When US president Barack Obama said that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree”, he was bound to provoke a response from within the academy.
Some of the strongest social media reactions to the remarks, which were made during a January speech at the General Electric plant in Wisconsin, were collated in the In The Air blog in a post entitled “10 Extreme Responses To Obama’s Art History Jab on Social Media”.
“Goodbye art and music programs in the schools. What a philistine,” reads one comment from Patricia (the blog removed people’s last names to protect their identity). “If there were no arts in schools there would be no Emmy Grammy or Oscar nominees No clothing designers no Fashion Week, and Obama is a Jazz fan” adds Catherine in another post on a social network.
Giving a more measured response was Ann Collins Johns, Regents’ outstanding teaching professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who specialises in late medieval and early Renaissance Italian art.
She used a contact form on the White House website to take issue with the president’s comments, and her remarks clearly caught Mr Obama’s eye. He sent her a letter in response.
“I’m pretty sure that my email was not so much one of outrage at his statement, but rather a ‘look at what we do well’ statement,” Professor Johns said, talking to the blog Hyperallergic. “I emphasized that we challenge students to think, read, and write critically. I also stressed how inclusive our discipline is these days (even though my own specialty is medieval and Renaissance Italy).”
The blog also reproduces Mr Obama’s handwritten note in full. “Ann – Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks,” he writes. “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.”
He asks Professor Johns to pass on the apology to the rest of her department, describing his own remarks as “glib” and adding that he was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four-year college experience to be “open to technical training”.
On her Facebook profile, Professor Johns said that she did not expect that “THE MAN HIMSELF would write me an apology”. “Now I’m totally guilty about wasting his time,” she said.
However, she told the Huffington Post that she was pleased to have taken the time to put her point across.
“I felt it was important for him to know that art history is no longer just the purview of ‘the girls with pearls’ (as we called it when I was an undergrad), a long time ago,” she said.
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