Saturday, February 1, 2014

What's in a degree?

President Obama was the latest to publicly question the value of majoring in art history in remarks made January 30th in Wisconsin. 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.  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.”  (Applause.)
Making a good living seems to be the nation’s priority right now as we watch the middle class circle the drain, and the uber-rich plot even more political and financial control over what are clearly dwindling resources. Where there might once have been public outrage at the suggestion that institutions of higher education should be judged on the salaries of graduates, now we even have accountability schemes that will judge those institutions on the job performance and satisfaction with professional training of graduates three years after graduation. (See my previous blog post about this happening in my field of teacher education).
The defensive responses to attacks on the value of a liberal arts education are often to justify its worth in a lucrative field. Why study music? It makes you smarter in math. For example, here’s the response from Linda Downs of the College Art Association to Obama’s jab at art history:
It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creating thinking play a critical role. Let’s not forget that education across a broad spectrum is essential to develop the skills and imagination that will enable future generations to create and take advantage of new jobs and employment opportunities of all sorts.
I don’t want to dwell on this sorry state of things too much as others have done a very nice job picking apart these arguments and political rhetoric. (See for example this excellent article by Virginia Postrel). Instead, I thought I’d share how my art history and Italian double major in college, followed by my graduate degree from Syracuse University’s Florence program in Renaissance Art, have helped shape me into the professor I am today, teaching future early childhood and elementary teachers. First, two stories to capture a glimpse into my formative experiences:
It’s the first day of a seminar on the history of prints in my senior year at Wellesley College. My professor, Nia Janis, has prepared works from the college museum’s collection that are covered in brown paper save for a square inch window that reveals a piece of the print’s surface. We are given the task of categorizing and analyzing the marks we find. This careful, up close looking paves the way for learning to understand the range of techniques and surface effects that can be achieved with different types of printmaking. I have never forgotten this important idea that looking closely at something is as important as looking more broadly. It was to become a foundational idea for the work I did in interactional ethnography in my dissertation on how teachers manage dilemmas in the classroom.
I am with my fellow graduate students in Florence, Italy. It’s fairly typical to have class in a church or museum, and on this day we are meeting at the Basilica di S. Maria del Carmine. We enter the Cappella Brancacci to see the first bits of restoration with our professor, Umberto Baldini. He excitedly shows us the newly discovered fresco fragments, two heads each inside a round frame, that were behind an altar in the center of the chapel. One, he explains, is clearly by the teacher, Masolino. The other is clearly by Masaccio, his apprentice.
This discovery, he explains, is important for two reasons. First, the vivid colors are intact having been protected by the tomb from years of smoke and soot, and provide a basis for knowing how to clean the fresco cycle. Second, like a key to a puzzle, they show that the two artists, whose work was later completed by Filippino Lippi, intentionally worked for a balance of their individual contributions between the scenes. Art historians had previously thought that when Masolino left for Hungary, Masaccio simply took over the commission. Aside from the sheer thrill of being up on scaffolding, literally touching the plaster where one giornata connected to the next, and seeing the patches of cleaned surface revealing the vivid colors underneath the dirt, I learned that art history is a living, breathing, changing thing built on discoveries of clues to the past.  
A fresco detail by Masaccio showing the giornate lines

For my thesis, I investigated the restorations of the frescoes on the wall facing the Maesta’ in the Palazzo Civico of Siena. Gordan Moran, an American living in Florence, together with his friend Michael Mallory, had been working on a problematic attribution to Simone Martini of the fresco known as Guido Riccio at the Siege of Montemassi. They recounted their tireless work on this enigma in a 1991 article, saying the story
concerns far more than red-faced art historians, an outraged city government, and reluctance to face the distinct possibility that parts of textbooks and guidebooks will have to be revised. More important are the issues of scholarly ethics, censorship, and the possible withholding and even destruction of crucial evidence.

The controversy over Guido Riccio has never been fully resolved in any sort of official way, although many agree with Moran and Mallory. I learned from my experience studying the problem of Guido Riccio that politics has a way of shaping knowledge, and that too was a formative lesson.
In my work as a teacher educator, I constantly have to think about issues that surfaced for me in those formative years of study. How do we really learn, and not just memorize, only to forget? How is history the “imaginative reconstruction of the past” in the words of educational historian Lawrence Cremin? Why is it important to continually revisit the events of the past to understand the present? What is it about politics and power that shapes the way we see the world and understand it? Why must we value depth as well as breadth, and why do we need specialized expertise to understand our world? My time studying art history in college and the Syracuse Florence program shaped my thinking and expanded my mind. For that, I am forever grateful.


  1. Thank you. I was dismayed by the President's comments, and would have written an essay in response except that I'm in my final quarter at UCLA and have precious little time to respond to his banal anti-intellectualism. As a Classical Civilization major, I have a deep affinity to art history. I should also mention roughly a third of my upper division courses were art history courses of the ancient world. For the past two decades I've worked at a STEM company, and I've always been taken aback by both how narrow and shallow the education of the types of majors the POTUS was hawking.