Tuesday, 25 October 2016

A response to the AAH letter about the axing of A-Level Art History

Plenty of harrumphing in response to AQA's decision to axe A-Level Art History, especially in the Guardian. A protest letter from the Association of Art Historians to AQA was signed by over 200 academics, none of whom would give Art History an ounce more weight on a UCAS form than subjects such as English or History, or even (I bet) a good A-Level in Economics or Chemistry. There's a very good reason why they're right not to.

The reason is that art history, while a highly specialised field, doesn't have the cumulative, atomistic nature of most 'hard' disciplines, where you need to study A before you can understand B, and where C is considered really difficult, and best left till your final year. A famous paper published a few years ago characterised 'soft' subjects as having a 'reiterative, holistic nature ... which can be described as spiral in their configuration, returning with increasing levels of subtlety and insight into already familiar areas of content'.

This brings weighty intellectual challenges, as it means that students are exposed to the full range of material in the discipline at an early stage of their study. Who could forget reading Kant as a new undergraduate?

But it also means that there are few prerequisites to studying the subject, which is why few Art History degrees will nominate specific A-Levels as an entry requirement, let alone Art History itself. The pool of potential applicants for an History of Art degree will always be far wider than the numbers who have studied it at A-Level.

So are the signatories of the AAH letter right to say that AQA's decision will 'have grave consequences for the future of the discipline in universities'? It may impact on numbers of applicants - although without evidence this case can't be made with any conviction - but it certainly won't impact on how, what or why any of the signatories elect to teach, still less to publish, and to this end I feel we need to be more balanced in our response to AQA's decision.

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