Art enthusiasts throughout the nation were displeased with President Barack Obama when he told students late last month that "folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they with with an art history degree."
The president quickly followed the comment with a disclaimer, "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." Too late.
College Art Association Director Linda Downs issued a statement in response to the statement, offering a defense of the liberal arts:
Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creating thinking play a critical role. Let’s not forget that education across a broad spectrum is essential to develop the skills and imagination that will enable future generations to create and take advantage of new jobs and employment opportunities of all sorts.
Downs was not the only one to take offense. The Washington Post was quick to point out that art history majors are hot for Obama, and that the gaffe might cost him a "key part of his base." Inside HigherEd quickly drew equivalencies between Obama and philistine Republicans, who have also criticized the field. President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities Carol Geary Schneider also responded at the time:
[Obama] seems to have forgotten that college can build our desire and capacity to make a better world, not just better technologies. It was depressing to hear President Obama describe college mainly as vocational and/or technical training in the State of the Union address, and it's even worse to have him casually dismiss one of the liberal arts -- or even the whole idea of baccalaureate study -- because you can earn good enough money in a skilled trade.
Oh, the humanities.
Obviously, accusing Obama of not caring about higher education is a stretch. The president is constantly criticized for his professorial style, and has made easing tuition cost, and student debt, a priority. So we weren't surprised when Obama set the record straight, in a handwritten note to an actual art history professor who wrote him a strongly-worded letter.
According to the art blog Hyperallergic, University of Texas professor Ann Collins Johns posted a letter to the White House website soon after Obama's speech. She didn't save the note, but told Hyperallergic that it wasn't particularly strident:
I’m pretty sure that my email was not so much one of outrage at his statement, but rather a “look at what we do well” statement. I emphasized that we challenge students to think, read, and write critically. I also stressed how inclusive our discipline is these days (even though my own specialty is medieval and Renaissance Italy).
Obama, apparently, had reached his breaking point. So he picked up his presidential pen and wrote Collins a polite letter in his defense, saying that the statement was "off-the-cuff" and that he was just trying to make a point was about the jobs market. He added:
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.
Of course it did. Obama continued that he hoped Collins would help him put these pesky rumors to rest, writing:
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.
Collins, for her part, was floored by the response, writing on Facebook that she now feels "totally guilty about wasting his time," so we think he's good with art historians for now. But the Internet blogging community is still ready for our apology, Mr. President. You know where to find us.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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