No Laughing Matter: President’s Quip About Art History Pricks Some Ears

Bradley Marks

Linda A. Downs, who leads the College Art Association, was "very disappointed" in the president's comment: "I know that he has to put people back into jobs ... but he shouldn’t be doing it to the denigration of the humanities."
January 31, 2014

Art history caught some unwelcome attention from President Obama in a speech on Thursday emphasizing the need for job training. To reinforce his point that manufacturing jobs pay off, Mr. Obama said that young people who train for them could outearn art-history majors.

The remark drew laughter from the president’s audience in Wisconsin. But some in higher education felt slighted, even though Mr. Obama quickly added in his speech that there is “nothing wrong with an art-history degree” (trying to ward off “a bunch of emails”).

Linda A. Downs, executive director and chief executive of the College Art Association, a professional group that includes art historians and artists who teach at colleges, shared her reaction with The Chronicle. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q. What was your initial reaction to the president’s comments?

A. I was very disappointed. I watched the entire State of the Union, and I’m continually disappointed at his lack of attention to higher-education issues. I know that he has to put people back into jobs, and he is very concerned about elementary education, and now he is talking about getting more middle-class kids into college, but he shouldn’t be doing it to the denigration of the humanities.

Q. Was the president’s point correct that people who do a training program in manufacturing could end up making more money than someone with an art-history degree?

A. I was just rereading the article in The Chronicle about liberal-arts majors and how they fare in the workplace, and it was quite positive. Of course what’s needed is to have a graduate degree, and the president was talking today about skills that you get on an undergraduate level. But even undergraduate art historians can use a lot of their skills in the workplace.

Q. What are those skills?

A. Critical thinking, an understanding of different cultures, a tolerance for diversity, understanding and thinking through values—all of these things are considered extremely valuable in the workplace, whether you’re a tradesperson or you’re a corporate head. Over and over again, you see where corporations have hired humanities graduates because of the various problem-solving skills they have and their knowledge of the world. If all the emphasis is going to be put on specific job skills, we’re creating future citizens that are only half-educated.

Q. What do you make of art history in particular being singled out?

A. I have no idea. We haven’t been on the White House’s radar at all, other than being part of the humanities community that has supported increasing the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was an enormous surprise that came out of the blue.

Q. But he seemed to get a big laugh.

A. Well, you know, with a certain community, higher education has become a laughing matter. And there is no interest in supporting research and the humanities in general in many quarters of the United States right now.

Q. Your association is releasing a statement about the president’s remarks. What do you hope it accomplishes?

A. We’re going to include the White House’s email address. The president said, Don’t flood me with emails, but he has to hear from this community. So we’re encouraging our members to send as many emails as possible.