Art historians of the nation, you can hold your heads high again. One of your own – Ann Collins Johns, a professor at the University of Texas – had your back when President Obama took what sounded like a rhetorical potshot at the profession in a recent speech, and her response earned a handwritten apology from the commander-in-chief.
The offending remark was the sound bite of choice following the President's visit to a General Electric plant in Waukesha, Wis,. on Jan. 30. While stumping for job-training programs, Obama said:
"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. (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."
The White House doesn't appear to have been flooded with outraged responses from the country's art historians, but it did receive at least one message stressing the good that art historians do, from Johns, a specialist in Italian art of the late medieval and early Renaissance eras. In a comment to the Hyperallergenic blog, which broke the apology story on Wednesday, Johns recalled the electronic note she posted on the White House website this way: "I emphasized that we challenge students to think, read, and write critically. I also stressed how inclusive our discipline is these days."
Johns thought that would be the end of it, but a couple of weeks later, she received a response from the White House. In it was a scanned copy of a handwritten note from the President apologizing for his "off-the-cuff remarks." "I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history," he goes on to say. "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." It was signed "Sincerely, Barack Obama."
The original is being mailed to Johns, but hadn't reached her when the story became the darling of the news cycle. Within hours, it was being reported by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico.com, USA Today, CNN, NPR, the major broadcast networks, and dozens of other media outlets and blogs, both inside and outside the U.S. On her Facebook page, Johns acknowledged, "This may be my 15 minutes."
Of course, politics being what it is, even a personal reply to an academic in Texas about the value of art history could not go unchallenged once it entered the maw of the 24/7 news beast. Critics of the President filled comments sections of posted news reports with predictably bitter retorts, excoriating the president for both apologizing at all and not apologizing for Benghazi, Obamacare, Fast and Furious, and every other crisis/problem/decision they take issue with in his administration. First out of the gate to make political hay of Obama's conciliatory gesture was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who tweeted that it was "pathetic," adding: “We do need more degrees that lead to #jobs.” While it's unclear whether any other pols will smell any red meat for their base in this, that ought to extend Johns' ticking clock of fame by another three or four minutes at least.
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