Want to better yourself? Ignore the president and study art history.
President Obama has apologized for dissing an art-history degree during a speech meant to encourage more training in manufacturing to create jobs.
“Folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” Obama said, speaking at a GE plant recently. “Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. 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 training that you need.”
Predictably, the president was on the receiving end of the bunch of emails he was trying to avoid. He reportedly sent a handwritten note to one art-history professor apologizing for the off-the-cuff remark.
What he should have apologized for, however, was not his glibness but his wrongness. Based on data from his own administration, a college education is a much better way to prosperity than on-the-job training.
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Look at the unemployment rate, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, the rate stands at 6.6 percent, which is high for this stage of an economic recovery. But, beneath the headline number are some interesting statistics related to education. If you don't complete high school, your unemployment rate is 13.9 percent, or more than twice the national average. Even getting a high school diploma doesn't make you average. High school graduates with no college have a 9.1 percent unemployment rate. Get at least an associate's degree at a community college and the rate falls further to 7.3 percent.
But an actual bachelor's degree takes the cake. The unemployment rare for people with a four-year degree or higher is just 3.9 percent. From an economics standpoint, that is full employment.
Interestingly, studies have shown it doesn't matter what major you have to reap the economic benefits of a college education. Not every degree leads to an automatic job in that field. You could study international relations and end up as an executive coach. I know a devastatingly handsome man who studied Latin and, after flirtations with careers as a priest and a plumber, entered journalism, now editing the finest media property covering entrepreneurship and free markets in America. In fact, I even know a very successful real estate broker who has a degree in – you guessed it – art history.
It isn't what you learn, but how you learn, and that is where the president was off the mark when he went off the cuff. The process of a true liberal arts education gives us immeasurable skills. We discern rather than simply think. We can evaluate risks and opportunities better. We question. These intellectual skills fuel the innovation, creativity and drive that is at the heart of entrepreneurship.
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That is not to say that we all need a college degree to succeed. History has certainly shown you can achieve billions after dropping out of school. But, what we forget is that those folks were more likely to drop out of Harvard than, say, Hudson County Community College. The Gateses and Zuckerbergs of the world entered college overqualified. They didn't need to learn how to learn. Many others do.
So college is a way to prosperity. Of course, we can argue whether the cost of these degrees is too dear. Tuition and fees are so high, one imagines a bursar's previous job required carrying a Glock and wearing a ski mask. Issues like bloated administrations and tenure create burdensome cost structures that would be unsustainable in real-world business. Don't get me started on the politics of campuses either.
But, imperfect as higher education is, it is still better than the alternative that is being promoted by the administration. Training comes with every job, whether you have a degree or not. Giving more money to corporations that are already profitable to make their employees more efficient seems downright silly. That's not the answer. Educating people before they have to collect a paycheck is a better approach.
So, by all means, focus on Klimt, Pollock and Magritte. Or Titian and Raphael. Or even those weird urinals Marcel Duchamp loved so much. (Once a plumber, and all that.) Focus. Study. And learn.
Then take that much-derided art history degree and do what so many people nowadays can't or, sadly, won't do: Work.
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