‘Soft’ is a word that has cursed many a subject of study. Despite the door-stopper books, the hours of planning, writing and creating, and the pains of understanding what the markers even want from you, it is the STEM subjects that garner that extra modicum of respect. Perhaps, when I look back at my UCAS days, this is very reason I picked Engineering as a degree. But then I also picked History of Art AS.
The news that, in 2018, the Art History A Level will be scrapped has made a surprising number of headlines considering that the number of students who take it tends to be under 1000, something that was repeated when Archaeology was also given the boot. It is, to be fair, not offered in most schools, but in those that do it can be extremely popular. In my own school, many students would pick History of Art as filler for their fourth subject, only to find it so interesting they would do the whole A Level and go on to study it at University. I personally maintain that it was the most enjoyable subject I ever studied.
History of Art covers a surprisingly broad range of subject matters. As well as the various European art movements in painting and architecture, subjects of interest could range from fashion to furniture to cars (sadly the rest of the girls in my class weren’t keen on that last one). Our essays were an exercise in how many names and dates you could cram into a single sentence, and I occasionally took great annoyance in trying to describe an entire stately home with only a few choice words, but it certainly gave me skills in writing that I would not have developed through more scientific subjects. The greatest skill that I feel it gave me, however, was the ability to contextualise.
My favourite memories of the subject were when, instead of having an afternoon class in school, we would use lunchtime to travel into London and spend the afternoon being taken round exhibitions and buildings by our teacher. It is this more than anything that demonstrates the value of the subject, as my awareness and appreciation of culture became so much greater than it ever was before. My growing ability to contextualise the city and the art that surrounded me fuelled my subsequent and far more frequent trips to exhibitions of any and all sorts, regardless of whether I’d studied what was on show. This was equally applicable to other cities in other countries.
You may ask why this matters at all if I just ended up studying Engineering. I say this is precisely why it matters. The exam boards have been defending the decision to axe Art History by saying it is still available as a degree, but degrees are a specialisation. It is at A levels where those of us who enjoy broader interests are allowed to learn both arts and science subjects, and there are a very large number who do. It gives those unsure of their interests a chance to try out something new, which they might not want to do at university if it means paying £9000 a year for a subject they may or may not like.
The curse of the ‘soft subject’ label has plagued History of Art for a long time, even at university, where, despite minimal differences, it does not carry the same pedigree as a straight-up History degree. It is likely this that has led to its small uptake in schools, whereas other, more ‘sciency’ subjects like Economics and Psychology remain as additional A Level options. If the only solution to this is to scrap it all together, who’s to say down the line we won’t see other ‘soft’ subjects meet the same fate? Perhaps Music will be the next to go. All I can say is I am extremely grateful I was not too late to take it, as History of Art has definitely helped shape the person, and indeed the Engineer I am today.
Featured Image by Matthew via Flickr Creative Commons