Obama Fails Art History and Economics

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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President Obama had a perfectly fine message for young people when he spoke at a General Electric plant in Wisconsin yesterday: Learning a skilled trade can be just as lucrative and worthy of respect as getting a college diploma. Unfortunately, that's not what he said.

Instead, he took a cheap shot at the favorite punching bag of people who deride higher education in general and the liberal arts in particular. He attacked art history. "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.

It was the cheapest of cheap shots because, as I noted in a column two years ago, almost no one majors in art history. Art history majors account for less than 0.2 percent of working adults with college degrees.

It was also a cheap shot because art history isn't a major naive kids fall into because they've heard a college degree -- any college degree -- will get you a good job. 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. And it's famously elitist.

In fact, the reason pundits instinctively pick on art history is that it is seems effete. It's stereotypically a field for prep school graduates, especially women, with plenty of family wealth to fall back on. In fact, a New York Times analysis of Census data shows that art history majors are wildly overrepresented among those in the top 1 percent of incomes. Perhaps the causality runs from art history to high incomes, but I doubt it.

If the president had been serious about his message, he would have compared learning a skilled trade to majors that are actually popular, such as communications and psychology. It would have been much braver and more serious to take on the less-rigorous majors that attract lots of students. But it wouldn't have gotten a laugh.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. Her book, "The Power of Glamour," was recently published by Simon & Schuster. Her website is at vpostrel.com. Follow her on Twitter at@vpostrel.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net