Can Malta be an ideal environment for the humanities?
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.