the president and the humanities

At a General Electric plant in Milwaukee last month, President Obama seemed to disparage one of the disciplines of the humanities:

“I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” the president said. “Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree. I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. 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.”

After receiving a critical email from University of Texas art historian Ann Collins Johns, the president replied to her with a hand-written apology, shown below. It’s a polite and disarming note. I suspect the president immediately regretted his comment about art history and was looking for a chance to address it.

Especially given his note, I do not want to add criticism of the president, personally. However, the administration’s educational policy does favor the applied sciences and engineering over the humanities. Moreover, in his note, the president reinforces the idea that the humanities are basically about appreciating the higher things of life; they are aesthetic disciplines. He writes, “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.”

One sees this equation of the humanities with beauty all the time. Just last week, in the Atlantic, Olga Khazan cited Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Paul Cézanne as examples of geniuses in “the humanities.” Very few people seem to understand that the humanities are scholarly disciplines aimed at understanding a wide range of human phenomena. They are not about making or appreciating beauty. (See my post on “what are the humanities?”)

I do believe that you can often enjoy a work of art much more if you understand it as the solution to problems of its own time. This is something that art historians can teach you. I have made this argument in relation to Memling and to the city of Venice, among other examples on this blog. Thus the president probably did come to enjoy art more when he studied art history. However, enjoyment is not the purpose of the discipline; we do not call it “art appreciation.” As long as people believe that the humanities are about enhancing pleasure, they will not consider them an important investment in tough economic times.