THE BLOG

Our Liberal Arts Moment

Feb 25, 2014 | Updated Apr 27, 2014

Co-authored by Adrian Randolph

A few weeks ago, President Obama sent a small shock wave through the art history community when in the course of promoting a new proposal for manufacturing jobs training that would be outside a traditional four-year college education, he 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." An email reaction from Ann C. Johns, a Regents' Outstanding Teaching Professor and senior lecturer in art and art history at the University of Texas at Austin, quickly generated a handwritten note from the President, who testified to his true love for the subject and apologized for his "glib" remarks.

The President's "off-handed comments" come at a time when many of us in higher education find ourselves having to defend the value of a liberal arts education generally, if not a humanities or art history education in particular. Ironically, they have happened to occur just as Hollywood has released a big budget movie The Monuments Men, retelling the fascinating story of a group of men educated in the liberal arts tradition sent to rescue artistic treasures plundered by the Nazis.

The movie works from the thesis that these are treasures worth fighting for, and many of us in higher education would argue that the ideas embedded in these objects are worth fighting for as well -- even if the accompanying movie might be somewhat less fast-paced. We are not oblivious to the pressures of the marketplace and the job market. We understand the need to educate students in such a way that they "get their money's worth," but some forms of educational value may be less readily apparent than technical skills -- which are of course also of great value.

Since the President brought it up, let's focus for a moment on subject of art history. A student studying the subject becomes steeped in the history of visual culture and its study and investigation requires (among other things) the honing of writing and research skills -- some of which in today's art history can involve proficiency in computational and statistical analysis. Beyond this, the study of art can lead to an appreciation and understanding of other cultures, which can prove to be of extraordinary economic, political, and social value within the context of globalization. Students working diligently, even passionately, to study art history, should they choose to pursue other kinds of careers, might for example, bring cultural empathy to a careers in medicine, a historical understanding of intellectual property in working in the law, or as corporate or even world leaders, a sensitivity to the use and abuse of images. The Monuments Men shows that they could even be consultants to Hollywood.

More generally, an education in art history is in essence an education in "close observation," in understanding and appreciating the nuance in creating a visual "argument" for an idea. A student of art history acquires "visual intelligence" or "visual competence." An art history student -- ok, a good art history student -- may very well have a deep understanding of the kinds of visual arguments that work, and the kinds of visual presentations that engage us. It is easy to argue, both in theory and practice, that such skills are crucial in many careers devoted to designing things for us to look at and interact with, not least of which are the trillions of webpages that engage us each day. As we all know today, the problem is not putting information out there, the problem is putting it out there in a way that engages us, a way that tells a story, just like an extraordinary painting. Might individuals well-versed in art history help render websites more compelling and useful? It is a question those who crafted the new Obamacare websites might have done well to ask.

And this brings us back to the liberal arts. It really shouldn't only be a choice of being a technician or an art historian. Just as it seems to us that a mixture of the ideas embedded in art history and web programming might have produced a better healthcare portal, perhaps skilled programmers better aware of the failed social experiments of previous generations, as well as better versed in the history of privacy and democracy, might have created a better version of Facebook or Instagram. A society built on the rapid pace of today's technological achievements cries out for a leadership and workforce educated broadly. 50 years ago the launch of Sputnik served as a call to action for a science-educated public. Perhaps the
President's recent verbal slip can help lead us to "liberal arts moment." We argue for this not out of nostalgia or self-interest, but as a pragmatic response to the needs of many students, who, in order to have productive, satisfying, and meaningful professional lives will benefit from the breadth and intellectual humility afforded by a liberal arts education.

Adrian Randolph is Associate Dean for the Arts and Humanities at Dartmouth College where he is also Leon E. Williams Professor of Art History. Dan Rockmore is Director of The Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College where he is also the William H. Neukom '64 Professor of Computational Science.