The University of Texas at Austin
  • The Famous Obama Apology Note and the Truth about Art History

    By Tracy Mueller
    Published: Feb. 20, 2014

    President Obama at the University of Texas

    President Obama displays the “Hook ‘em Horns” hand signal during a speech at UT on Aug. 9, 2010, where he told the crowd, “The way to move forward is to put education first. Education and opportunity always go hand in hand.”

    When President Barack Obama told employees at a manufacturing plant last month that “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” he immediately countered by adding, “Nothing wrong with art history degree. I love art history. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.”

    But the emails came anyway, including one from Ann Johns, senior lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History, who saw an opportunity to clarify some misconceptions about her field.

    “I wanted to dispel any notion that art history is frivolous, and I wanted to dispel the notion that we are elitists,” Johns says.

    She doesn’t have a copy of the email because she submitted it via a form on the White House website, but says her message “was not so much one of outrage at Obama’s statement, but rather a ‘look what we do well’ statement. I emphasized that as art historians, we challenge our students to think, read and write critically. I also stressed how inclusive our discipline is these days,” she says.

    As has been widely reported in recent days (New York Times, ABC News, Chronicle of Higher Education), Johns received the surprise of a lifetime when the White House delivered a handwritten apology letter from President Obama himself. The note read:

    Ann —

    Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. 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.


    Barack Obama

    Of the very unexpected response, Johns says “I think this is a powerful example of telling truth to power for our students, and it should also be a lesson about not becoming complacent or apathetic.”

    The Truth about Art History

    I emphasized that as art historians, we challenge our students to think, read and write critically.” — Ann Johns

    Indeed, the entire department, including students, has been electrified about the discussion surrounding art history since Obama’s remarks were first reported. Students in associate chair Julia Guernsey‘s undergraduate capstone class crafted a statement explaining the value of majoring in art history and inviting the president and Mrs. Obama to the Undergraduate Art History Research Symposium in April.

    “We feel strongly that our education as art historians prepares us to do a variety of things, many of which are vital to the educational well-being of our country, and some of which are also politically, socially, and economically-charged,” the statement reads. “We develop strong writing skills, learn to do in-depth research, read multiple languages, work collaboratively, engage and support creativity at all socio-economic levels, and promote diversity within the arts, archaeology, and the museum world.”

    The statement goes on to list the post-graduation plans of some current art history students, including attending medical school, joining Teach for America, working with undocumented Texas artists, attending graduate school at Sotheby’s art and business program, and entering Harvard Law School, the president’s alma mater.

    “It’s not just about ‘looking at pretty pictures,’” says Johns. “We ask hard questions of our students about the images and artifacts we show them. How can one painting or one small object conjure up a bygone culture or an entire political system? And these observational and interpretive skills can then be used by our students across the disciplines.”

    For Johns and Guernsey, the publicity has been exciting, but it takes a back seat to the teachable moment it has provided for students, who are rallying together to support their chosen discipline.

    “I have never been more proud to be an art history student than I am in this very moment,” says senior Tracey Borders, vice president of the Undergraduate Art History Association. “The buzz that has been created from Dr. Johns’ email is just incredible to watch and be a part of.”



    President Barack Obama apology letter to University of Texas art history professor

    Courtesy Ann Johns

    You may also want to read:

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    Doctors, Nurses, Even Police Visit Art Museums to Sharpen Observation Skills

    • Quote 2
      Margaret Collins said on March 6, 2014 at 7:42 p.m.
      My degree is in Art History and European History, dual major. Over the forty years since graduating, I continue to find that people who can integrate and 'marry' their visual acuity observational skills with analytical writing and apply it to understanding the long history of civilization, are among the brightest critical thinkers and lead most interesting lives. Thank you, Professor Johns for writing that note, shining a light on your profession and having the pleasure of it shining back on you and Art History!
    • Quote 2
      Jim Z said on March 6, 2014 at 4:47 p.m.
      I second the comment by Travis. Moreover, in taking Obama's words to imply that her field is frivolous and elitist, Johns undermines her own claim that the study of art history fosters good critical thinking and reading.
    • Quote 2
      Dianna Vitanza said on March 6, 2014 at 2:21 p.m.
      For President Obama to take the time to write a note of apology reflects a sensitivity to the views and feelings of others that is too often missing in public discourse. One could only hope that other political leaders would be as concerned about how their words and rhetoric might be damaging to others.
    • Quote 2
      Gina said on Feb. 28, 2014 at 1:17 p.m.
      A genuine apology specifies the mistake, but also goes deeper. Identify what about your character enabled the mistake to occur, and then explain how you plan to change it.
    • Quote 2
      Nancy said on Feb. 25, 2014 at 12:54 p.m.
      Proud of our president. Not to proud to apologize.
    • Quote 2
      PleaseThink said on Feb. 24, 2014 at 4:18 p.m.
      @carol grosvenor. Many websites may have been created by Art majors, but many sites also have poor organisation and coding that mire the visitor.
    • Quote 2
      SF said on Feb. 24, 2014 at 11:02 a.m.
      Proud to be a Texas mom. Proud of our President. And proud of Prof Johns. It's a beautiful thing when adults can engage in thoughtful, intelligent discourse. Hook Em
    • Quote 2
      Carol Grosvenor said on Feb. 22, 2014 at 12:04 p.m.
      People may be surprised to discover what happens to art majors after graduation. Many of the nicest web sites you'll ever see were designed and coded by former art majors now working as web developers. Some of us IT people were once art majors who took a lot of art history classes along the way -- 32 hours of it in my case. It has been useful in my later career. One of my best web assistants to date was a drama major who was also an excellent backend programmer.
    • Quote 2
      Travis said on Feb. 21, 2014 at 3:22 p.m.
      "folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree" Why on earth did you apologize for this Mr. President? You said nothing untrue or derogatory about Art History.
    • Quote 2
      William Craig said on Feb. 21, 2014 at 8:31 a.m.
      Not an Obama fan, but give him credit for the personal note of apology. Damage control, yes, but still a nice touch.
    • Quote 2
      Joseph John said on Feb. 20, 2014 at 4:55 p.m.
      It would be interesting for SOMEONE to explain this word > ART. Lets start with Etymology...shall we.
    • Quote 2
      Omar Thanawalla said on Feb. 20, 2014 at 1:32 p.m.
      President Obama. Stand up guy.
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