President Obama’s recent crack about the study of art history as ineffective career training was challenged by an art historian, to whom he later apologized. If jokes, however, depend on stereotypes to be funny, they also reinforce them–in this case, that art history, and more broadly, the humanities, are frivolous pursuits with little worth for professional life. We understand what the president meant and studying a trade is fine. But his quip nonetheless piggybacks on an insidious “classist” mentality in its reinforcement of the social and economic divides that the American education system was designed precisely to overcome. The choice shouldn’t be either/or, but both, and for economic reasons.
Without wanting to reduce the study of art history to its market value, Adam Gopnick rightly mentions that many companies in the modern economy owe their success to design and esthetics (Steve Jobs claimed that Apple’s success derives from being “at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts”); Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind convincingly argues the same point (yesterday’s “soft” skills are today’s “hard” skills); and, if many engineering schools around the country encourage or require students to study the arts it’s because they know that success depends on innovation, and innovation depends on attention to design and on the human interface.
previous post on the value of art history: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2012-01-06/postrel-how-art-history-majors-power-the-u-s-