February 19th, 2014
01:17 PM ET
8 months ago

Art history professor receives handwritten apology from Obama

Washington (CNN) – Ann Collins Johns decided to let President Barack Obama know that his comments last month about art history majors were inappropriate. So she fired up her computer, found the White House website and sent off an email.

A week later she got the surprise of her life when she received an email that included a handwritten apology from the President himself.

 

What did he say that was egregious enough to warrant a presidential apology? Well, last month, Obama was discussing the value of manufacturing jobs at a factory in Wisconsin when he said, "You folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree."

He went on to say that there was, "nothing wrong with an art-history degree. I love art history. I don't want to get a bunch e-mails from everybody."

But Johns, who teaches art history at the University of Texas at Austin, told CNN that she took exception.

"I sent him an email, never thinking for one second that anything would happen,” she said Wednesday morning.

Johns says she decided to be positive in her note.

"We really work hard on teaching students…who come in and take an art history survey class how to think, read and write critically, because that's what you do with art,” she wrote. “It's not just looking at a pretty picture. You have to call upon all of your resources to come up with some sort of interpretation."

She also attempted to “dispel the notion that [art history] is elitist.”

“Increasingly the discipline is much more global. We really teach the arts to a wide range of students with a wide range of backgrounds, and we are teaching the arts of Africa, Asia, South America, Central America and we have a global outlook and that tends to change the whole field."

Johns said she was shocked when she received a response from Mary Brooke, a correspondence supervisor at the White House. The email included a scan of a handwritten note from Obama.

"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."

The card is signed, "Sincerely, Barack Obama"

Obama letter art history professor PG1

Obama letter art history professor PG2

Johns said she accepts the apology. "I thought it was incredibly gracious and a lovely note."

"The poor man – he makes a glib remark,” she joked. “He's trying to be funny. He's trying to be entertaining and everybody jumps on his case and so I was immensely pleased and the note was really, really lovely."

The White House says they're not commenting on the note.

The professor debated whether to make the apology public, but then discussed it with her family and students who encouraged her to post the note.

"I actually thought for a while about whether I should make it public. I talked to my students about it, and they thought this is amazing. I thought this could be a teachable moment and bring this up for discussion.”

She said she posted it on Facebook, where it got picked up by a blog in New York.

"I'm very pleased that it has gotten a lot of press and has stimulated discussion,” she said.

Before joining the art history world, Johns said she was a geologist for more than a decade. Laughing, she added art history has come a long way from her days as a student.

"In my day it was the 'girls with pearls' who took art history,” she said. “But it's not like that anymore."

While Johns has accepted Obama's apology, some political figures are taking issue with the gesture.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, tweeted Wednesday: "Pathetic Obama apology to art history prof. We do need more degrees that lead to #jobs"


Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (103 Responses)
  1. Matt

    There's nothing wrong with art history majors but the fact that these types of majors are allowed to receive federal financial aid is ridiculous.

    February 19, 2014 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  2. RollerballChamp

    Even if everyone in America had a PhD, we'd still need ditch diggers.

    February 19, 2014 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  3. Sid

    "how to think, read and write critically, because that's what you do with art"

    I'm sorry, did she say that w/a straight face?!?

    February 19, 2014 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  4. sly

    Well known that college educated individuals vote Democrat, the party of progressive change.

    Simply put: Dumb people vote Republican.

    Forbes Magazine: "the ten best educated states in the country (as measured by the percentage of residents over age 25 with bachelor degrees) all voted for Obama, while nine of the ten worst educated states voted for Romney."

    Nothing to argue here folks – obvious fact that we are all aware of.

    February 19, 2014 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  5. harrisonhits2

    This is a sad commentary on how pathetically sensitive people in the US have become. Sorry Ms Art History Professor, while art history may be interesting and art has its own intrinsic value, most people with that degree can't make a lot of money. There was nothing at all wrong with what Obama said other than that you are very oversensitive.

    February 19, 2014 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  6. From the Desk of the Liar of the Year

    I am sorry for 8 years of failure. Please forgive me America. I am in way over my head and just making it up as I go. That is why I need to lie so much.

    February 19, 2014 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  7. Chris B.

    Hey REGGIE. I receive no government help for anything and I still support this president. He's shown to be a humble man, unlike the last administration that forgot to apologize for invading the wrong country. Sadly, I supported him at first, then woke up.

    But you keep on thinking we all receive help. The RED STATES RECEIVE THE MOST GOVERNMENT HELP. REMEMBER THAT.

    February 19, 2014 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  8. aniket

    There is nothing wrong being an art history major. However there is everything wrong when everyone wants to be one.

    February 19, 2014 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  9. Pete

    Oh brother. Get a job!

    February 19, 2014 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  10. Alex Post

    The gesture attributed to Pres. Obama certainly sounds sincere, but a scanned "handwritten" note sent via email? Although I harbor absolutely no ill will toward the president for making the comment about art history degrees, the authenticity of the response cannot really be verified. Nonetheless, I like the sentiment. Some people might consider lightening up now and again. The negativity that persists about every little minor presidential action is tiresome.

    February 19, 2014 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  11. The REAL Truth...

    @smith – @Silence & Dutch-Bush didn`t kill any of our soliders, enemy combatants did. Also, the military personnel involved in Iraq and Afghanistan volunteered to go to these wars.
    -----------------------------–
    The military signed up to server their country.. in Dubya's case that involved send many of them on multiple tours at war, that allowed the enemy to kill them. Since all the rw haters want Obama to own "iT" why shouldn't Bush own what happened under his 8 yrs in office.. minor things like 4,.500 US Military dead, 100,000+ Iraq civilians, free fall credit spending, Medicare Part D, TARP bailout, Tax Cuts, yada, yada, yada. uh?

    February 19, 2014 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  12. Joan

    Obama is awesome! Always was !!

    February 19, 2014 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  13. sonny chapman

    Repub Sen. Rubio criticizes Obama's apology. Repubs. would criticize how Obama kisses his girls Good Night.

    February 19, 2014 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  14. The REAL Truth...

    @From the Desk of the Liar of the Year – I am sorry for 8 years of failure. Please forgive me America. I am in way over my head and just making it up as I go. That is why I need to lie so much.
    ----------------------------------
    I thought we weren't allowed to bring up Dubya... tsk, tsk, tsk.

    February 19, 2014 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  15. PaulCat

    Ok Rubio, tell me again your plans for jobs, jobs, and jobs.

    That's what I thought!

    February 19, 2014 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  16. Tampa Tim

    Remember the shoe ducker who got us into the wars that cost trillions, 4500 dead soldiers, 45,000 wounded soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of dead civilians? Now that republican was in way over his head.

    February 19, 2014 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  17. SteveO

    Maybe I should go to Art School. Sounds like a good carear.

    February 19, 2014 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  18. ThinkAgain

    @Sid: "how to think, read and write critically, because that's what you do with art"

    You obviously know nothing about art history or writing college-level papers.

    February 19, 2014 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  19. thisisit

    Art history does requires a great deal of critical thinking, context comprehension, writing skills and ability to be open to new ideas. Something many republicans feel factory drones don't need. Do you know what that sounds like?

    February 19, 2014 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  20. Metaxylenol

    I don't get the complaint. He wasn't saying Art History majors are elitist, he was saying there's more money in engineering degrees. Which there is.

    February 19, 2014 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  21. ThinkAgain

    Once again, Rubio proves he is more interested in scoring points with the GOP base by trying to slam President Obama than he is in thinking.

    In Rubio's book, it's "pathetic" to be accountable and apologize. And, apparently, having a degree in art history does not lead to a job, even though the woman who wrote the President has a .... job.

    February 19, 2014 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  22. Fish

    I thought the President's apology was appropriate and sincere, unfortunately the Rubio Right doesn't understand when you have a reputation for being a jerk, people don't take you serious whenever you speak the wretched right have the reputation of being jerks. After over 5 years of condemning the President for everything he does to gain credibility they must acknowledge the President is occasionally right in what he does else people stop listening to you and don't believe anything you say. The Republicans have reached that point where their credibility is below Congress, government and a snake's belly!!!

    February 19, 2014 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  23. Would You Look at That

    Like it, or not, Professor, a degree in art history always has... and always will, be worthless.

    February 19, 2014 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  24. ThinkAgain

    @aniket: "There is nothing wrong being an art history major. However there is everything wrong when everyone wants to be one."

    And who, exactly, has suggested everyone should be an art history major?

    February 19, 2014 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  25. The Real Tom Paine

    -The REAL Truth...

    @smith – @Silence & Dutch-Bush didn`t kill any of our soliders, enemy combatants did. Also, the military personnel involved in Iraq and Afghanistan volunteered to go to these wars.
    ---------––
    The military signed up to server their country.. in Dubya's case that involved send many of them on multiple tours at war, that allowed the enemy to kill them. Since all the rw haters want Obama to own "iT" why shouldn't Bush own what happened under his 8 yrs in office.. minor things like 4,.500 US Military dead, 100,000+ Iraq civilians, free fall credit spending, Medicare Part D, TARP bailout, Tax Cuts, yada, yada, yada. uh?
    *************************
    Don't bother asking them to apply the same standard to bush as they are attempting to do to Obama. BTW, Smith, they were deployed: they had no choice once they got their orders. Its not like they asked for a show of hands.

    February 19, 2014 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
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