02/05/2014 11:19 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

President Obama's Thoughtless Comment

I'm a supporter of President Obama and generally defend him against his critics. However, there are times when the President deserves some criticism and here is one of them. Last week, President Obama gave a speech in Waukesha, Wisconsin (previously discussed at The Huffington Post by Mallika Rao) where he talked about the importance of building up America's industrial base and encouraged young people to go into the skilled trades. Nothing wrong with that. But then he went on to make this comment:

Well, the problem is that what happened -- a lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. 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. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree -- I love art history. So I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. 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.

While that last sentence is correct, the lead-up left something to be desired. By using art history majors as a punchline, the President played up to the sort of anti-intellectual biases that serious people should shun when discussing higher education. We live in a time in which the study of the humanities is under attack and it is common to hear people claim that high unemployment among recent college graduates is the result of them taking so-called impractical majors when that simply is not true. Most college students take degrees in business, STEM or other "practical" degree programs and the unemployment rate for humanities majors isn't that much higher than that for other degree programs. For that matter, those unemployment problems affect STEM majors too, as pointed out by Fredrik deBoer in a must-read piece at Medium. The problem of high unemployment for recent college graduates has to do with systemic problems in our economy, not because they took literature classes in college instead of accounting or organic chemistry classes.

Further, in the case of art history in particular, Virginia Postrel (who wrote a key article on this topic a couple of years ago) said the following at Bloomberg View:

It was the cheapest of cheap shots because, as I noted in a column two years ago, almost no one majors in art history. Art history majors account for less than 0.2 percent of working adults with college degrees. It was also a cheap shot because art history isn't a major naive kids fall into because they've heard a college degree -- any college degree -- will get you a good job... 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.

So in addition to implying that art history majors and similar degree programs are a path to penury and long-term unemployment, the President said something that may have been mildly sexist and played up to certain unattractive cultural resentments. Not one of his better moments.

There is nothing wrong with encouraging young people to enter into the trades. All work has value and the diminishment of labor (and perhaps not coincidentally, the corresponding decline of organized labor) is something that must be resisted and the President should be commended for saying that young people should see the trades and skilled manufacturing as viable career paths. But one doesn't raise the status of blue-collar labor by feeding anti-intellectualism. As I've written before, don't blame liberal arts majors for high unemployment. Even, or perhaps especially, if you're the President of the United States.