Making A Case for Art History

Disclosure: I am a dual citizen of the USA and UK, who was born and raised in the United States. Unlike Dr. Yates, I did not sit AP exams, the US equivalent to A-levels. I do, however, have a BA in art history from Cleveland State University (USA) and a MA in the same from University College London (UK). Particular life circumstances forced me to make an abrupt change from academia to software development, but I will never regret my degrees or my decision to pursue them.

When I first heard about the move to cut art history A-levels, my thought was, “that’s too bad”. It wasn’t until the next morning, when the first of Art UK’s long-form blog post responses caught my eye, that I thought about it further. Significantly, the title—“My Art History isn’t ‘Soft’!”, by Dr. Donna Yates of the University of Glasgow—is what inspired me to read on. It’s a wonderfully personal post about how important early exposure to the topic is for those who go on to make it into a career, and about how important careers utilizing art history are to society as a whole.

Feeling compelled to hit the retweet button for Dr. Yates’ post, I added a comment: What I tell people again and again about my career change: the brainwork involved in art history has prepared me for many other adventures. It was just enough to get through in 140 characters, and I didn’t think much of it—then Art UK used it in a response to person who made a rude comment, the likes of which I and many other art historians have heard too many times before: “yes, because there are thousands of jobs for art historians…?”

For starters, I don’t think that person read Dr. Yates’ post, because it is about how her high school art history experience influenced her very successful archeology career, and about the importance of job fields involving art history. Also, she’ll probably take a least some issue with my added comment, which seemingly goes entirely against the point of her post (oops). However, I’d like to try and explain…

I have, for quite some time now, been very concerned and frankly rather annoyed by some of the tactics used in pushing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. Although I am an advocate for more/better/earlier STEM education for young women, minorities and disadvantaged populations, I also realize that there can be too much of a good thing, and in some cases, I think we’re there. When the humanities become an afterthought, and liberal arts and soft science programs are cut in favor of STEM topics, nobody wins, and we run the risk of stifling young learners by narrowing their options when it comes to fields of study. Dr. Yates is absolutely correct when she says, “…by ‘soft’, critics don’t mean ‘too easy’, they mean ‘too fluffy’.” Art history is far from an easy subject to tackle—it involves rote memorization, critical and analytical thinking, the ability to make a good argument, highly developed communication skills… it is also extraordinarily interdisciplinary, pulling together topics from philosophy, psychology, political science, anthropology, and many, many more.  In my opinion, we should be pushing for introduction to “hard” humanities like art history in the same way we’re beginning to push basic STEM skills like programming and logic–the study of both helps to ensure they’re getting a comprehensive education that utilizes left- and right-brain thinking.

AQA says that the art history A-level has been dropped due to “the complex and specialist nature of the exams,”* but I feel their decision is a very poor one. The study of art history is more than the study of art and/or history: it’s about learning to piece together information from diverse sources of knowledge and turn that information into a constructive argument. Yes, it is complex and specialist—but that is why it is an excellent demonstrator of abilities that have value far beyond academic applications. The truth is that we need a combination of humanities and STEM to keep going—even as technology changes our world, there will always be things that computers can’t do. Just today, I had another developer thank me for writing documentation about a process we’re currently working on. This is a recurring problem—we have brilliant software engineers who can make themselves understood by machines, but ask them to explain their solution to another person, and they’re stuck. The methodologies and thought processes acquired in the study of art history have positive benefits beyond academia and humanities careers, and cultivating the ability for critical thinking, discourse and argument with humanities study at A-level will benefit future engineers and mathematicians just as much as it will future art historians. Rather than trimming humanities programs from the roster, we should be encouraging more young people to pursue them, no matter what their future career goals may be.

*https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/12/last-art-history-a-level-axed-after-michael-gove-cull-of-soft-subjects