If you’re an art historian like I am (you’re probably not, I know, but bear with me, please), you spent at least part of January 31st, 2014 watching your colleagues hyperventilate over these comments by the *most powerful man in the world.*
“A lot of parents, unfortunately, maybe when they saw a lot of manufacturing being offshored, told their kids you don’t want to go into the trades, you don’t want to go into manufacturing because you’ll lose your job. Well, the problem is that what happened — a lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. (Laughter.) So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. (Laughter.) I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need. (Applause.)”
Leaving aside for the moment his totally corporate-speak-ish use of the word “offshore” as a verb (and yes, I’m totally aware that “corporate-speak-ish” isn’t an adjective), we acknowledge that nobody likes to hear the leader of the free world dis (< which at one time wasn’t a word either; see how that works?) their discipline. And so Linda Downs, President of the College Art Association responded in kind:
“The College Art Association has great respect for President Obama’s initiative to provide all qualified students with an education that can lead to gainful employment. We support all measures that he, Congress, State Legislatures, and colleges and universities can do to increase the opportunities for higher education. However, 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. It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. 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.”
Linda’s comments please me as much as Barack’s disappoint me. It’s pretty clear what he said was indeed egregiously misguided; a Liberal Arts education, and yes an art history degree, too, will make you abundantly employable. I will always be an exponent of the Liberal Arts and my discipline for the transferable skills they give you if you engage them.
But his comments were also nothing if not politic, reflecting his administration’s awareness of the growing student debt crisis and the loss of manufacturing jobs. He was trying, however clumsily, to reassure a midwestern audience that manufacturing jobs will be back and that not everyone should rush to go to college. Were his comments ham handed? Absolutely. But if they were they off the mark, it is probably not by much. It’s certainly short sighted to suggest that people with Liberal Arts backgrounds stand to make less money than those in the trades. But I know far too many adjunct art history instructors who make an insultingly meager income for their troubles, which frequently extend to a 60 – 70 hour work week. They labor without support well into their thirties. After that, they either seek employment in another field, or are among those fortunate enough to land a full time post. I should know. I was an adjunct (I once taught five courses in one semester to the tune of 14k, a windfall for me at the time). I consider myself beyond fortunate to no longer be among their ranks, working full time at SCAD, in a department supported by an institution that does right by its students and its faculty.
We’d be remiss if we also did not note that Barack’s art history remarks find him articulating a garden variety dismissal of a Liberal Arts education. Et tu, Barry? Why must Art History always be the proxy or fall guy for all of the Liberal Arts, the whipping boy, the butt of jokes (Car Talk, anyone?), on those occasions when our entire Liberal Arts wing of post-high school education is really what critics have in mind? As a specialist in the old masters, even I am fully willing to admit that most people find old master paintings mystifying, part of an irrelevant, unattainable past, while they find contemporary art weird and impossible to “get.” But that does not mean that it’s okay for Barack and his speech writers to kowtow to that consciousness, too. What a drag, right? I’m serious.
But while the President’s comments were sadly pedestrian, they are also conspicuously strange coming from him. He has a strong Liberal Arts background. He went to Occidental…
…He went to Harvard, too. He also went the University of Chicago. Each place in its way is a bastion of the Liberal Arts values he descried in Wisconsin this week. The loss of manufacturing jobs notwithstanding, how do we explain him talking as if today’s high school students need to be persuaded to choose a trade over the Liberal Arts, when we all know that the latter is losing enrollment not the former, and has endured frequent dismissal (but one example here) in the post-9-11 cultural climate? Perhaps such talk is nothing more than a shrewd bit of disingenuousness that most of my art historian colleagues are too cross-eyed with rage to see. It’s as if Barack the master centrist was reaching out to the secret / invisible / hidden / Republican portion of his base, which he explicitly acknowledges at his peril, at the risk of alienating his perceived true base.
His comments also repeat a tendency to judge education’s worth in dollars and cents. He wouldn’t be the first to fall into that trap either, as Scott Jaschick points out in his excellent article tracing this tendency.
But what’s most disappointing to me, more than *what* he said, is the universally tin ear (not just his, but everyone’s) for the historically pervasive false binary at the root of his comments. I mean pitting *either* the liberal arts *or* the trades against one another. This is a notion rooted in the very modern idea that the mind (the Liberal Arts) and the body (the trades) have little substance between them. The sooner our culture moves on from such reductions, the better off we’ll all be.
I can say with a straight face that I would much rather live in a world with plumbers, carpenters, and auto mechanics who have succeeded in a Liberal Arts environment than one devoid of them. I can offer no concrete reason for why (my faucet will probably leak the same way in either world), but I’m certain that would be a better world.
And by the same token, I know I’d be a slightly better art historian if I had spent at least a little more time paying attention in shop class, where we worked wood with saws lathes, and awls, and cast objects of our own design in metal. Further, I’m also sure I’d be a *much* better art historian if I could make the time to pursue the practice of a trade, to enrich myself to the point where I could do more with my hands than type, thumb through books, and occasionally wield a tennis racket (and rather poorly).
Again, I have no list of ways in which the skills from one would transfer to the other. I just know that my consciousness would be more balanced, more evolved. My mind’s ability to craft arguments would thus benefit from my hand’s ability to craft things. But really, a list of concrete reasons for why either the trades and the Liberal Arts are important for one another perpetuates the binary and is not the point.
The point is that the sooner we recognize that our current approach to education — from top to bottom, K through Ph.D. — is structured to perpetuate this binary, the sooner we can move on from it. And the reason why it’s such a damaging binary is because it does more than keep the tradesmen away from the artists and the scholars; it perpetuates culture-war dysfunction of global proportions.
Finally, let’s not forget: there is no discipline that better prepares people to interpret this weekend’s Super Bowl commercials, OR to understand the historical importance of this image: