Feb 26, 2014 02:57 PM EST
Obama's State of the Union Jab at Art History Majors Was Not Entirely Wrong
When President Barack Obama took a dig at art history majors during his State of the Union Address he may have been out of line, but also may not have been entirely wrong.
While speaking about young people shying away from pursuing jobs in "the trades," Obama dissed graduates with art history degrees, implying they do not make as much money.
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"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," he said in his speech, according to the transcript. "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.)"
Can't we promote the value of manufacturing and the skilled trades without denigrating the utility of a liberal arts education?
— Yoni Appelbaum (@YAppelbaum) January 30, 2014
The average salary of an art history major is $50,000 yr http://t.co/V2rBufZbH7 — Zachary Goldfarb (@Goldfarb) January 30, 2014
Actually, art history grads who play their cards right make astounding amounts of money http://t.co/5E7iJtkRZb
— davidfrum (@davidfrum) January 30, 2014
Several pundits and journalists have retorted since to prove that assertion wrong, but many of the most successful people who hold degrees in art history did not become wealthy by working in that specific field.
1. Meghan McCain followed her father, senator John McCain on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, but did not stop there. She has an art history degree from Columbia and now blogs about music and fashion, contributes to the Daily Beast and MSNBC, but as also authored three books since 2008.
2. Michael Lewis is a financial journalist with an art history degree from Princeton and he will speak openly of the value of that degree. He made his fame with books like "Liar's Poker" and "Moneyball," which has since reshaped statistics in sports and even inspired a major motion picture.
3. James B. Lee is the vice chairman at JP Morgan and Chase, but he was a double major student of art history and economics at Williams College.
4. Dagen McDowell is a financial journalist who is an anchor for Fox Business Network and also contributes to Fox News. She studied art history at Wake Forest.
5. Jake Hooker studied art history at Dartmouth before going to volunteer as an English teacher in China for the Peace Corp. and eventually writing for the New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for an investigative report on problems within China's pharmaceutical industry.
Outside of the fine art field, most successful art history majors find their way into journalism or economics. As the University of Notre Dame's Charles Rosenberg previously noted, art historians have several other fields they can apply their skills in.
"Probably the best advice which one can give to a student thinking about majoring in art history, but also appropriately concerned about what impact such a decision might have on her or his future ability to have and hold a job, is to think creatively and flexibly about what it is he or she is learning," he wrote.
"Try not to conceive of your education as providing you with a set of arcane and curious facts and interpretations, but rather to think of it as equipping you with a broad range of analytical strategies which can be applied in any number of different kinds of situations. If you think this way, you can both follow your passion and put food on your table."
Virginia Postrel wrote for Bloomberg News that Obama's comment was a "cheap shot" because art history as a major is already on a steep decline among students.
"It's an intellectually demanding major, requiring the memorization and mastery of a large body of visual material, a facility for foreign languages, and the ability to write clearly and persuasively," she wrote. "And it's famously elitist."