Can Malta be an ideal en­vi­ron­ment for the hu­man­i­ties?

Malta Independent - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE - Nikki Petroni

I have been study­ing art his­tory for about eight years now. It was at age 16 or 17 that I was in­tro­duced to the dis­ci­pline, just like all other stu­dents who at­tended Sys­tems of Knowl­edge classes at Sixth Form. Sys­tems or SOK, as it is com­monly re­ferred to, was in­tro­duced into the na­tional cur­ricu­lum in 1987 and is the only oblig­a­tory sub­ject that all those work­ing to ac­quire the ma­tric­u­la­tion cer­tifi­cate must sit for. It con­sists of four top­ics: West­ern art his­tory, democ­racy and cit­i­zen­ship, science and tech­nol­ogy, and the en­vi­ron­ment and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. The aim of SOK is to aug­ment stu­dents’ pri­mary stud­ies by pro­vid­ing a cross-dis­ci­plinary ed­u­ca­tion.

Need­less to say, with stu­dents be­ing ‘forced’ to fol­low this course, many dismiss its im­por­tance and in­ces­santly grum­ble about hav­ing to deal with an im­posed bur­den that is ir­rel­e­vant to their cho­sen A-level sub­jects. Stu­dents will al­ways moan when faced with ‘ex­tra’ work and ex­am­i­na­tions. The pres­sure placed on stu­dents to per­form well dur­ing ex­ams doesn’t help, es­pe­cially when fi­nal grades are short-sight­edly posed as the beall and end-all of one’s aca­demic achieve­ments.

I do be­lieve that one of the rea­sons for in­tro­duc­ing SOK was to al­le­vi­ate this pres­sure, to take the blink­ers off of stu­dents work­ing to achieve spe­cific pro­fes­sional goals by ex­pos­ing them to al­ter­na­tive fields of study, and also to pro­voke in­ter­est in their cul­tural and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. A well-rounded ed­u­ca­tion will (sup­pos­edly) pro­duce con­sci­en­tious cit­i­zens that would pos­sess the abil­ity to think be­yond the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of their quo­tid­ian life.

De­spite be­ing part of the ma­jor­ity (if not all) of stu­dents who groan­ingly protested that SOK was a waste of time, I was quick to change opin­ion. I was drawn to the con­tent of the lec­tures and be­gan to pay at­ten­tion in class. The re­sult was that I made the de­ci­sion, with great as­sur­ance, to pur­sue a de­gree in his­tory of art at univer­sity (as op­posed to the ‘safer’ op­tion of study­ing com­merce). I was pre­vi­ously obliv­i­ous to the fact that art his­tory was even a sub­ject and that one could build a ca­reer in the arts with­out be­ing a prac­tic­ing artist, writer or per­former.

At eigh­teen years of age, I some­how made a for­tu­itous de­ci­sion that I have never re­gret­ted since. How­ever, this was not an un­aided choice. SOK broad­ened the def­i­ni­tion of school­ing be­yond strict dis­ci­plinary pa­ram­e­ters that I felt were ir­rel­e­vant to my non-pro­fes­sional life. I was no longer con­cerned with achiev­ing the high­est grade pos­si­ble to em­bel­lish my cer­tifi­cate with favourable num­bers. The goal was now set on know­ing and un­der­stand­ing as much as pos­si­ble. It was not only my­self but all stu­dents who were of­fered this op­por­tu­nity, and this is some­thing that can­not be un­der­mined. The rea­son for nar­rat­ing my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of the lo­cal ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem is not purely bio­graph­i­cal. When a cou­ple of weeks ago the news was pub­lished that art his­tory will no longer be avail­able as an A-level sub­ject in the UK, I joined the throngs of crit­ics who re­tal­i­ated against the demise of the sub­ject. It is ab­so­lutely pre­pos­ter­ous that a coun­try which holds such a strong ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the arts, and that is the home of ma­jor art­works, mu­se­ums and lead­ing art his­tory univer­sity de­part­ments should make such a de­ci­sion.

The hu­man­i­ties have been un­der at­tack for a few years now. They are not con­sid­ered to be a pri­or­ity as they pro­mote crit­i­cal thought and in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment rather than gen­er­ate a ‘use­ful’ work­force. The drop­ping of the art his­tory Alevel is just an­other step in a string of ef­forts to alien­ate peo­ple from cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge, and hence from the idea of a col­lec­tive so­ci­ety. Art, his­tory and cul­ture pro­vide us with a sense of be­long­ing.

As much as I would like to sing the praises of art his­tory and vil­ify the con­ser­va­tive Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, it was brought to my at­ten­tion that the sub­ject wasn’t of­fered by all schools. In fact, only a mi­nor­ity of priv­i­leged schools in­cluded art his­tory in their prospec­tus. And this is an even big­ger prob­lem to di­gest than its com­plete re­moval. A fel­low art his­tory PhD stu­dent based at York Univer­sity, Adam Sam­mut, pub­lished an in­sight­ful ar­ti­cle in ‘The Tele­graph’ that delved into the elit­ist un­der­pin­nings of the sub­ject. Ac­cess to art his­tory at A-level was re­stricted, writes Sam­mut, re­sul­tantly sup­press­ing its democrati­sa­tion. Un­doubt­edly, this only served to re­in­force the per­cep­tion that his­tory of art is a clas­sist dis­ci­pline avail­able to the priv­i­leged mi­nor­ity.

Even though art his­tory is not of­fered as an A-level or in­ter­me­di­ate level sub­ject in Malta, it is nev­er­the­less part of a com­pul­sory course that thou­sands fol­low ev­ery year. Ir­re­spec­tive of whether or not stu­dents choose to fur­ther their stud­ies in the sub­ject, it is pro­moted demo­crat­i­cally. Fur­ther­more, its avail­abil­ity at a free of charge state univer­sity en­sures that ac­cess is not pre­vented to any­one.

This is a ma­jor ad­van­tage, and there is more to boast about. In the past five years or so, the Univer­sity of Malta has in­creas­ingly broad­ened its hu­man­i­ties prospec­tus. The Fac­ulty of Arts has ma­tured tremen­dously, with sev­eral de­part­ments of­fer­ing a se­lec­tion of taught MA cour­ses. The in­crease in cour­ses has led to con­tin­u­ous in­ter-de­part­men­tal ex­change and the growth of an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary stu­dent com­mu­nity. The Depart­ment of His­tory of Art now has an ad­di­tional BA stream BA with Fine Arts, and also an MA in Fine Arts. The Depart­ment of Dig­i­tal Arts was re­cently es­tab­lished and the Cen­tre for Lib­eral Arts and Sciences opened in 2014.

The ti­tle of this ar­ti­cle asks whether Malta may be a be­nign set­ting for the hu­man­i­ties, and I have tasked to an­swer this ques­tion favourably. My com­par­i­son may be lim­ited as it is based upon the as­sess­ment of one hu­man­i­ties dis­ci­pline and its po­lit­i­cal bag­gage in the UK in re­la­tion to re­cent pub­lic dis­course. How­ever, to have a blos­som­ing Fac­ulty of Arts at the state univer­sity of a small is­land na­tion is a for­mi­da­ble achieve­ment. The mis­take would be to be­come com­pla­cent and think that what is avail­able is enough, es­pe­cially if our na­tional con­di­tions are used as an ex­cuse to hin­der fur­ther de­vel­op­ment.

I re­call read­ing an ar­ti­cle by Prof. Joe Frig­gieri (writ­ten in the late 1970s or 80s) in which he pro­posed that Malta should be­come an in­ter­na­tional cen­tre for academia. The coun­try’s small size could be ex­ploited to de­velop a close-knit com­mu­nity for in­tel­lec­tual ex­change. I do not think that this is a utopian idea, nei­ther is it im­prac­ti­cal. Now, more than ever, we have the abil­ity to build a lasting cul­tural and ed­u­ca­tional in­fra­struc­ture. More and more stu­dents are leav­ing univer­sity with hu­man­i­ties de­grees only to have their as­pi­ra­tions damp­ened by the lack of in­sti­tu­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties avail­able for them to fur­ther cul­ti­vate their knowl­edge and ca­reers. At the mo­ment, the ma­jor­ity are on a path to nowhere, which re­gret­tably por­trays re­cent ef­forts to ex­pand the hu­man­i­ties as fu­tile.

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