If Life Gives You Straw, Build Straw Men

Obama vs. Art History

I saw this in a tweet, with the tag line “Obama becomes latest politician to criticize a liberal arts discipline”

I am sympathetic with with those on the side of the colleges and universities when they are defensive about criticism that they are not preparing students for the workforce — that’s not their primary function, and I am very aware of the irony that many who are complaining also have a phobia about socialism — and yet they want someone else to shoulder the expense of training their potential employees, and don’t want to pay taxes to make this happen.

But I think this article fails to counter what the president said (especially in context of the speech) and also that the author doth protest too much.

There are all sorts of ironies about the president selecting art history as a discipline to question. He is a graduate of Columbia University, whose undergraduate college is rare in American higher education (outside of art schools) in requiring study of art history.

There are none that I can see, because criticizing the possession of an art history degree (regardless of the validity of the criticism) is not the same thing as criticizing taking an art history class. Recognition and avoidance of straw man arguments is one of the things one would hope people learn with a liberal arts education. The President didn’t say people shouldn’t take art history classes. He didn’t even say you shouldn’t major in art history.

Really this is no different from those of us who think that people in general should take a few more science classes so that they are scientifically literate, only to have it countered with the argument that no, this shouldn’t happen, because we don’t need more scientists in the workforce. Again, it’s the difference between taking a class or two and thus being exposed to a subject, and majoring in that subject. They aren’t the same thing.

The article then goes on to try and rebut the notion that these degree recipients have a tough time finding jobs, but don’t use art history majors but arts majors in general (so the author is moving the goal posts). One link points out that arts majors have an unemployment rate of 8%

A large majority of respondents (92 percent) who want to work say they are currently working.

which is right around the overall unemployment rate, or perhaps slightly better, since there would be a lag between the poll and the article, but ignores the fact that a college degree generally shaves a percentage point or two off of the unemployment rate. So arts majors (not art history majors) are doing slightly worse than other college graduates.

The next provided link implies there are successes in liberal arts degrees, going even further away from the President’s comments, but if you read the paragraph carefully, you’ll notice that the author makes no actual claim that a degree in the liberal arts leads to a high salary. If one clicks through, one finds out why that is so.

Among graduates with a baccalaureate degree only, those with humanities and social sciences degrees consistently earn less than anyone else, peaking at about $58,000 a year.

Of course, that brings to mind a separate argument, that career success is only measured by one’s salary, and I don’t agree with that, either, and just in case anyone takes exception, I think you should do what you love, or at least like. As long as you can make a living doing that, who cares what anyone else thinks? I also think liberal arts education is important, because a broad base of understanding and critical thinking skills are valuable things.

But that’s not the subject of the article. An article which never actually knocks down any of the straw men that it built.