THE BLOG
03/04/2014 05:06 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2014

Art Historians Get STEAMed

President Obama recently set off a hubbub in the humanities when he visited the GE Energy Waukesha Gas Engines Facility in Wisconsin, touting his ideas for accelerating economic growth, while at the same time taking a modest poke at art historians.

As a former academic administrator who has witnessed the passion of art historians done wrong, the ensuing discussion caught my attention.

This is what the president said, according to a White House transcript of the event:

I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree -- I love art history. (Laughter.) So I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. (Laughter.) I'm just saying 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 the training that you need.

Despite his directions, art historians sent the president "a bunch of emails." Stunning the author of one such email, the president sent her a handwritten apology explaining, "I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed."

As a theatre historian, and as the CEO of a nonprofit that serves millions of students across the country and around the world, I can identify with both perspectives.

I recently wrote for The Huffington Post about how STEM jobs are growing, and about how STEM graduates can expect relatively low unemployment and high wages. That said, I've done OK for myself as a former theatre student. One of the lessons I learned from directing plays is how to assemble eclectic individuals into a unified ensemble focused on one goal -- a great production.

STEAM (science, technology, engineering, ARTs and mathematics) is a richer path than STEM -- and it was the right path for me.

This week at SXSWedu, ACT contributed to a panel titled "Data to the Rescue: The College Decision Conundrum" (#DataforEdu), examining issues including employment challenges, student debt, and the tools students can use to chart their education and career paths. Arriving at the right answers for you requires valid, reliable information.

But information must be complemented by insight. What brings personal and professional satisfaction to one student may not be true for every student in a field. In that spirit, ACT has a new community, ACT Profile, intended to provide students with insights that can help them decide what makes sense for them, and their unique personalities and circumstances.

The world certainly needs the "joy" the arts have brought to President Obama and to countless others, but it also needs engineers who can provide clean water to our communities and plumbers who can deliver that water safely and reliably to our homes -- and all of those skills, passions, and professions are equally worthy of our respect.

President Obama said he didn't want a "bunch of emails from everybody." Well, I'll gladly take your comments here. Let me know -- and the world know -- what you think.

Follow Jon Whitmore on LinkedIn.

Jon Whitmore is CEO of ACT, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is "Helping people achieve education and workplace success."