Obama and art history: Should the humanities be mandatory?

Obama and art history: Should the humanities be mandatory?

Humanities faculty and students around the world have been hot under the collar in the wake of Obama’s recent comments suggesting that you don’t have to major in art history if you go to college. After a furor erupted among humanities scholars, Obama apologized in a hand-written note.

Scholars in the humanities tend to be sensitive about suggestions that their fields of study might be unnecessary, especially when those suggestions imply that humanities grads are unemployable. That’s understandable not just because of a universal aversion to being stereotyped—science scholars don’t like to be told they’re soulless any more than art history profs like to be told they’re useless—but because, in point of fact, the humanities have been in decline as a share of college and university activity for well over a century.

For our 2006 book Reconstructing the University, my colleague David John Frank and I looked at faculty composition at universities worldwide across the 20th century and confirmed what previous studies of student interests and research funding had shown: the humanities’ share of the university pie has been declining precipitously. Continued research, by others, demonstrates that this trend has continued in recent years—not just across the system, but within individual institutions. Undergrads at Harvard, for example, are less and less likely to choose to study the humanities. (There’s, of course, a chicken-and-egg question here: Harvard has been adding undergraduate programs in non-humanities fields, thus attracting more students who might previously have chosen M.I.T. or Caltech.)

When humanists look for the culprits who are attracting their students and their funding, fingers tend to point at the natural sciences—particularly the applied natural sciences, like engineering and programming—but our research suggests that instead, they should be blaming the social sciences. The proportion of university faculty dedicated to natural science basically stayed flat throughout the 20th century, while the proportion dedicated to social science boomed, at the expense of the humanities. At the turn of the century, universities were basically about humanities and natural science, with a relatively tiny number of scholars dedicated to the then-brand-new social sciences. A hundred years later, natural science was still strong, but the social sciences (economics, psychology, sociology, etc.) had exploded, while the humanities had steeply declined as a proportion of university faculty.

Decrying this, humanists generally blame the rise of materialism (students would rather go to the Apple Store than the art museum), the greed of college administrators (they want to patent technologies that will fill their institutions’ coffers), and the rise of a discourse that marginalizes the humanities (that would be where you came in, Mr. President). All of those might be coming into play, but in the big, big picture, the decline of the humanities hinges on the distinction between “the humanities” and humanity itself.

Study of the humanities, at its core, comes down to the study of what is collectively regarded (by humanists) as the best that has been thought and known. This changes, of course—younger artists find places in syllabi, inevitably bumping older artists; and those syllabi diversify as new generations of scholars shed overdue light on artists from outside the dead-European-white-guy main drag of Western scholarship—but still, if you take English 101 or Art History 101 or Philosophy 101, the syllabus is going to highlight a group of artists whose work is seen to be exceptional and influential.

If you take Poli Sci 101 or Psychology 101 or Economics 101, on the other hand, the focus is determinedly on the mundane: if psychologists only studied geniuses, or political scientists only studied leaders, that would defeat the point. The average brain is not Einstein’s, and the average politician is not Lincoln; understanding the workings of the brain and the body politic requires an evenhanded approach. The social sciences are, at their very foundation, more egalitarian than the humanities.

Now, consider Obama’s audience. His remarks about art history were made to employees at a General Electric plant, in the context of emphasizing the importance of training in vocational skills. “You can make a really good living and have a really great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and training you need.”

It was the perceived jab against art history in particular that made headlines, but think about the larger point Obama was making: you don’t need a four-year college education. He wasn’t just saying art history is optional, he was saying a liberal-arts education is optional.

This goes against the received wisdom of generations of American leaders. Educational attainment in the United States has been skyrocketing over the past century, and a bachelor’s degree has increasingly been presented as the basic credential to which all Americans should aspire. Today, 31% of Americans over 25 have bachelor’s degrees; that sounds like a small percentage, but in 1947—the year my father was born—only 5% did.

That means that within my dad’s lifetime, bachelor’s degrees have gone from being something only a small minority of the population achieved to being a staple aspiration of the middle class. (Achievement of higher degrees has risen correspondingly: my dad’s father was able to work as a full-time English professor at a four-year college, despite having only a Master’s degree. Today, a doctorate is table ante for academic work at any four-year institution.)

Now we’re at a point where it’s fair to wonder whether more Americans should go to college. Bachelor’s degrees are very expensive, and our resources are finite. Should we be trying to continue funneling more Americans into four-year programs, or—as Obama suggest—should we focus on equipping Americans with the practical skills that will allow them to do jobs we’ll otherwise have to ship overseas? Should we say, okay, we have enough art history students?

As higher education democratizes, it’s being redefined. What Obama was telling his blue-collar audience was that it’s okay to be a middle-class person without a four-year degree—who’s attained, perhaps, a two-year technical degree that requires as many classes as you’d have to take in a college major, without the additional courses outside your major.

This threatens the argument espoused by many humanists for the past century or more: that a liberal arts education is the foundation of adult life in a democracy, and that we as a society should insure that all citizens are equipped with an Art History 101, an English 101, a Philosophy 101, and so forth.

The art historian to whom Obama apologized, in her complaint to the president, challenged his suggestion that art history should be regarded as being not particularly essential for, say, an electrical engineer. “I emphasized that we challenge students to think, read, and write critically,” she recalls. She also responded to a complaint that, tellingly, Obama didn’t even make—that she imputed to him. “I also stressed,” she says, “how inclusive our discipline is these days (even though my own specialty is medieval and Renaissance Italy).”

Obama hadn’t suggested that art history was impractical because residents of our increasingly diverse country don’t need to learn about medieval and Renaissance Italy—but clearly Prof. Johns has heard that argument, and sees it as being tied to the argument that art history doesn’t teach skills that will help one to build a circuit breaker. Of course, it is: art history is by its very definition abstracted from everyday experience, and all the more so if your everyday experience involves people who don’t regard the artistic products Renaissance Italy as central to their cultural heritage.

To many, this whole debate might seem silly. Yes, yes, art history is important, yes, yes, it teaches critical thinking, okay, now let’s get back to work. The debate has important implications, though—and not just for potential electricians.

As more and more students around the world have pursued higher education, fewer and fewer of them—as a proportion of college students—have taken an interest in the humanities. The same impulses that have democratized the student body have also democratized the curriculum, shifting students’ and scholars’ focus to fields that aren’t premised on a hierarchy of value.

The humanities have democratized internally, of course, but compared to the social sciences, they’re still much more closely linked to the hierarchy of value that has traditionally defined “the best that has been thought and known.” Art history, for example, now embraces many more populist sources than was once the case; but there are also now thriving fields of historical economics and historical sociology, where art history is approached from the outside-in (the socioeconomic conditions that allowed art to be created) rather than from the inside-out.

The two approaches are complementary, but parents who tell their kids that economics is a more “useful” major are getting at more than just their (seriously misplaced) assumption that economics grads can waltz right into management positions at investment banks: they’re suggesting that an explicitly scientific approach to the world has gained prestige and popular acceptance vis-a-vis the humanities’ approach. Yes, that’s because science allows us to build smartphones, but it’s also because the scientific worldview is less hierarchical than the humanities’ worldview, more accommodating—and, yes, probably more useful—to many first-generation college students.

At this point I could offer an Obamaesque caveat, say that I personally find art history fascinating and so forth, but that caveat didn’t win Obama many political points, and it would be a purely political gesture anyway. What matters is whether Obama and I are right: that Americans aren’t well-served by being told that a four-year liberal arts education is a gold standard to which everyone should aspire. As I wrote in a response to Joseph Epstein’s critique of vocational education two years ago, “the ‘general consensus’ that defined the humanities in their heyday was never really all that general.”

Clearly, Obama is concerned that defining the normal (or at least best) form of higher education as a four-year liberal arts education is discouraging potential students who would rather not take courses in, say, art history. What’s more dangerous to the future of our country: to tell prospective college students that the liberal arts are optional—or not to tell them it’s okay to go to a college that lets you skip art history? What’s more important, the humanities—or humanity?

Jay Gabler