On Class and the Art History Degree

In light of Obama’s recent comment about manufacturing vs. an art history degree, Tina Rivers, a PhD student who teaches a humanities class at Columbia required for all undergrads, wrote a thoughtful essay for The Toast defending the value of art history and the liberal arts.

The leaders of Columbia still think a knowledge of the arts is important enough to make it a requirement for all the future leaders that pass through its halls. Why can’t we offer that same opportunity to everyone, while acknowledging the reality of economic inequality? Maybe President Obama is right that majoring in art history or another liberal arts field isn’t for everybody—but wouldn’t it be a powerful expression of the democratic ideals of this country if we expected everyone, no matter their background or employment future, to at least be exposed to the humanities in a few classes? (I suppose high schools used to provide a kind of universal education in the humanities, but I think they might be too busy teaching STEM courses and preparing students for standardized tests to do that work well now.) Do we really want to tell some people—especially ones from the least privileged backgrounds—that we have so little faith in their economic prospects, that we won’t even hold them to the same standards we hold students aspiring to middle-class white-collar jobs? Why make immediate economic gain mutually exclusive with the acquisition of the cultural capital that can open more doors for more students in the long run?

Whether we like the culture of the economic elites, and really want to encourage people to participate in it, is a very good question that has to be asked. In Art Hum, I certainly try to help students see how high art normalizes and perpetuates assumptions about, for example, gender and race, with real-world consequences. But again, Obama’s comment was about helping people achieve economic mobility, and like him, I’m working under the assumption that our priority is for more people to become economically and socially enfranchised, because not having food or housing or health insurance are real problems–and besides, I think the only way we can change hegemonic culture is from within.

There’s a lot more to the piece, which is worth reading in context. It’s careful to deal with the complexity of the issue — “Who am I to tell someone that taking out loans while also forgoing a full-time income is the right choice for them?” — while raising some important points. Shit is complicated. <-- my official stance Caravaggio’s St. Jerome via Wikimedia Commons

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