Obama apologizes to art historian. Why did he diss her discipline?

His comments pertained to the job market, Obama explained in an apology letter to a professor of art history. Here's how he got in hot water with some art history majors.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 as he boards Marine One helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., for his trip to Mexico. Obama apologized in a letter to one art history professor who took exception to remarks last month in which he jabbed the discipline as less lucrative than skilled manufacturing or a trade.

President Obama has apologized for dissing art history majors. At least, he’s apologized to one art history professor who took exception to remarks last month in which he jabbed the discipline as less lucrative than skilled manufacturing or a trade, such as plumbing.

“Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history,” said Mr. Obama in a hand-written note to Prof. Ann Collins Johns at the University of Texas at Austin, according to Politico.

Obama went on to say that art history had been one of his own favorite subjects in high school and that he’d learned a lot about culture he might otherwise have missed. Such as, how hard it is to stay awake when art history is right after lunch, and they dim the lights and show a million slides on the differences between Byzantine and Romanesque architecture.

Sorry, the president didn’t actually say that last bit. That was our own memory leaching into the narrative.

Anyway, here’s the background to this story: Late last month, Obama gave a speech at a General Electric plant in Waukesha, Wis., on the need to improve job training programs nationwide. To bolster his argument, at one point he said, “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

After that, the Botticelli hit the fan. Obama’s larger point was uncontroversial: It’s true that a well-trained manufacturing worker or plumber can make a pretty decent middle-class wage. Not everybody needs four years at a liberal arts institution. But in demeaning one liberal arts discipline in particular, the president annoyed a passel of professors and students.

In response they made two points. One – art history teaches you appreciation for beauty, details, and critical thinking. It enlarges your understanding of life. (This is the argument Professor Johns made in a letter to the White House, which drew Obama’s response.) Two – majoring in art history is not the same as becoming an art historian. Lots of people spend their college years looking at art history slide shows and then enter other, more lucrative professions.

About 6 percent of people with art history degrees make it into the lofty top 1 percent of US earners, for instance, according to census data. That’s a better success ratio than the one facing finance and business economics majors! Prince William was an art history major, and he’s going to be King of England. Can’t do much better than that.

Thus the apology. Maybe Obama realized that in arguing against college generally, he’d picked on one particular college discipline that perhaps produces Obama voters. Johns told the art blog "Hyperallergic" that she’s a fan of the president, for instance.

Meanwhile, some critics of the president had gone all mea culpa on a point where he was actually right. College is expensive. Why spend so much money to not prepare yourself for life after graduation?

“If you don’t want to take on fifty grand or more in debt, skip it and learn a trade instead,” writes Allahpundit at the right-leaning "Hot Air" site.

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