Last month, in a speech on manufacturing in Wisconsin, President Obama revealed the shocking truth that an art history major may not be the most profitable thing you could study.
“I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” Obama said in his speech on January 30. “Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of e-mails from everybody.”
Obama could have backpedaled twenty miles and still would not have escaped the inevitable wrath of art history apologists. Ann Collins Johns, an art historian and professor at University of Texas, took issue with Obama’s representation of art history as a less utile career-starter and pointed out the critical thinking skills it requires in an email addressed to – I assume – the White House complaint department.
People may be fighting in the streets in Europe and South America and Olympians may be stuck in two-person, hypocritically-homoerotic bathroom stalls in Sochi, but somehow Johns’s criticism of Obama’s flippant remarks made it through triage and reached the president’s desk. And, lo-and-behold, it resulted in a hand-written apology letter to the art history professors of the world:
Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.
So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.
Although some have praised President Obama’s encouraging attentiveness to criticism (even though the American people are still awaiting a response on that whole “deport Bieber” thing), many people agreed with the president’s initial assessment of art history.
Marco Rubio, not one to miss an opportunity to remind us of his red-blooded Republicanism, tweeted his disapproval of President Obama’s apology.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 19, 2014
I’m not usually the first one to agree with Marco Rubio, but when I think of art history, it’s not from an economic perspective. I’d posit that very few NYU students declare an art history major with the hopes of riches as far as the eyes can see – that’s what Stern is for. Rather, art history is meant to be an academic’s discipline, where one’s passion, not monetized ambition, drives the choice of study.
That’s not to say that the field of art history has no economic value – learning to analyze dead peoples’s hobbies is quite a skill. However, the president is right to encourage a majority of Americans to consider their economic future when choosing an educational path, especially when the government is sponsoring the educations of millions of leveraged students with debt up to their eyeballs.