Is there opportunity in art history?

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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