Obama Was Right About Art History

18artsbeat-obama-blog480Despite the usual much ado for nothing, when President Obama said last month, at the Wisconsin plant, that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree”, he was absolutely right. 

The fact that he received so many critics is therefore quite remarkable. During the course of the same speech, indeed, he went as far as apologizing in advance: “there’s nothing wrong with an art history degree, I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.”

Let alone the fact that he did receive a bunch of emails, what is even more remarkable is that, after having received an accusatory message from Professor Ann Collins Johns (University of Texas), Obama actually took the time to personally jot down another apology and mail it directly at Professor Johns’ desk.

The letter read:

“Ann —

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.


Barack Obama”

Oddly enough, a similar debate about the practical meaning of an Art History degree was recently brought to attention of the media also in Italy, when a mendacious blog post denounced the alleged abolition of Art History from public schools programs.

Professor Johns’ one, however, is only the most famous j’accuse Obama has received for his infamous Wisconsin statement. Others, much more infuriated critics came from both Liberals and Republicans, newspapers, political commentators, blogs, TV programs and other media outlets. In short: they came from anything or anybody that had to do with Art History. Strangely enough, therefore, these critics came from the people that are supposed to love Obama the most.

For example, the executive director and CEO of the College Art Association, Linda Downs, told Politico soon after the speech, “Oh my God, no. That’s just awful.” And even though – like Politico  reported – Downs admitted her support for Obama’s educational policies, she also added that “when these measures are made by cutting back on, denigrating or eliminating humanities disciplines such as art history, then America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities.”

Too bad that Obama hasn’t denigrated Art History; he just said that a lot of people could be better off without an Art History degree. And that is an entirely different story.

But critics came also from Republicans. And not only regarding the original speech Obama gave in Wisconsin, but also in relation to his most recent act of contrition. In this respect, sufficient is to quote Senator Marco Rubio’s tweet, which read: “Pathetic Obama apology to art history prof.”

Nevertheless, the poorest line of reasoning, both in logical and journalistic terms, came from an unexpected source. Mr. Ray Hennessey, who has previously worked for Fox Business Network and is now covering the ambitious position of editorial director at Entrepreneur.com, argued in fact that Obama’s remark was dead wrong and that if you want to ameliorate yourself as an individual you should “ignore the President and study Art History”.

Hennessey even quoted a table by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which measures the employment status of the civilian population by educational attainment.

In commenting the table, Hennessey argued that “if you don’t complete high school, your unemployment rate is 13.9 percent, or more than twice the national average,” and – contrary to what President Obama said in Wisconsin – Hennessey went as far as claiming that “an actual bachelor’s degree takes the cake”, when it comes to finding a good occupation in nowadays job’s market.

The problem being: the table Hennessey quoted does show the level of unemployment by educational attainment but it doesn’t show which kind of educational attainment. In other words, the table isn’t entirely reliable in explaining how (and if) an Art History degree really helps young people to find a job.

However, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has also other, perhaps more useful tables, at least in this context. One of them concerns employment by major industrial sectors.

And that would be another, specular way to look at the same problem. This table is accompanied by a useful article which, among the other things, states that “the majority of the growth in employment can be attributed to an increase in the number of nonagricultural wage and salary workers.” The same piece also explains how “the remaining increase in employment… is expected to come from nonagricultural self-employed and unpaid family workers.”

The article does not mention Art History degrees for a good reason. If you look carefully into the table, you’ll quickly discover that the so called “educational services”, under which a person who holds an Art History degree is most probably going to be employed, only represents a small fraction of the percentage of workers over the labor force.

And that’s because, strictly speaking, Obama was right when he said that there are a number of practical job paths and professions that you can choose and learn that will – most probably – make you earn more money than what an Art History degree ever could.

But the bottom line is: you must always give to Cesar what belongs to Cesar, even if sometimes that might be difficult and require you to swallow pride and apply a good deal of moral clarity.

Criticizing Obama might be tempting, especially given the President’s negative record, but you can’t do it every time he opens his mouth to speak, otherwise you won’t be credible when it is time to censure him for things that he has said or done which were really wrong. After all, the boy who cried wolf when there wasn’t any wolf around was soon left alone.

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Andrea Loquenzi Holzer

The truth will set you free

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