I have got used to shaking my head in disbelief when the government’s latest education initiatives are announced, but when I read this week that A-level History of Art had been removed from the options lists forever it hit me harder than I was expecting.
This is not the only subject to have been made a relic by the Tories after all – the full list of opportunities that are no longer available to our young people filled me with fury. But twenty-two years ago History of Art succeeded in saving the dying dregs of interest in academia from the apathy of my sixteen year old self – and it is no exaggeration to say that without it my life could have turned out very differently.
I moved from Birmingham to London for my sixth form studies. I didn’t want to at the time – nothing against London per se, but my mental health was fragile and I couldn’t see a way forwards without my small but trusted circle of friends by my side.
My academic record was strong, but the ‘A’ grades hid a complete lack of interest in my studies – and a complete lack of confidence in my self. I selected my next raft of subjects pretty randomly – A-levels in History, English and Biology, and AS level in French. I wasn’t much more inspired by these than any of the other, mainly traditional, offers on the table, but I figured I’d be able to see them through.
Then in my first week at my new school, and my very first lesson with my new French class, I mustered up the confidence to speak and was laughed at by the stranger who was my teacher because of my (admittedly pretty dodgy) French accent. I walked out of the lesson through a blur of tears, and after a brief conversation with the administrators switched to an A-level in History of Art – one of the few subjects still with space, and something that piqued my interest with its novelty.
It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Our class was small – there were six of us I think, meaning that in today’s cash-strapped educational climate the course probably wouldn’t have run at all. I couldn’t be invisible in that room though – not like my other classes where I often slept behind a carefully placed hand propped on the desk.
I learnt so much more than was contained within the confines of the subject. I learnt how to plan an essay – techniques which I applied to great success in all of my A-level subjects and have used endlessly since as a student and as a teacher. I learnt how to revise, and how to organise my time. I learnt that it was ok to be interested in something that not many people saw the value of – and that in fact sometimes the most obtuse pursuits can bring the most personal reward.
The subject itself, it turned out, was so much more than I could have ever hoped for.
There was an interplay between art and science, which appealed to the way my brain works: I never have been very good at putting things in boxes. This was particularly true with our study of the history of architecture, with the exploration of classical forms bringing mathematical certainty into the sometimes nebulous analysis of artistic endeavours, and the ways generations of architects riffed around them giving me concrete examples of how creativity evolves.
Understanding how buildings and towns were designed made me think, too, about the way our society is structured – something which we also discussed animatedly when we looked at the work of artists who protested explicitly against the societies they worked within, comparing that in turn with those who played by the rules to fit into the canon. Generally I learnt loads about our culture, and that of other countries. We went on a group trip to Paris (where finally I got to work on that French accent) and wherever else I travelled then and since I found myself looking at the world through a new pair of eyes.
Beyond the studies, my personal self was developing too. I had found my first intellectual tribe – a very necessary counterpoint to my emerging new social group who whilst they would go on to include lifelong friends did not encourage the healthiest of pursuits.
Weekends of clubbing, house parties and festivals meant that (at least) the start of each week often passed in a blur – but I could not let myself let things slip entirely because I didn’t want to sacrifice the learning and the community that my History of Art lessons gave.
This motivation, and the skills I learnt as a result of it, carried me through to another surprisingly good set of grades, and from there on to university – to study History of Art, along with Philosophy.
My History of Art A-level taught me that I am on a fundamental level an intellectual, but that the intellectual study I enjoy is one firmly rooted in society. It taught me that I respect those who know when to play by the rules, and when to break them. It gave me the confidence to express my opinions about the world around me and the people who inhabit it: that even if my opinions are not the same as those shared by others my ability to explain them is more important than just fitting in.
I’m not saying that every teenager would respond the way I did to this particular subject, but I honestly think that the fact that it was not as ‘pure’ as the other subjects I was studying, not quite so epic in its scope, made it easier to delve deeper into it, to create links for myself rather than having to regurgitate the views which were expected of me. It gave me an outlet for my stifled creativity, and the confidence to think.
Studying History of Art gave me the skills to collaborate with a friend to put on art exhibitions, to develop my photography, to teach Media and Film. It enriched my analysis of literature, and ultimately gave me the confidence to put pen to paper myself and give voice to the stories in my head.
It makes me so sad that because besuited politicians in Westminster cannot see the value in this subject future generations of teenagers might not have the opportunity to ignite the spark that might propel them along an unexpected path.
Like so many of the educational reforms that make me angry, this reduction in options seems to be driven by a misplaced certainty in what our society needs. What we really want is the space to make that decision for ourselves.