When President Barack Obama told employees at a manufacturing plant last month that "folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree," he immediately countered by adding, "Nothing wrong with art history degree. I love art history. I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody."
But the emails came anyway, including one from Ann Johns, senior lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History, who saw an opportunity to clarify some misconceptions about her field.
"I wanted to dispel any notion that art history is frivolous, and I wanted to dispel the notion that we are elitists," Johns says.
She doesn't have a copy of the email because she submitted it via a form on the White House website, but says her message "was not so much one of outrage at Obama's statement, but rather a 'look what we do well' statement. I emphasized that as art historians, we challenge our students to think, read and write critically. I also stressed how inclusive our discipline is these days," she says.
As has been widely reported in recent days (New York Times, ABC News, Chronicle of Higher Education), Johns received the surprise of a lifetime when the White House delivered a handwritten apology letter from President Obama himself. The note read:
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.
Of the very unexpected response, Johns says "I think this is a powerful example of telling truth to power for our students, and it should also be a lesson about not becoming complacent or apathetic."
The Truth about Art History
I emphasized that as art historians, we challenge our students to think, read and write critically." Ann Johns
Indeed, the entire department, including students, has been electrified about the discussion surrounding art history since Obama's remarks were first reported. Students in associate chair Julia Guernsey's undergraduate capstone class crafted a statement explaining the value of majoring in art history and inviting the president and Mrs. Obama to the Undergraduate Art History Research Symposium in April.
"We feel strongly that our education as art historians prepares us to do a variety of things, many of which are vital to the educational well-being of our country, and some of which are also politically, socially, and economically-charged," the statement reads. "We develop strong writing skills, learn to do in-depth research, read multiple languages, work collaboratively, engage and support creativity at all socio-economic levels, and promote diversity within the arts, archaeology, and the museum world."
The statement goes on to list the post-graduation plans of some current art history students, including attending medical school, joining Teach for America, working with undocumented Texas artists, attending graduate school at Sotheby's art and business program, and entering Harvard Law School, the president's alma mater.
"It's not just about 'looking at pretty pictures,'" says Johns. "We ask hard questions of our students about the images and artifacts we show them. How can one painting or one small object conjure up a bygone culture or an entire political system? And these observational and interpretive skills can then be used by our students across the disciplines."
For Johns and Guernsey, the publicity has been exciting, but it takes a back seat to the teachable moment it has provided for students, who are rallying together to support their chosen discipline.
"I have never been more proud to be an art history student than I am in this very moment," says senior Tracey Borders, vice president of the Undergraduate Art History Association. "The buzz that has been created from Dr. Johns' email is just incredible to watch and be a part of."