Last week, President Obama apologized for his flippant remark about the value of an art history degree, but he was hardly the first person to question the merits of that particular college major.
The stereotype of the art history major -- affluent, self-centered, exempt from the pressure of eventually finding a job -- has helped make art history the “favorite punching bag” among liberal arts majors, as Bloomberg’s Virginia Postrel put it.
But of course, this doesn’t do justice to the richness and rigor of studying art history. “It’s an intellectually demanding major, requiring the memorization and mastery of a large body of visual material, a facility of foreign languages, and the ability to write clearly and persuasively,” Postrel wrote. And while art history’s skills may not feed directly into a predetermined career path, plenty of very successful people have applied those skills to a range of careers.
Here are seven incredibly successful people who started out with an art history education.
New York Times journalist Jake Hooker’s career began at Dartmouth College where he studied art history. Following graduation he ventured to China as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach middle school English. His writing in subsequent years earned him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting piece, “A Toxic Pipeline,” which exposed severe health problems revolving around the Chinese pharmaceutical industry.
Before pursuing a career in financial journalism, Dagen McDowell spent her undergraduate years studying art history at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She’s now an anchor on the Fox Business Network and a business correspondent for Fox News.
Upon completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at Columbia University in 2007, Meghan McCain took to the presidential campaign trail alongside her father, Senator John McCain. While on the road, she channeled her love of fashion and music into her blog, McCain Blogette, establishing her writing career. She has since authored three books and joined The Daily Beast and MSNBC as a contributing author.
Jessica Kagan Cushman
Raised by a famous furniture designer and needlework queen, Jessica Kagan Cushman channeled her natural creativity into her art history studies at Smith College. She took her education a step further after graduating and studied jewelry making at the Jewelry Arts Institute in New York and Silvermine Guild in Connecticut before breaking into the design business. She attributes her scrimshaw skills to her father, which can be seen in her antique, ivory bracelet creations.
The financial journalist Michael Lewis pursued his passion for art history at Princeton University before earning his master’s degree in economics from the London School of Economics. He left his subsequent job as a junior bond salesman for Salomon Brothers to write his first book Liar’s Poker and become a financial journalist. He had no problem in telling students in his 2012 Princeton commencement speech that his art history major helped him throughout the course of his life.
James B. Lee
James B. Lee didn’t choose between practicality and creativity when it came to his college education—instead, he snagged the best of both worlds. Double majoring in economics and art history at Williams College, Lee graduated in 1975 with an investment banking job in the bag. Now after almost 40 years in the industry, he serves as vice chairman for JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Abigail Folger of the famous coffee family earned an art history degree from Harvard and went on to become involved in politics and the civil rights movement. Known as a talented painter and piano player, Folger worked on a variety of community projects in Los Angeles and New York City before her tragic murder by members of the Charles Manson “family” in 1969.