Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Anguished Art Historians

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President Obama finally said something I agree with. Naturally, he has since retracted it.

Speaking at a GE engine plant in Waukesha, Wisconsin in January, Obama said:

And I just want to make a quick comment on that.  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.)
— Official transcript,

Yeah, some of my best friends have art history degrees — and they are now senior baristas at Starbucks.

Anguished Art Historians

Naturally, this did not go over well with people who have time on their hands and access to outlets for their opinions.

Building on the standard “we don’t provide vocational training” argument, Carol Geary Schneider, who is president of the Association of the American Colleges and Universities, responded in an email:

In recent years, we’ve sunk into a ‘what’s in it for me’ approach to learning, making career earnings the litmus test both for college and for different majors … It was depressing to hear President Obama describe college mainly as vocational and/or technical training in the State of the Union address, and it’s even worse to have him casually dismiss one of the liberal arts — or even the whole idea of baccalaureate study — because you can earn good enough money in a skilled trade. The fact of the matter is that human beings need bread and roses — and people who help make things do it better, as Steve Jobs said and demonstrated repeatedly, when they study both the arts and technology.
— “Obama vs. Art History”, Inside Higher Ed,

The article also features a helpful chart listing incidents of “politicians bashing liberal arts,” listing the politician, the discipline he called out and the quote. Obama was the only Democrat on the chart, keeping company with Mitt Romney and two Republican state governors. Shame!

An art history professor at the University of Texas, Ann Collins Johns, was motivated to take more direct action. She wrote a letter on the White House website. She received a handwritten note of apology from the President himself:

Ann —

Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.

So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.


Barack Obama
— “President Obama Pens Personal Apology to an Art Historian”,,

See, it was just channel confusion. I wasn’t trying to cannibalize the market for art history majors. I was trying to expand into other underserved markets.

Analyzing the Value of a College Degree

Others referenced a 2011 report by Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale objected to the overall assertion that a bachelor’s degree in general was a good investment, without taking into account the major and the school. He went through the data of the 2009 American Community Survey and analyzed the results of graduates over 171 college majors. He still maintains that the value of getting a degree in general is sustained:

But the authors grouped the 10 lowest-paid majors together and ran the lifetime earnings for them. They found people with those majors earned, on average over their careers, $148,000 more than someone whose highest degree is a high-school diploma—even after taking into consideration the expense and opportunity cost of attending college.
— “What Are You Going to Do with That?”, The Chronicle of Higher Education,

However, as the article notes, the report only considers full-time workers. Therefore, the unemployed or underemployed college graduates do not appear. Neither do the students who bounce from college to college and never complete a four-year degree in anything.

Such analysis is heresy in higher education, where it has been the standard rebuttal of college presidents and deans that universities are not there to offer vocational training, but to broaden the intellect and expose the students to alternative viewpoints. Which is fine, until you consider that the average student loan debt for a graduating senior in 2012 was $29,400 []. If the experience does not enhance your ability to pay that money back, you shouldn’t borrow it to go.

Which really does bring us back to the audience to whom Obama was addressing his remarks. Others have noticed a funny thing going on in the discussion of college:

As with most social issues in America, the debate over college-for-all and career education has taken place mostly at an elite level, with little understanding of the desires and needs of low-income students and their parents.
— “College-for-all vs. career education? Moving beyond a false debate”, Hechinger Report,

The people who can afford college without loans are most likely to be able to afford degrees in subjects such as English, art history or anthropology. They have the means to pay for it without incurring crushing levels of debt and the connections to get opportunities to use their learning, possibly even applying it to other settings such as business, engineering or law. If your family has the means to send you and is willing to finance your journey, more power to you.

The Education for the Rest of Us

The most common defense of the liberal arts education is that it teaches students how to learn. In my own experience, not everyone makes the jump from being taught to learning, but those who do generally do so as college undergraduates. Part of this is because the teaching quality is so poor, you have to if you are going to make it.

In his commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, Fareed Zakaria offered his defense of liberal arts education:

I could point out that a degree in art history or anthropology often requires the serious study of several languages and cultures, an ability to work in foreign countries, an eye for aesthetics, and a commitment to hard work—all of which might be useful in any number of professions in today’s globalized age. And I might point out to [Florida] Governor Scott that it could be in the vital interests of his state in particular to have on hand some anthropologists to tell Floridians a few things about the other 99.5% of humanity.
— “Fareed Zakaria Commencement Keynote Address”,

However, there was something else I saw about 25 times when I was in college (getting my liberal arts degree): Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from which I learn that those citizens of Florida who are hanging on by their fingernails couldn’t care less about the other 99.5% of humanity. Such interests appear when you are up at the self-actualization level, not down at the levels of basic needs.

Zakaria has a slightly different take on the value of liberal arts educations than the standard learn-how-to-learn justification:

I know I’m supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. The columnist Walter Lippmann, when asked his thoughts on a particular topic, is said to have replied, “I don’t know what I think on that one. I haven’t written about it yet.”  There is, in modern philosophy, a great debate as to which comes first—thought or language. I have nothing to say about it. All I know is that when I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them and sort them out. Whether you are a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant, or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and brings clarity and order to your ideas.

I find it is also true for me that thinking and writing are tightly coupled — it takes me considerable revision to write one of these pieces, as I go back and re-read and realize that something I have said is unclear, needs additional support or begs an obvious question. I think this is the process by which people who think extrovertedly really learn.

Introverts, on the other hand, do not operate this way. Both of my parents were introverts, and constantly enjoined me to “Think before you speak.” But I had to speak in order to think. I wasn’t defective for being the way I was, but neither were they for being the way they were. We must avoid forcing square pegs into round holes, but making all the holes square is not the answer, either.

In his address, Zakaria gives three benefits of the liberal arts education:

  • The student learns how to write;
  • The student learns how to speak;
  • The student learns how to learn.

However, we are rolling in college-educated people. Where are these benefits?

Our graduates lack writing skills. While adept at crafting bullet points, they often have difficulty writing in declarative sentences and complete paragraphs – thus impeding the effectiveness of their business communications, including memos, letters, and technical reports.
— “Our College Graduates Can’t Write!”, Wall Street Journal,

Part of learning to speak, meanwhile, is understanding the definitions of words and saying what you mean rather than what evokes a warm feeling. How are we doing on that score, when so many people don’t know the difference between a republic and a democracy?

More importantly, why do we need to attend college to obtain these abilities? This is the real false choice: between getting a liberal arts college education and doing without the ability to write, speak and learn.

These are all abilities that we require of all citizens, if we are to have a nation where power really is derived from the consent of the governed. All citizens need them to function in a world in which your mind is more important to your livelihood than your physical abilities. It is the proper mission of the public K-12 education system to deliver these abilities to all citizens.

I am not buying the argument that some of the graduates are not capable of learning to write and speak for themselves or to master learning independently. The education establishment has been in the clutches of the stupidity industry for almost a hundred years. This has resulted in a repetitive exercise where the student is turned into a client. She is not taught to read properly in the early grades. Most of the material in the middle grades is repetitive. Later she can be sold remedial reading, while she ought to be learning algebra and other forms of abstract reasoning. Then, in college, she can be sold courses in college algebra and English composition.

Our public education system must teach students what they need to know to take their effective places as citizens, as productive economic agents and as individuals in charge of their own lives. After completing that program, those with the means and inclination to go to college can do so.


Written by srojak

May 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm

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