During a speech last week at a Wisconsin General Electric plant, President Obama reiterated his support for the manufacturing industry, encouraging young people to pursue a technical education – while simultaneously slighting humanities disciplines.
“I promise you,” he said, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”
Obama added: “Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of e-mails 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.”
This remark has raised eyebrows among art history majors – and across the field of humanities, with both Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among a number of other outlets, covering the story.
We checked in with André Carrington, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of English & Philosophy in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, for his take on the debate.
Carrington’s research focuses on the cultural politics of race, gender and genre in 20th century American literature and the arts. He has devoted particular attention to considerations of cultural production and identity, especially those articulated in feminist criticism, critical race theory and performance studies.
“It’s a rare occasion that we hear our sector—the Humanities—mentioned in a discussion of the economy,” Carrington said. “So any specific example, such as art history, is likely to be more rooted in long-standing myth than current trends.
“Policy discussions are generally out of touch with the day to day realities of work in the academic profession in a way that isn’t the case for finance, manufacturing or law, for example.”
Carrington continued: “When it comes to getting a degree in art history or African American literature as opposed to an economics or business –which can seem more practical – it’s important to recognize that entering into any career built on the foundation of a four-year college education is one that will likely lead to greater earning potential.
“But we also tend not to think of the kind of work you do with a bachelor’s degree in art history (or like mine, in African American Studies) or a job you do with a PhD, as ‘work,’ even though in some important ways, this job is the same as other jobs in this economy. It is the source of a small paycheck for most people and a big one for very few, it’s the way to secure retirement, hopefully, it’s what pays for a great deal of your healthcare in our existing system and it determines the choices you have based on your employer and your union if you have one, and through income, it’s the way to sustain relationships and build a life, to care for others who are important to you, the way to pay off your debt.
“For those of us who do the work of art history or African American literature or French, our jobs mean all of these things, just like they do for people who work in manufacturing or in marketing.”
For more commentary from Carrington, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/prof_carrington.
Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Carrington should contact Alex McKechnie at 215-895-2705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.