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Philistine in Chief

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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Where people get into trouble is in going tens of thousands of dollars into debt to earn putatively “useful” degrees that end up paying the equivalent of those aforementioned jobs in the trades. Those who major in elementary education, for example, with its average salary of $41,400, or the culinary arts, with mid-career earnings of $46,800, may be setting themselves up for a lifetime of penury. Starting salaries—which are even more important, because students usually must begin repaying their loans within a year of leaving school—tell an even starker tale. Starting salaries for those who took the “pragmatic” course and majored in hospitality/tourism average $36,200 a year. Horticulture majors, meanwhile, can hope for a cool $37,000. The median starting income for journalism majors is $31,000, meaning that fully half of journalism majors start out making $30,999 or less. The choice, contra Obama, isn’t between training as an electrician and studying art history—it’s between training as an electrician and sinking tens of thousands of dollars into a “pragmatic” degree with no payoff.

So Obama is wrong on the facts. But perhaps what’s most distressing about his dig at art history is what it says about the way he views the American people. Given his own liberal arts background (Obama’s alma mater, Columbia, is noted for requiring all of its students to take a course in art history), one imagines that Obama doesn’t actually dislike art history. He was probably just pandering. But in a way, that’s even worse; it suggests that the president thinks that “Real Americans” in places like Wisconsin relish denigrating intellectual pursuits. As the president has it, in addition to religion, guns, and anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-intellectualism is just another thing that Americans “cling” to.

No, the problem with America is not that it has too many people studying art history. The problem with America is that it has a president who often fails to understand it.

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