Liberal Arts for the Masses!

The president of the United States, himself a beneficiary of a broad liberal arts curriculum at Occidental College, then Columbia University, recently made a flip remark about art history majors in relation to a college education. He was speaking at a manufacturing plant in Waukesha, WI, extolling the virtues of hard labor:

And while some young people might not think of the skilled trades as a lucrative career, Obama added, they can probably earn more “than they might than [with] an art history degree.” The president quickly re-calibrated his remarks, noting that he would get a slew of e-mails from art history majors if he didn’t. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with history,” he offered. “I love art history.” (Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post article)

The assumption here is that skilled trades and manufacturing are not only lucrative but valuable and rewarding, things for “real” people to do, while art history is just something for people who can afford it to enjoy. It’s a nice luxury and that’s about it; something, perhaps, for the 1% to concern themselves with, since they will own a great deal of it.

Of course, “art history” is a metonym, standing for the “soft” courses of the liberal arts. (Forty years ago the standard image was of philosophy majors driving taxis.) The overall attitude toward subjects that aren’t “hard” prevails: they are fluff and filigree, not things that anyone really needs, at least not anyone who wants to work. Philosophy, history, sociology, economics, political science, and, yes, art history are seen as impediments to work or, if one is a major in one of these areas (which by the way includes math and sciences if you want to get technical about “liberal arts”), a dead end as far as any productive career goes.

But people who think that way are both misguided and wrong. Worse, this position tacitly assumes that some people can afford to think and others can’t (or shouldn’t bother). College as a training ground is for those destined to become workers, while college as a place to encounter new, challenging, and perhaps even dangerous ideas is for those who are destined to become or who already are at the top of the heap.  What’s the point of a working class kid learning philosophy when she’s going to need to be a cog in the machine? It won’t help her with data entry or “coding,” or whatever rote, mechanistic functions she might have to take on, and in fact it might make her wonder why the hell she’s shunted to a job with a barely-there salary, making her a problem for her employers. Complacency and desperation are needed to keep workers working, not self-knowledge and historical perspective. (It’s impossible not to think of Fritz Lang’s great 1927 film, “Metropolis” here, with workers laboring underground and elites frolicking in the sunlight above. Probably the finest and most graphic images of the disparities of class ever made.)

Saying that attending college is just for job training is saying that what we really need are educated drones too busy working to make much of a fuss about the status quo. Those aware of history, philosophy, economics, literary criticism, and yes, the sciences and math, can be troublesome. Better to keep the masses intent on simply making a living.

It also assumes, wrongly, that a college major equals one’s eventual job or career. So to snicker at an art history major is to assume that that person will have to be an art historian, a curator, an auctioneer at Sotheby’s, or some other related occupation that, not incidentally, is identified with “elites,” not the rest of us. Art history isn’t seen as “relevant” to the world of work, and “work” is assumed to mean work that doesn’t require in-depth thought, which art history can encourage.

A major, as I constantly remind my first-generation college and low income students and families, is simply the backbone of a college experience, the thing that organizes your progress through college. Around it are the other courses that make up the muscle and sinew, if you’ll forgive the metaphor extension. So, an art history major can actually be a pre-medical student; a biology major can want to go into art history, and so on and on. If we assume a college student takes 32 courses over four years, a major usually takes up only a quarter or a third of them, with room left over to explore, discover, or complement the major. It leaves room for the unexpected, the startling, the course or idea that knocks you on your head and opens up new vistas. Presenting college as just another four-year trudge to a job makes the whole enterprise both dreary and meaningless. It demonstrates that we really have converted college into what high school was 50 years ago.

A college education, and education generally, is not simply about training people for jobs, but enabling them to think more broadly about life, society, culture, etc. and perhaps find ways to act upon what they discover. (Yes, to be employable, but not ONLY that.) As a result, it is even more important for those without prior exposure to it to be exposed to the liberal arts. To assume otherwise is truly to think of “education” as something only for “elites,” with “training” good enough for everyone else. We have already gone far down that path; maybe it’s time to stop and, well, think. Truly to progress as a society, we really do need more art history majors.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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One Response to Liberal Arts for the Masses!

  1. Nola Lynch says:

    Thank you for another thoughtful and well-written post. The attitudes of the “practical” crowd also dovetail neatly with the American tradition of anti-intellectualism. Those of us who believe in the intrinsic value of education too often find ourselves on the defensive.

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