essential skills

On January 30th, 2014 Barack Obama spoke at a General Electric plant just outside Milwaukee. Commenting on the state of vocational education the US president proclaimed:

“A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” He continued on to say, “Nothing wrong with art history degree,” [sic]. I love art history. 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.”

President Obama’s disparaging remarks speak to a broader concern about the role of education and employment (I can’t even remember how many times I was asked but what can you do with a degree in art history?”) And rightfully so his comments incited a response from groups such as the College Art Association (“Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations,”) and individuals like Ann Collins Johns, an art historian at the University of Texas in Austin. Johns argued in response, that her classes challenge students to think, read, and write critically.

I know this controversy happened almost six months ago, but lately I have been thinking quite a bit about art history and transferable skills. I agree with Johns – the discipline does challenge students to think, read, and write, all very important skills in almost any profession. But what else are we explicitly or implicitly teaching when we are talking about 17th century Dutch paintings? Or the production of hooked rugs? Of any of the other fascinating topics covered by my colleagues? Upon further inspection, I have noticed that my classes incorporate all three of the critical skills identified by the Conference Board of Canada: “academic skills, personal management skills, and teamwork skills.”

Like Alverno College’s list of abilities developed in a liberal arts education, the viewing, critiquing, discussion, and writing of art improves student’s communication abilities, analytic capabilities, problem solving skills, judgment and decision-making, facility for social interaction, global perspectives, citizenship, and overwhelmingly their aesthetic responsiveness.

Similarly BCIT has produced a list of general skills that are valued by employers of their graduates. At the top of the list is problem solving and creative thinking skills. The others in descending order include: oral skills, interpersonal skills, teamwork and leadership skills, writing skills, reading skills, visual literacy, electronic office skills, and intercultural skills. These abilities are often taught as part of the “hidden curriculum” of art history.

In light of President Obama’s comments and a larger impression that an education in the humanities is less economically important (see the extensive discussion on STEM education) I think we owe it to our students to make these skills an explicit part of our curriculum. I want to emphasize to them that research projects not only improve their reading and writing skills and obviously their visual literacy, but also through connecting with librarians, meeting with curators, and increasingly accessing information in new ways they are developing their the interpersonal, team work, and leadership abilities, as well as electronic/computing skills. Furthermore many of the new ways art history is being taught fosters intercultural skills fostered through a critical exploration of the visual and material cultures around the world.

Note: This post is part of a larger assignment I submitted for PIPD 3210 discussing employability, essential skills in the classroom, and hidden curriculum agendas.

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