Great maths, not masters

June 13, 2013

I am writing in response to Brian Sewell’s “Every picture tells a history” (23 May). I am well qualified to do so as I am a 58-year-old professor of electronic engineering who has just completed a degree in the history of art. I read the article just after completing my final examination (the results of which I await nervously).

I am happy to concur that the history of art is not a non-subject and that it does offer significant challenges to overcome and involves a lot of hard work. However, I disagree with most of the rest of what Sewell has to say.

Of course, I can only comment based on my experiences of studying at the University of Reading, but in the module on Raphael covered in the final exam, we were expected to know the differences between the Old and New Testament, to discuss who Ovid and Dante were and what they did, to be able to cope with Italian words, plus many other challenges Sewell implies are no longer posed. It would have been helpful, but not essential, to have been able to read some of the original texts in Italian, but I doubt if many British students could have done that even in the halcyon days of the 1950s.

Sewell’s conclusion, that the history of art should be studied in preference to mathematics, is muddle-headed to say the least. He has argued directly from the particular (his own experience) to the general without considering any other facts. For the overwhelming majority, maths offers a much firmer foundation for life than art history. In narrow employment terms, studying maths does not block any avenues, whereas studying the history of art cuts off most. In terms of life skills, an elementary knowledge of statistics and probability, for example, is much more important than an appreciation of the great masters.

I disagree with Michael Gove on almost everything, but I am certain that he is right to emphasise the importance of everyone having a firm foundation in maths.

Chris G. Guy
Professor of electronic engineering
School of Systems Engineering
University of Reading

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