Obama is Right About Art History

President Obama apologizes to art history professor

I understand that a lot of what politicians do is focus on not offending people, so the apology may have served a political purpose. But the fact is that the comments are correct. You want to be an art historian, that’s your prerogative, but you may not find yourself making a lot of money in the process and that’s your decision too. And if some other guy becomes an auto mechanic and lives a productive honest life and does well in the process, there’s no reason to bemoan the fact that the guy doesn’t have a college degree.

IMO there is too much of a focus on college degrees, with the result that there are many people coming out of school saddled with enormous debt that they can’t repay. Meanwhile plumbers seem to be doing pretty well.

Booker T. Washington: “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”

OK, what?

I don’t think I could argue with you except for the implied belief (feel free to correct me) that an auto mechanic is productive while an art historian is not. Both are productive in different ways, but I think it’s unfair to try to assign different moral weights based on profession.

The focus on college degrees is a result of the failure of the public school system.* A high school diploma no longer indicates you have any marketable skills. It suggests that you can read, write and do sums, but it’s not a guarantee. So kids are going to college to get jobs that high school should have prepared them for.

*I am not taking a position on where this blame should be assigned.

Most ordinary folks would probably find it perfectly normal to joke about the uselessness of certain college degrees, art history among them. President Obama made a comment of the same sort, then was forced to apologize. I agree; it’s proof that in our culture today, we don’t really want politicians to tell the truth.

For purposes of this thread, I would not take a position on the relative productivity of being an art history versus a mechanic. And I don’t think politicians need to do this either (to the extent that they’re not subsidizing one versus the other with public money).

But the issue here is that suppose there’s a glut of art historians and a relative dearth of mechanics, created by the fact that being an art historian carries more status than a mechanic. In that situation, becoming a mechanic would be more productive.

I think this is what President Obama was addressing.

Thing is, they are subsidizing education and it’s probably time to start talking about incentivizing education in fields where we are short on people.

Except for the fact that he wasn’t “forced” to apologize in any possible sense of the term, this is a brilliant insight.

I don’t know how useful degrees in fields like English literature or art history or theater really are compared to other degrees in their respective fields, but it’s lazy stereotyping and our political discourse doesn’t need any more of that. I expect Republicans to be overtly hostile to the higher education and the arts because that’s been their thing for decades. Obama should know better. Unemployment and debt for college graduates are huge issues, but taking swipes at the arts won’t fix them.

Fair enough.

It will fix it in 2 ways.

On an individual level, fewer people going in to these fields means fewer people stuck with unemployment and debt problems.

On a broader level, fewer people going in to these fields means a more favorable demand/supply ratio, which would improve the situation for those who do elect these fields.

I’m not sure I wholly agree. There’s some truth in this position, but turn it around: if a high school student does well enough to qualify for even a low-end 4-year college, he or she is educated to the level we expect of high school, and should be just as employable as any other adult without special skill or training.

High school students who bomb out or barely graduate don’t go to college.

That college degrees have been almost universally turned into job tickets isn’t open to debate; that liberal arts degrees are sneered at by even the President is to be expected in our current environment. But I’d put the bulk of the blame other than on the failure of high school education.

The fact is, you can make more money in the trades than you can with an Art History degree. Even the Art History professor had to get a lot more than a bachelor’s degree to do his job, and would probably be working at Starbucks if he hadn’t. This isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of fact.

So I don’t think the president should have apologized for that remark, however, I also agree that art history has value and is not a pointless subject by any means. It just isn’t lucrative. No one should take out a loan for an art history degree expecting that it will provide them with a good job. It isn’t an investment. Art history is what the children of the idle rich should be studying. If you’re going into debt to finance your education, however, trade school is a much better investment than art history. Engineering is probably even better.

Just put me down as ‘Undecided’ – every major’s terrible!

I just did literally 35 seconds of googling and found that the average salary of an art historian is about $56,000, while the average salary of a plumber is $49,000. That seems to indicate that an art historian will make about a quarter of a million dollars more during their career, to say absolutely nothing of the intrinsic value of someone doing a job that they want to do, as opposed to just working for a paycheck.

So, the OP is wrong to imply that people will do better as plumbers than as art historians. Obama wasn’t quite so specific on which jobs he thinks will probably make a lot more than an art historian, but just on the facts, he doesn’t seem to have a strong case for that comment.

There’s also plenty of jobs that just demand some degree, and there’s no real specified need for specific degree. I feel like the people who dig on “bad degrees” have absolutely no idea what the modern job market is like at all for new grads.

I think the problem is that American kids care more about what school they go to than what they’re majoring in, while the job market thinks the opposite.

You’re probably right about this, but does anyone have any current numbers on rates of unemployment and debt broken down by type of post-secondary degree?

But you’re assuming everyone with an art history degree gets a job as an art history professor. I think that misses the point Obama made.

You have to factor into that analysis the relative likelihood of someone with an art history degree going on to become a professional art historian vs. someone with a plumbing certification going on to become a professional plumber.

Edit: D’oh, ninja’d.

How many people graduated with a degree in art history last year, and how many openings for art historian were there?