Obama disses art history

Speaking at a General Electric plant in Wisconsin, President Obama said skilled manufacturing or the trades pays as well as an art history degree.

It was “a cheap shot at the favorite punching bag of people who deride higher education in general and the liberal arts in particular, writes Virginia Postrel.

“Almost no one majors in art history,”  she points out. Those who do are tackling “an intellectually demanding” and “famously elitist” major.

In fact, the reason pundits instinctively pick on art history is that it is seems effete. It’s stereotypically a field for prep school graduates, especially women, with plenty of family wealth to fall back on. In fact, a New York Times analysis of Census data shows that art history majors are wildly overrepresented among those in the top 1 percent of incomes. Perhaps the causality runs from art history to high incomes, but I doubt it.

If the president had been serious about his message, he would have compared learning a skilled trade to majors that are actually popular, such as communications and psychology. It would have been much braver and more serious to take on the less-rigorous majors that attract lots of students. But it wouldn’t have gotten a laugh.

Obama is promoting “job-driven training,” which means training for jobs that exist. That does sound like a good idea.

Vice President Joe Biden will lead a review of the many federal job training programs. The Government Accountability Office reviewed federal job training programs in 2011, but perhaps more have been created since then.

College majors of the top 1%

The undergraduate majors that provide the best chance of reaching the top 1 percent in earnings are pre-med, economics, biochemistry, zoology and biology, according to the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey. That suggests many high earners are doctors. The high-earning econ majors probably started businesses.

Some 5.9 percent of art history majors end up in the top 1 percent, beating out chemistry and finance. Perhaps art history majors are more likely to start out wealthy.

Qualifying for a good job is a very important reason for going to college, according to 85.9 percent of U.S. freshmen in an annual UCLA survey.  That’s up sharply since the recession began, edging out “to learn more about things that interest me.”

Not everyone can be a plumber

Stop sneering at art history majors, writes Virginia Postrel on Bloomberg News. Pundits blame underemployed college graduates for picking impractical majors, she argues, citing Bill Frezza’s attack on the college entitlement mentality in Real Clear Politics.

“Many people that go to college lack the smarts and/or the tenacity to benefit in any real sense,” he wrote. “Many of these people would be much better off becoming plumbers — including financially. (No shame in that, who’re you gonna call when your pipes freeze in the middle of the night? An M.A. in Italian art?)”

Only 12 percent of college students major in the humanities, a tiny fraction in art history. The most popular major is business. Add in economics and STEM  (science, technology, engineering and math) and nearly half of graduates have practical majors.  “The rest, however, aren’t sitting around discussing Aristotle and Foucault.”  Many are studying health, education and graphic design, fields they think will lead to a “practical, job-oriented credential.”

Nobody knows which subjects will turn out to be “right” in the coming decades, writes Postrel, who earned an English major in the late ’70s. Her practical skills — excellent typing and journalism — are now obsolete, or nearly so.

The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.

Unfortunately, many college students don’t learn analysis or argumentation. They lack the broad knowledge that makes it possible to “figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems.”  Frezza is talking about people who lack “smarts” and tenacity and practical skills. There are a lot of those folks out there, even if few of them studied Italian art history.

The argument that public policy should herd students into STEM fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.

Pundits “can experiment on their children,” but the rest of the population is not “lab mice,” Postrel concludes.

One of my daughter’s friends majored in art history (on her parents’ dimes). She’s now supporting herself as a prop designer for independent movies. If she’d tried for a STEM major, she’d probably have flopped.