA exam board.

But is this bad news for higher education?
The subject (depending on how you define it) is taught at between 46 and 52 HE institutions. Like many other humanities and social science subjects it has no subject-specific prerequisites. Students will be well equipped if they've studied a cognate subject - history, classics, English literature, area studies (eg. French) - and especially if they've had practice in essay-writing and other forms of prose-based reasoning. But I doubt if an A-level in the subject stands you in good stead for a degree in the same, in the same way that A-level physics (say) is necessary for a Physics degree.

Critics might be mistaken in saying AQA's decision spells the end of art history in UK schools. My own introduction to the subject was courtesy of an enthusiastic art teacher at a school that didn't offer A-level art history, and the events today, while sad for students, open up an opportunity to address art history and visual culture at key stage 5 without confining it to a specific academic field. In a way this is a nice reflection of the subject's origins in other fields.

But should it ever have been an A-level subject in the first place? There are fewer A-level subjects than degree subjects, especially in the humanities, and here's why. A useful definition of 'discipline' is that a subject is a discipline if it takes itself as its main problem. Taking this definition we can say that disciplines only assume a coherence once they begin to probe these metacognitive questions. In terms of intellectual difficulty this is at the upper reaches of what is appropriate for A-level study. A-level students may study Vasari but how far do they question the status of biography or the model of history he uses in his Vite? Taking the subject at face value - studying the art rather than the discipline as constructed by art historians, which is what it really is - suggests that there's no compelling intellectual rationale why the subject as it's currently taught at A-level could not readily be incorporated into other subjects such as A-level art, which is where I first encountered it.

But would I be so sanguine if the subject was cut at university? Probably not! And whether the AQA's decision will have an effect on enrolment numbers after 2018 - the last year students will take history of art A-levels - remains to be seen. HE owes a debt to art history teachers at schools, and the BBC is probably right to put their dismay front and centre of its news item on the topic.

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