Moreover, art history can nurture the critical thinking skills left malnourished by the multiple choice tests force-fed to high school students. “In my introductory classes, I take 200 young Texans, teach them about art, show them ’s Fountain
, and open their brains and eyes a bit,” Johns says. “I think that’s an important thing.” She fired off her email to Obama in just 10 minutes. Nineteen days later, the president sent her a handwritten note of apology, reiterating his enjoyment of art history.
Malia would hardly be the first political scion to learn what “ontological” means (I think it’s the study of birds, but Malia, when you find out, I’m all ears). Amy Carter, daughter of Jimmy, got her master’s in art history, and Meghan McCain, daughter of Obama’s erstwhile presidential rival, majored in the subject while at Columbia.
If Malia has inherited her father’s inclination towards the arts, “it wouldn’t be too surprising,” says Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw of the University of Pennsylvania, which Malia toured in March. One impediment to studying art history is a lack of exposure, but Malia “has grown up surrounded by really excellent art. The White House is full of marvelous painting and sculpture,” Shaw adds, including works by
Indeed, there’s more to art history than learning how to correctly pronounce Walter Benjamin (hint: it’s WALT-er). The subject provides an unparalleled visual literacy, one that is crucial now that our days are spent staring at information transmitted via glowing rectangular screens. “Learning to look at images and decoding them in sophisticated ways is absolutely enhanced by looking at art,” Professor Johns says. Through art, abstract theory and historical moments find visual expression, and looking at art and relating to a work is also a lesson in “the things that make us human,” Professor Shaw says. “It makes us mentally engaged and morally engaged.”
While all of this is certainly true, none of these arguments will assuage ̶m̶y̶ ̶d̶a̶d̶ parents worried their child is about to sign up for a profession with little earning potential and dim job prospects. Not so for Malia, as Felix Salmon, Senior Editor at Fusion (who has written about art and economics), reminds us. “Art history is a subject which is often studied by the children of the elite, and it doesn’t get much more child-of-the-elite than Malia Obama,” says Salmon, an art history major himself. (He’s right—art history is quite popular
among the one percent.) Malia will get a job no matter what she decides to do, so “if she loves art, this is an amazing opportunity to study it.”
Salmon isn’t against the subject, readily acknowledging that “studying art history means moving back and forth between words and ideas and images all the time, putting them together in novel ways while building on the work of countless smart people who came before you.” The skills involved aren’t outdated, but for a student taking on debt to attend college, “an art history degree...doesn’t pay off in terms of job opportunities at the end.”