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Obama puts the humanities vs professional degrees debate back in the spotlight

President Obama needs to look back at President Kennedy's idealism to recognize the importance of the arts

President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech at Amherst College praising and promoting the arts in honor of the poet Robert Frost, Oct. 26, 2013; Obama's recents remarks on art history is the anti-thesis to Kennedy's message on the arts
Dick Fish, 1963 / Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

The debate of the importance of the humanities, liberal arts and social science university degree versus a professional degree, or a degree in business or STEM, Science, technology, engineering and math was again thrown into the spotlight and discussion when President Barack Obama in a recent speech on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 belittled the importance of a graduating university with an art history major as opposed the technical job training programs he was selling to the public. President Obama's remarks come as the polar opposite to President John F. Kennedy's Oct. 26, 1963 address promoting the arts at Amherst College, a liberal arts college. The relevance of degrees in the humanities has been a topic since the economic collapse and the recession, with the difficulties in obtaining employment only magnified in professions where there is limited employment to begin with.

The debate is ongoing and never ending still the opinions about the virtues and vices of humanities versus professional degrees, seems to be subjective with more academic publications praising the humanities and popular news publications more biased towards the professional degrees. Still the statistics conclude that more than half of students in American universities and college pursue professional degrees and that humanities graduates have skill sets that employers desire in a variety professions.

President Obama spent two days after delivering his State of the Union Address on Wednesday, Jan. 29 and Thursday, Jan. 30 trying to sell his economic opportunity program. Speaking at the third stop on his post State of the Union tour at the General Electric Waukesha Gas Engines Facility, in Wisconsin on Thursday, Jan. 30 Obama discussed the technical job training program that will include; apprenticeships and partnerships between community college and employers. There Obama signed an executive order to review all federal job training programs, and Vice President Joe Biden will be in charge of the initiative.

President Obama became a little over zealous with trying to sell his jobs training program. The purpose of his training program for jobs in manufacturing, technical jobs aimed primarily at helping the unemployed find work, the unskilled to improve the job skills. However, the purpose of the program should not be to discourage high school students from attaining a college education, or thwarting or demeaning a major in the humanities. Apparently part of his plans for American opportunities is talking high school students out of striving and attending university, especially if they plan to major in Art History or the humanities. Instead the President thinks that a technical education is superior to a university degree.

President Obama caused a minor uproar in the academic world over some of his remarks about majoring in Art History in university versus attaining a degree in a professional disciple or STEM, Science, technology, engineering and math. Obama thought he was making a joke, expressed; "I promise you that folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree."

Realizing that he should have not made that remark, the President backtracked; "Now, there's 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 training that you need."

The President's remarks caught the ire of the College Art Association, particularly CAA president Anne Collins Goodyear, and executive director and CEO Linda Downs, who were quick to respond in the press about the President's comments; "However, when these measures are made by cutting back on, denigrating or eliminating humanities disciplines such as art history, then America's future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities."

Goodyear and Downs reminded the President and the country that; "It is worth remembering that many of the nation's most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creating thinking play a critical role."

Downs also spoke to the Chronicle of Higher Education, where she expressed her "disappointment" in President Obama's remarks and message and "his lack of attention to higher-education issues" Saying she understands "that he has to put people back into jobs"… "but he shouldn't be doing it to the denigration of the humanities."

Art History is often used as the scapegoat of the humanities world, seen as the major of the elite it considered by those outside the discipline for the rich and leisure class. In the United States less than one percent of college students major in Art History. In January 2013 Joy Starkey wrote an op-ed entitled "History of art: a degree for the elite?" in the United Kingdom's Guardian paper about the perception of Art History degrees. Starky explained that "Art. A word that has sat on a gleaming plinth and peered down at us mere mortals for centuries. In the past, the study of art was reserved for the wealthy and educated. Even today, galleries have become an elitist haven for the middle-classes."

Another reason for the opinion of "The subject's elitist image has been exacerbated by the long list of royals who have studied it - Prince William, Kate Middleton and Princess Beatrice to name a few. This not only gives the impression that you have to be from the right background to study it, but also reinforces the notion that this subject is not useful in the current barren landscape of graduate recruitment." Starky explained that in the U.K. the perception has become a reality and most students that study art history Cambridge University come from private schools.

Starky however, concluded; "I have discovered that art is one of the most vivid ways of viewing history - it is an intimate glimpse into someone's world. Art has traced many of the sociological changes that have occurred throughout history, all through the eyes of real people. Studying it stretches your analytical and interpretive abilities. And while course content may not be directly related to the average graduate job, this is the case with many degrees, especially humanities subjects. The study of art shouldn't have to carry the weight of a stereotype created so long ago."

The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that "In November 2010, the MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall remarked with alarm that 'students wanting to take up majors like art history and literature are now making the jump to more-specialized fields like business and economics, and it's getting worse.'" Despite the opinion that art history is useless, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists that "museum curators make a median annual salary of $54,600." However, with most of the desirable careers within the humanities, an advanced degree is required, even a post-graduate professional degree, and many times a doctorate in the discipline.

Art History is singled out, but the humanities in general have suffered during the recession, with college students choosing instead professional degrees that can guarantee more a job after graduation. Downs in her interview with the Chronicle of Education stated that "all the emphasis is going to be put on specific job skills, we're creating future citizens that are only half-educated." She highlighted the important skills that liberal arts majors have "critical thinking, an understanding of different cultures, a tolerance for diversity, understanding and thinking through values-all of these things are considered extremely valuable in the workplace." Downs think that is why many humanities graduates still are hired in business.

That is the general view Virginia Postrel writing an article in Bloomberg in January 2012 entitled; "How art history majors power the U.S. economy" agreed with; "The most valuable skill anyone can learn in college is how to learn efficiently -- how to figure out what you don't know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems. Liberal-arts advocates like this argument, but it applies to any field."

President Obama himself graduated with a social science discipline in political science for his undergraduate education at Columbia University. However as the Washington Post noted Obama has not made the fine arts a priority evidenced by the fact that he has ignored and "left the position of the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts vacant for over a year." Now with his flap over Art History and the resulting criticism on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 the President nominated Jane Chu the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, MO who relatively unknown nationally.

Over fifty years ago, moving away from technical trades to the humanities and liberal arts was a status symbol of the middle class, an aim at sucess. Oct. 26, 1963, could represent that pinnacle when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Amherst College in Robert Frost's memory about the importance of the arts at the liberal arts college's fall convocation, where he was bestowed with an honorary doctorate of laws and attended the Robert Frost Library's ground breaking ceremony.

That memorial quote is displayed on the Kennedy Center; "I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge culture and opportunities for all our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well." It was Kennedy's idea and convictions about the arts that led President Lyndon B. Johnson 1965 to "sign the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, which resulted in the National Endowment for the Arts."

That era was the height of students taking humanities majors, as Michael Bérubé recounted in the July 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education article "The Humanities, Declining? Not According to the Numbers"; "1940s to early 1970s, English majors climbed from 17,000 to 64,000." The Chronicle explained that in 1966 at the height were humanities degrees were granted representing 17.4 percent of Bachelor's degrees, while the number plummeted in 2007 to 8 percent. However, the main plunge in students interested in the humanities occurred in the 1970s until the early 1980s not recently, where for the most part the numbers rose a little in the 1990s and remain leveled off. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences notes the number is now 8 percent.

In October 2013 the New York Times published Tamar Lewin's "As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry" an article about the concern for humanities education in universities. Lewin wrote; "The future of the humanities has been a hot topic this year, both in academia and the high-culture media. Some commentators sounded the alarm based on federal data showing that nationally, the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent - half the 14 percent share in 1970. As others quickly pointed out, that decline occurred between 1970, the high point, and 1985, not in recent years."

Since the start of the recession most students look to university as a means of obtaining a job according to UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute 88 percent of freshmen in 2013 listed "getting a better job" as "the top reason they enrolled in college." Two-thirds said it was to earn money. The New York Times noted in October 2013; "With the high process of college tuition, student and their parents are looking at return on investment. Meanwhile, since the recession - probably because of the recession - there has been a profound shift toward viewing college education as a vocational training ground." Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies quoted by the New York Times pointed out that "College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person."

To counter the negative image that the humanities are useless majors in 2012 and 2013 academic associations Council of Independent Colleges and the Association of American Colleges and Universities launched campaigns to promote liberal arts education as good for "broad knowledge and transferable skills." While even Ivy League and elite universities including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford are creating or modifying programs to attract high school students and increase first-year enrollment in their humanities programs.

Michael Bérubé in the Chronicle of Higher Education concluded that even with the economic uncertainty humanities degree numbers are holding up; "Despite skyrocketing tuition rates and the rise of the predatory student-loan industry, despite all the ritual handwringing by disgruntled professors and the occasional op-ed hit man, despite three decades' worth of rhetoric about how either (a) fields like art history and literature are elite, niche-market affairs that will render students unemployable; or (b) students are abandoning the humanities because they are callow, market-driven careerists ... despite all of that, undergraduate enrollments in the humanities have held steady since 1980 (in relation to all degree holders, and in relation to the larger age cohort), and undergraduate enrollments in the arts and humanities combined are almost precisely where they were in 1970."

A U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey "How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment" released this January 2014 determined that humanities and social-science majors earned lower starting salaries than professional fields, and their salaries remain the low throughout their lifetime if they did not obtain further education. The survey determined that those with an undergraduate degree in the humanities and social science combined with a graduate or professional degree actually earned $2000 more than those with only the professional undergraduate degree, showing in the long run humanities degrees paid off more.

According to Jon Marcus's Time magazine article "Who Needs Philosophy? Colleges Defend the Humanities Despite High Costs, Dim Job Prospects" published in March 2013 the unemployment statistics from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce in 2013 indicated that humanities graduates such as those with a history major were more unemployed than those with professional degrees such as engineering or business, with 10. 2 percent followed by 7.5 percent for engineering and 7.4 percent for business. While the National Association of Colleges and Employers determined that humanities majors are also earning less coming straight out of their degree.

Association of American Colleges and Universities President Carol Geary Schneider responded to the U.S. Census Bureau's survey and "the 'growing myth' that liberal-arts majors leave students 'unemployed and unemployable.'" She explained that primarily humanities and social science degrees are "a foundation for future learning in the professions and in scholarly work." According to the survey 40 percent of humanities graduates end up continuing their education.

Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce expressed as paraphrased by the Chronicle of Higher Education; "The report makes a solid argument against those who say liberal-arts degrees have no value in the marketplace. At the same time, it sends a message to liberal-arts majors he would put more bluntly: 'Go to graduate school.'"

Supporting these claims was Ronald Wolff writing in the News Herald, in his December 2012 article "Too many students pursue worthless degrees" cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stating that 53 percent of recent university graduate students are either unemployed or underemployed, working as waiters and waitresses, bartenders or janitors. While Christian La Du's article in the Elite Daily "Depressing Degree: This Is One Of The Worst Times In American History To Be A Recent College Grad" cited the New York Federal Reserve Bank January 2014 report, using data from 2011, 12 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed with 23,000 on average of student loan debt and 3000 credit card debt. This is far different than 10 or 20 years ago were the unemployment rate was only 4 percent. In addition there 55 percent are now underemployed compared to only 40 percent in 2000.

According to Postrel's Bloomberg Janary 2012 article the National Center for Education Statistics indicated that nearly half of university graduates studied professional majors, business at 25 percent, and STEM; science, technology, engineering and math at 16 percent and the remainder studied economics. In comparison, only 12 percent graduate in the humanities, and a minute 0.2 percent are art history majors. Postrel concluded; "Contrary to what critics imagine, most Americans in fact go to college for what they believe to be 'skill-based education.'"

Although President Obama's opinion is wrong for the long run and definitely inappropriate to advocate there is a movement in government, from both Democratic and Republican Governors to focus on professional and technical majors and programs. As Wolff concluded; "Not all students need to go to college in order to be successful. Tech schools and trade schools often offer excellent alternatives, and their graduates often land jobs paying more than the low-paying college careers listed above. Employers are constantly searching for skilled workers with the training and initiative to join their businesses. Many graduates from these institutions have gone on to be business owners themselves."

It is that philosophy that is prompting Florida Governor Rick Scott, North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory to consider dropping humanities and social science or "non-strategic" majors from public universities to focus primarily on "strategic" majors. The governors do not believe taxpayers should be paying for those majors, and that they should only be available in private colleges. As Gov McCrory declared; "If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school and take it." Some universities including Edinboro University of Pennsylvania are already closing down humanities majors and departments with small enrollments.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been advocating a technical college education, but not necessarily criticizing humanities education. Technical colleges however, have been trying to depict four-year colleges as elitist luxuries in their attempt to woo students in the process also mocking art history as President Obama did. The President of Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College Tom Snyder expressed; "We should all be blessed enough to pursue life's passion, but not everybody is."

Postrel's opinion counters President Obama's narrow view that in an economy "If everyone suddenly flooded into "practical" fields, we'd be overwhelmed with mediocre accountants and incompetent engineers, making lower and lower salaries as they swamped the demand for these services. Something like that seems to have already happened with lawyers… In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning - the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology."

Writing two years before President Obama's speech Postrel conclusions could have served as a response. Postrel wrote; "The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or "green" industries. It's just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future."

However many university Presidents agree that liberal arts graduates have skills that in the long run the economy needs; critical thinking, creativity and good communication skills. John Dorrer, the program director at Jobs for the Future expressed; "We need to look at the durable skill sets people need and not be at the whim of every short-term work place need."

President Obama's narrow view ignores economic principles and changes in the future. The employment situation is specific to the economy of the times it does not mean it will always remain the same. Technical job training is a good-band aid to help workers gain employment now, but by no means should be a replacement for a university education. And if there were no humanities, social science and art history majors in the future there would be void a loss in the future of that knowledge. For Obama who early on in his presidency wanted to be the 21st century's answer to Kennedy, instead of aspiring for America's best potential, he is urging the country to settle, that is not opportunity that's mediocrity.


Bonnie K. Goodman is one the 0.2 percent who graduated with an art history degree with an emphasis in Gothic and Early Renaissance art and architecture, and also has a DES in Communications from Vanier College where she focused on the fine arts. She believes art history is one of the most centralizing disciplines intersecting anthropology, history, religion, and politics. Art is the common language of the world and its history from 30,000 BCE to today.

She is also the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are politics, history, religion, education and art and architectural history.

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