'A liberal arts education is threatened by students' narcissistic views about what is relevant'

21st October 2016 at 13:15
The recent decision to axe art-history A level shows how some subjects are struggling to survive amid an obsession with social mobility and employability, writes the director of the Institute of Ideas

Everyone is rightly up in arms about recent announcements that seem to sound the death knell for liberal arts subjects at A level.

Actor and television presenter Sir Tony Robinson has condemned the recent scrapping of archaeology A level as “a barbaric act”, and is backed by an 11,000-strong petition. 

Historian and art critic Simon Schama has declared that AQA’s announcement that its art-history A level will be axed in 2018, and that A-level classical civilisation will be dropped, to be: “Crazy, completely crazy…a big dull axe wielded by cultural pigmies”. Inevitably Michael Gove got the blame. But he, too, is outraged – these weren’t the soft subjects lacking in academic rigour he intended to cull.

Who or what is culpable for such philistinism? Sadly, a lot of the responsibility lies close to home, within fashionable assumptions about what education is for – assumptions that are too rarely challenged by schools.

Despite the furore, subjects such as classical civilisation and archaeology inevitably find it hard to survive today’s twin instrumental obsessions with social mobility and employability. It is a sign of our utilitarian times when even those defending the subjects resort to promoting their relevance rather than their intrinsic qualities.

Take the desperate attempt to illustrate their usefulness in teaching transferable skills “urgently needed by young people”.  Art-history is lauded for imbuing “skills in visual analysis in the face of mass information and the spectacle and lure of media image culture [and]... the visual cultures of the social media they inhabit”.

Or there are the attempts to dress up the doomed A levels’ value as useful training for work, whether in art marketing, curation, conservation or as “a doorway to architecture and design” – as though their worth can be measured in job prospects. 

But who are we kidding? Jobs in Sotheby’s, on Channel 4’s Time Team or in museums are hardly the sort of careers associated with today’s must-have educational outcome: helping the socially disadvantaged. 

These subjects are perceived as being a bit too posh: on the one hand mainly associated with private schools and only offered by a “handful” of state schools, allowing the art critic Jonathan Jones to chippily dismiss axing these A levels as “the end of one privilege of the public-school elite”.  

More broadly, anything associated with academic knowledge for its own sake has been routinely written off as irrelevant over recent years by everyone from teacher unions to anti-academy progressives, for failing the social inclusion test.

'Educators need to be on their guard'

Now educators need to be on their guard against another, more deadly threat to the liberal, humanist curriculum that is lurking in the wings. This time the culprits are more likely to come from those we teach rather than exam boards or politicians. There is presently a pernicious student-led culture war happening in universities, that threatens to trickle down to schools.

Under the rubric of the "Why is My Curriculum White?" movement and #DecoloniseEducation, there are serious demands to redesign curricula and “challenge the core assumptions of existing canonical subjects” because they comprise mainly dead, white males. 

There is a self-proclaimed “wave of uprising against the ‘Whiteness’”, being led by Malia Bouattia, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), who recently took aim at curricula for being too “Eurocentric”. 

The "White curriculum" is allegedly a major contributor to the black and minority ethnic attainment gap, and reading lists are accused of being “normatively, habitually and intellectually ‘White’”.  And just this month “perpetuating ‘Whiteness’” led Mahamed Abdullahi, the vice president for welfare and community at King’s College London, to suggest the national anthem be axed from official university services.

The subjects most in the firing line for "Eurocentricity" are history, English literature, philosophy and theology, littered as they are with ancient white male thinkers and protagonists from Aristotle to Shakespeare. But it’s a slippery slope that threatens all aspects of "the best that has been thought and said". 

A film of Rhodes Must Fall activists (aka "fallists"; hashtag #ScienceMustFall) at the University of Cape Town in South Africa arguing to the science faculty that modern scientific understanding is too Eurocentric and "should be scratched off, especially in Africa", has gone viral this month. Watch here for yourself the argument that “Witchcraft is on a par with Isaac Newton's theory of gravity as just one way of explaining the world".

While this is an extreme example, it is part of a wider trend of curriculum matters becoming embroiled in identity politics, with the argument put forward that the curriculum should change to reflect the diverse backgrounds of an expanded student population.

So Ms Bouattia argues that studying at British universities is “psychologically destructive” and can cause mental distress for non-white students because they end up studying too much about white people, “where people don’t see themselves in what they’re studying, and can’t relate to it”. 

This is an argument finding more resonance in schools. Some pupils recently explained to me that it was outrageous that they were taught about slavery by a white teacher. Last year a campaign led by female sixth-formers resulted in changes to the A-level politics and music syllabi to make them “more diverse, inclusive and representative” by including female composers and political thinkers. Otherwise, apparently, young women would be put off from studying those subjects.

But if we allow pupils to think that getting Kate Bush on the music A-level syllabus is a victory, it reduces knowledge to a self-flattering political project with little to defend itself against future philistine assaults.

The real threat to a liberal arts education is if we allow this narcissistic version of relevance to go unchecked in classrooms. We need to challenge pupils who argue that the curriculum should confirm their identity, and explain that knowledge is all about challenging them to think beyond their own limited experiences, horizons and identities. 

We should explain how dangerous it is to assess the value of thinkers based on their gender or ethnicit,  rather than their intellectual merits; that they will miss out if we exclude important writers because they are male or white. 

And we need to avoid pandering to today’s obsession with inclusion and identity if we are to have any hope of mounting a defence of academic subjects. According to Griselda Pollock, professor of the social and critical histories of art at the University of Leeds, prior to the decision to axe the subject, AQA had been due to launch a new A-level art-history “specifically designed to speak to a socially diverse and multicultural society, to make visible issues of class, race, gender and sexualities”. Yuk. 

One doubts that Ernst Gombrich's masterpeice The Story of Art would survive being squeezed into such a politically correct straitjacket. If such projects are the only way to save art-history, I, for one, am pleased it was a stillborn.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire

TES is the education media partner for the Battle of Ideas — 2016, being held at the Barbican this weekend, 22–23 October, featuring Battle for Education debates such as "Decolonising education: is the curriculum 'too white'?" and "Are schools producing Generation Snowflake?"

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