February 19th, 2014
01:17 PM ET
9 years 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.

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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. Socratic Irony

    People still get worked up over partisan politics ie name calling over party affiliation? Nothing will ever change in this country.

    February 19, 2014 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  2. smith

    @The Real Truth- I don`t speak for right wing nor do I really care what the right wing thinks. I hold democrat and republican presidents to the same standard.

    February 19, 2014 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  3. corpsman

    "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""

    I only know a few art historians, but they're all employed.

    February 19, 2014 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
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