A recent quip by President Barack Obama has led to uproar in an academic field typically far from the national spotlight: art history.
During a speech last Thursday, Obama — to the displeasure of art historians and those concerned about the future of humanities — told a crowd of supporters that students would make more money with vocational education than art history degrees.
“[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career,” Obama said. “But 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 quickly backpedaled, though, saying there is “nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history” before adding that he did not want to receive emails criticizing him for the remark.
Still, the comment set off reactions almost immediately, with university professors, representatives of national higher education associations and columnists in both The Washington Post and Bloomberg denouncing Obama’s statement. Four out of five students and professors interviewed expressed disappointment at the president’s comments, and many added that they view the remark as indicative of diminishing respect for the humanities among policy makers.
“Like many people in the media, Mr. Obama appears to be oblivious to the growing impact and urgency of visual culture in contemporary life,” Yale art history professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan said.
Carol Geary Schneider, President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities has described the remark as depressing, adding that arts education is important for producing well-rounded individuals. Executive Director of the College Art Association Linda Downs said in a statement that leaders across business and other fields frequently have degrees in the humanities and that education across a broad spectrum of topics is an essential aspect of education.
At Yale, Obama’s remark also struck a chord with faculty members accustomed to having their discipline criticized as impractical. Art history professor Jacqueline Jung said that while she was disappointed by the statement, she was not surprised.
“Art history is an easier target for pot-shots,” she said. “The popular press and popular culture love to mock art historians as the prime exemplars of academic dilettantism.”
Jung and other professors and students interviewed countered Obama’s claim by emphasizing that the discipline provides its students with valuable skills applicable beyond museums and galleries. Art history major Alison Hutchison ’15 said the discipline’s focus on close examination provides a useful business skill.
Fellow art historian and Yale professor Edward Cooke echoed Hutchinson’s sentiment, adding that the remark reflected a misconception of the discipline as mere art appreciation.
Cooke, along with others, further noted that the remark was indicative of a broader disregard for the humanities. Virginia Postrel, who authored a Bloomberg column criticizing Obama’s attitude, also noted in her article that the humanities are often considered irrelevant across the political spectrum.
“The results of this general disregard for the humanities — lack of good critical thinking skills, inability or unwillingness to understand the viewpoints of others, absence of historical perspective, disregard for logic and facts — come to view all too often in our own politicians,” Jung said. “We need art historians now more than ever — even if they’ll never be rich.”
Reflecting Jung’s assertion, Philip Kennicott noted in a Thursday Washington Post column that Obama has left the position of Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts vacant for over a year.
Postrel suggested in her article that the point Obama was attempting to make with his remark — that a college degree is no longer a guarantee of a high income and upward socioeconomic mobility — was accurate. But, she added, humanities majors, especially art history, account for only a small percentage of new college students struggling to find employment. The largest expansion in higher education recently, she said, has been in fields such as business, education, counseling and social work.
However, reactions to Obama’s remark were not universally negative, with Yale art history professor Tim Barringer saying that he was “delighted” to read that Obama loves art history.
“One cannot imagine any of the notoriously philistine politicians in the UK, where I come from, expressing such an enlightened sentiment,” Barringer said, adding that “the President is entirely correct in his statement that skilled manufacturing jobs might be more lucrative than some positions in the museum or art gallery sector — and that vocational training can be extremely productive.”
According to the 2010 census, 137,357 Americans held degrees in art history. Of those, 5.9 percent had incomes in the top one percent.