Obama Apologizes to UT Professor for Art History Joke

Obama Apologizes to UT Professor for Art History Joke

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated.

Last week, in a story about the value of degrees in different fields, we mentioned a remark made by President Barack Obama in a talk about manufacturing jobs.

As the Washington Post reported:

At an event at a GE plant in Wisconsin Thursday, President Obama reiterated his support for the manufacturing industry, saying that Americans could probably make more in that line of work “than they might than [with] an art history degree.” (The 6 percent of art history majors who are ‘one percenters’  would beg to differ.*)

The art history community, especially online, was in a “state of uproar” after the remark, says UT art history professor Ann Johns. But Johns, MA ’82, MA ’90, PhD ’00, isn’t the type to just carp about a problem. “I like to get things done,” the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Professor says. “I thought ‘I’m just gonna write the White House a letter. What the heck.'” She submitted her note through the White House website—the original, sadly, has been lost into the ether (or an NSA server)—with the intent of explaining, as she says “what we [art historians] do well.”

“In fact, we’re not just looking at pretty pictures,” Johns explains. To her and her students, art history is a lens through which people can understand society, a discipline that involves difficult questions and produces complex answers.

She knew the president was making a point about job training, but she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explain her field. The president’s words are constantly scrutinized, she notes, but this wasn’t criticism, just an explanation of a topic likely obscure to most Americans. It wasn’t really about getting a response from the leader of the free world.

But that’s exactly what she got. A PDF scan of a handwritten note landed in her inbox last week. It was an apology scrawled on the White House letterhead and signed at the bottom by the president.

Here’s what the president wrote:

Ann —

Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. 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.

So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.


Barack Obama

“I’m stunned and amazed,” Johns says. The fact that the president took the time to write back means that the president appreciates the value of a college education, she explains. Johns and her colleague Julia Guernsey plan to use this as a “teachable moment” for their students. Senior capstone seminar students are writing letters back to Obama, explaining their field more. It’s an exercise that they hope will create a healthy discussion about art history and eventually lead her students to a better understanding of it.

They might not be the only ones. As a part of UT’s undergraduate Research Week in April, the department is hosting a symposium—and they’ve invited one very special guest. Normally, we’d suggest that the president book his tickets soon (South by Southwest in March isn’t going make flights into Austin any cheaper), but we’re sure he’ll manage.

You can view the note below. Can’t see it? Click here.

*Correction: Thanks to reader David for pointing out that we had erroneously said that 6 percent of the “1 percenters” have art history degrees. In fact, the number is 0.4 percent of the “1 percenters” who have undergraduate degrees in art history or criticism. The original line has been changed to read: 6 percent of art-history grads are in the 1 percent.

Above: President Barack Obama straightens a painting in the Oval Office. Official White House photo.


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