Obama apologizes to art historian for public quip

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

A couple of weeks after joking that Americans would be better off pursuing a skilled trade than an art history degree, President Obama has apologized -- with a handwritten note -- to one professor who took offense.

Speaking at a General Electric gas engine plant on Jan. 30 in Wisconsin, Obama suggested that training to work in the manufacturing industry might be more profitable than specializing in art history.

“Manufacturing jobs typically pay well,” he said. “We want to encourage more of them."

While Obama quickly backtracked -- “Now, there’s nothing wrong with history. I love art history," he told the crowd -- that didn't placate everyone.

Ann Collins Johns, an art history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, sent Obama an e-mail through the White House Web site the following day, noting that the discipline encourages critical thinking. He sent her a handwritten note on Feb. 12, according to the Web site Hyperallergic.

"Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history," the president wrote. "As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed."

"So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career," he continued.

Johns was taken aback by the personal response, writing on her Facebook page, “What I did NOT expect is that THE MAN HIMSELF would write me an apology. So now I’m totally guilty about wasting his time.”

This reaction is to be expected, given that many art historians love the president.

In other words, if there was a temporary rift between Obama and his art history base, all is forgiven. After all, how many other presidents have even taken art history in high school, let alone are willing to admit it?

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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