Now Getting a Bum Rap from the White House: Art History Majors

As Virginia Postrel points out, slamming art history majors is the kind of thing people do once they decide that they don’t want to let the facts get in the way when talking about higher education. Too bad that one of the people who engage in that kind of cheap shot rhetoric is the president of the United States. Postrel says the following regarding the president’s recent comments on art history majors (yes, I too am gobsmacked by the fact that running down a certain small group of students has become a priority for this White House):

It was the cheapest of cheap shots because, as I noted in a column two years ago, almost no one majors in art history. Art history majors account for less than 0.2 percent of working adults with college degrees.

It was also a cheap shot because art history isn’t a major naive kids fall into because they’ve heard a college degree — any college degree — will get you a good job. It’s an intellectually demanding major, requiring the memorization and mastery of a large body of visual material, a facility for foreign languages, and the ability to write clearly and persuasively. And it’s famously elitist.

In fact, the reason pundits instinctively pick on art history is that it is seems effete. It’s stereotypically a field for prep school graduates, especially women, with plenty of family wealth to fall back on. In fact, a New York Times analysis of Census data shows that art history majors are wildly overrepresented among those in the top 1 percent of incomes. Perhaps the causality runs from art history to high incomes, but I doubt it.

If the president had been serious about his message, he would have compared learning a skilled trade to majors that are actually popular, such as communications and psychology. It would have been much braver and more serious to take on the less-rigorous majors that attract lots of students. But it wouldn’t have gotten a laugh.

What’s next? Yukking it up about basket weavers?