POLITICS
01/31/2014 03:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2014

Let's Hope Obama's Swipe At Art History Backfires

JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images

It's President Obama versus the gentlest foes you can imagine. Speaking to an audience in Wisconsin on his post-State of the Union tour, the president compared "skilled manufacturing" to art history, in terms of the better choice of study. Guess which field wins?

“I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree."

He continued, according to Politico: "Nothing wrong with art history degree…I love art history. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody."

Sounds like a challenge!

So far the angriest "email" sent is from the Washington Post, which published an article yesterday evening blasting the president's record on supporting "high culture."

"Like so many politicians, [Obama] seems reflexively afraid of being associated with anything that might be seen as elitist," reads the article, noting that the position of Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts has gone unfilled under the current administration for more than a year.

The WaPo article hails a contrasting example: John F. Kennedy, who famously addressed the 1963 class at Amherst College with a speech foretelling a day when we reward "achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft."

That day clearly hasn't come. In a wide-ranging study published last year, Georgetown University researchers found that art history majors out-earn all other liberal arts degrees, save U.S. history. Of course, the race isn't exactly high-stakes: the median annual incomes for all liberal arts degrees range from $48,000 to a not-at-all-whopping $57,000 (the study places art historians at $50,000). Compare that to the median annual income of the major the study found to be highest earning -- petroleum engineering -- at $120,000.

It's easy to see why a lover of Italian Renaissance sculpture might feel discouraged:

Journalist David Frum (knower of at least one art historian) has a different take:

What this intriguing card-playing methodology is, Frum doesn't say. (He may want to tweet it to @RachSyme up above though).

Of course, time and again we've learned that judging the value of a scholarly field on earning potential is a flawed exercise. Remember Sarah Palin's dig at fruit fly research -- the findings from which, it so happens, have resulted in huge strides in the study of autism and birth defects, two causes dear to Palin's heart?

That time, the joke backfired, launching a crash course for the public on the value of drosophila science. And here again, art history majors may end up thanking Obama. Since when has the fitness of their salaries been a topic of political discussion? Possibly not since JFK addressed Amherst.

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