Is there opportunity in art history?

By Felix Salmon
February 18, 2014
made a mild dig at art history graduates like myself.

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Last month, at an appearance in Wisconsin, Barack Obama made a mild dig at art history graduates like myself. “A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career,” he said, “but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

It took Obama roughly 1.5 seconds to backtrack — or at least to emphasize that he loves art history. “I’m just saying,” he clarified, that “you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and training that you need.”

This is a really important point. We’re living in a world where the cost of college education is rising much faster than inflation, and saddling graduates with enormous debts which can’t even be discharged in bankruptcy. The result is that an art history degree has never been more expensive — and that you’ll be better off, in terms of total lifetime earnings, getting a vocational qualification in the trades than spending four years and a six-figure sum learning about the influence of Piero della Francesca on Jacques-Louis David.

Which is not to say that getting an art history degree is a bad idea. Virginia Postrel is the queen of this beat, and points out that even though art history graduates account for only 0.2% of adults with college degrees, a very impressive 5.9% of them are in the top 1% of incomes. In other words, someone with an art history degree is more likely to be in the top 1% than someone with a finance degree.

As Postrel says, the causation here is probably backwards, from family wealth to the decision to get a degree in art history — but still, an art history degree is nothing to sneeze at, which is possibly why Obama has apologized more formally for his remarks, in a (lovely) handwritten letter to an art history professor at UT.

I’m very sympathetic to the art historians here, and not only because that’s what I studied. The subject is almost ideal for teaching the kind of abstract-thinking skills that the next generation of graduates are going to need, in a world where a lot of number-crunching jobs are becoming rapidly automated. Studying art history means moving back and forth between words and ideas and images all the time, putting them together in novel ways while building on the work of countless smart people who came before you. I can hardly imagine a better qualification for much of the high-level knowledge work and ideation which will power the 21st Century economy.

But at the same time, the qualification is an expensive one, and (as I can tell you from my own experience, circa 1995) it’s not exactly easy to get a job as a fresh-faced graduate armed with nothing but an art history degree. The gamble is big, especially if you’re going into debt to get the degree, and frankly it’s not worth it. I wouldn’t have done it, if I had to borrow tens of thousands of dollars in order to get that degree. It’s much more sensible to pursue a vocational qualification which takes less time, costs less money, and gives you a much higher chance of getting a good job once you’ve earned it.

One of the big tasks facing the US economy is the challenge of reducing the cost of not getting a four-year degree. Not everybody can go to college, or should. The very small number of people who study art history are an elite minority; they’ll largely be fine no matter what. It’s the people who don’t go to a four-year college who need economic opportunities. And so it’s excellent news, as Obama says, that those opportunities exist. And that, on an economic level, they’re significantly more attractive than an art history degree.


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I only got a minor in art history and BA in cultural anthropology. where will that leave me? I did write this. You be the judge… -231-16244-9/the-nature-of-value

Posted by NickGogerty | Report as abusive

Well, I was an art history major back in 65-68, and had to back out because I couldn’t produce that required level of pure bullshit. I stepped down a rung and became a Comparative Literature major, and just managed to hang on long enough to get a useless undergraduate degree. And later had to go back to school and learn calculus and chemistry starting over at the freshman level.

It’s not that Art History or thinking about paintings is so bad, but that there’s almost nothing honest to say about it in an academic environment. That you and others survived may mean only that you were OK at bullshit, and later found better and probably more socially-useful ways to use that talent.

On the other hand, reading this almost makes me want to learn about the influence of Piero della Francesca on Jacques-Louis David. Throw in the influence of Fragonard and you might develop insights on generational levels of guiltless fraudulence such as could shed light on the recent implosion of international finance.

Posted by Flounders | Report as abusive ings-by-Major-and/127604/

The median earnings of an art history major is around $50k, better than most of the humanities. The STEM fields (and business) are mostly well above this, and are less likely to depend on family wealth and social connections for profitable employment.

There are a few exceptional people who will be successful no matter what their major, but the majority need to take into consideration the career prospects of the path they choose to pursue.

I laughed at Felix’s suggestion that “abstract-thinking skills” are somehow more valuable in the new economy than problem-solving skills that are core to STEM. The “number-crunching” he disdains is akin to the skill of painting in the Impressionist style. Undeniably important in some pursuits, but not at the core of the academic study.

Moreover, I think most would agree that people who can see the whole picture and spot potential solutions to a difficulty are rarer than those who generate grand but impractical ideas.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

But then again, outsourcing or increased skilled immigration can render your problem solving skills less valuable, but making close personal connections with the 1% during an art history degree – the value of *that* only increases with time.

(Yes, tongue is firmly in cheek…)

Posted by TomWest | Report as abusive

Umm no. I have known two Art History majors, one was a daughter of a rich person and the other married a rich person. Neither of them had much if any luck pursuing a career in art history. I think one worked in fundraising for a museum for 10 years, yeah that sounds fun.

In addition I don’t think “art history” is at all a good place to learn “abstract thinking skills”. Mainly it is a good place to memorize facts and theories about art history. If you want abstract thinking skills try Philosophy/Logic/Number Theory.

Meanwhile “problem-solving” will get you by anywhere. Frankly if you can do a career that is math intensive and you don’t you are making a huge mistake financially.

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

TFF: Just to apply what TomWest wrote: Not only are we “in a world where a lot of number-crunching jobs are becoming rapidly automated”, but those types of jobs that aren’t being automated are being outsourced to Bangalore, rapidly. I know that from personal experience.

I totally agree that there are always going to be people who will excel (pun intended) regardless of what they studied in college. For example, Michael Lewis, the author of the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” and the book that the movie “The Blind Side” was based on has an art history degree. He’s also very wealthy.

Posted by Strych09 | Report as abusive

In my experience, what you study at degree level doesn’t matter at all, besides what will get your foot in the door to work somewhere.

The current situation is that you go to University and get a degree, to bypass the job application barriers for any job that carries decent future prospects (look at almost any non trades entry level job, and you’ll find they all demand a “2:1 degree, any discipline”).
Then, in that entry level job you will be making spreadsheets and photocopying bits of paper, until you’ve absorbed enough of the company’s operations to be more useful, at which point you can quickly rocket up the ranks. What you studied at university is actually of very little use, and the parts that are would be better served by taking specific, short, targeted courses as part of your job, instead of studying for a 4 year degree in the past and using maybe 5% of it.

Where your degree does matter, is in getting hired in the first place. While an employer might specify “any discipline”, in reality, of the 500 applicants for that one job, the ones with the degree in that subject have a realistic prospect of getting the job. Doesn’t matter that they’ll be doing spreadsheets and typing, and will have to relearn all that degree material when they actually get to a point of being able to use it.

You don’t do a degree to learn useful skills you can apply at work, you do it to get your first entry level job, and here art history does not serve you very well.

You could of course just go study a trade as Obama suggests, but in my experience they tend to pay poorly, have poor work conditions and generally poor prospects for the majority.

Posted by K.MacKenzie | Report as abusive

@Strych09, I recall a symposium on entrepreneurialism that we took our students to a couple years ago… The speakers were involved in a variety of businesses, none obviously technical. One was a “turnaround” departmental manager at the Federal Reserve Bank. One was in politics. Yet they kept on bringing up a key point… Entrepreneurialism is about identifying problems and finding solutions. That is the fundamental value-added skill.

Do you get more opportunity to practice that in a STEM major or in art history? I could accept an argument that it doesn’t really make a difference (though certain majors are famous for their content-free BS), but the speakers (whatever their personal background) affirmed the importance of the STEM aspects of their training.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

I think that a lot of the problem is that people are treating a Bachelor’s degree in the Arts & Humanities like a technical degree. Studying Art History/Art/Creative Writing/Whatever does not mean that it’s the only thing that you can apply those skills towards. The auxiliary skills are what will get you a job.

Art History isn’t a degree for lazy people (I am an art professor, so I see this firsthand.). I’ve found that Art History majors tend to be the most organized, curious, and dedicated students in the classroom. It requires a lot of reading, writing, memorization, and analyzation. Many art students are scared to take art history courses because of how difficult it is to memorize 16+ things about 150+ works of art, to then only be tested on 10 of them.

Education is not just about learning a specific technical skill set, but also is learning how to THINK. Learning how to think critically and solve problems creatively is an invaluable skill that can be used in many occupations that are not directly related to degree field. Arts and Humanities majors are hungry for constructive feedback. They aren’t just interested in being told that they got the “right answer,” but instead they want to know how to improve their work.

There are more options than you think, and just because they aren’t directly arts related doesn’t mean that their degree has somehow failed them. (if this is the case, college has failed most people)

It’s a very disciplined degree, and an art historian could easily tackle law school. …Or a spreadsheet. Whatever they want.

Posted by biffy | Report as abusive