President Obama disappointed many art history professors in January when he seemed to question the value of their discipline. In a speech promoting his job training and manufacturing proposals, Obama said: "[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. 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."
In fact President Obama did receive a bunch of emails from frustrated art historians. And now he has apologized to one of them -- in a handwritten note that she has released.
Here's the response he sent to an email written by Ann C. Johns, Regents' Outstanding Teaching Professor and senior lecturer in art and art history at the University of Texas at Austin: "Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. 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. So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career."
In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Johns said she was impressed that the president took the time to send her a handwritten note (see copy below), and with the substance of his note.
"I thought it was an entirely appropriate response, even though I know that probably puts me at odds with others in academia," Johns said. "He was making a valid point about manufacturing jobs, and he really just made a mistake, AND, he 'fessed up to that mistake! I have great admiration for someone who can apologize! That said, I also felt that it was important for him to know that art history is no longer a haven for 'the girls with pearls.' We teach the essential skills of critical reading, writing, and thinking, and increasingly, we have a global and inclusive view of art. So I'm proud of what we do in our field,I'm proud of the skills our students learn, and I'm certainly proud to have voted for this president!"
Johns provided this scanned photograph of the letter.
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