President Obama traveled to Wisconsin yesterday and engaged in a tasteless bit of anti-intellectualism. “A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career,” he told an audience in Waukesha, “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.” (He later walked back the remark.)
It was a distressing moment. Not because Obama urged Americans to pursue vocational, rather than intellectual, degrees – that’s fine, and potentially even good advice. And not just because Obama himself – with his political science degree from Columbia – stands as a rejoinder to the bizarre notion that liberal arts-degree holders never amount to much. No, what’s particularly distasteful about this episode is that Obama used art history, essentially, as a punchline. The president of the United States implied that there is something inherently risible about devoting serious scholarship to mankind’s highest cultural achievements. (And by the way, he’s just wrong when he suggests that art history majors are overwhelmingly poor – the Washington Post notes that 6 percent of art history degree holders are in fact “one percenters.”)
It’s hard to believe that Obama, the son of an anthropologist and himself a former lecturer at the University of Chicago, actually believes what he said. Rather, one gets the sense that he was pandering. In a way, that’s even more disturbing; it would seem to suggest that the president thinks “Real ‘Murricans” in places like Wisconsin like nothing more than to denigrate intellectual pursuits. As the president sees it, in addition to religion, guns, and anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-intellectualism is just another thing that Americans “cling” to.