No son of mine is going to be an air conditioner repairman

Recently, President Obama made a speech in which he said, “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.” Naturally, this made a lot of people pretty upset, especially friends of mine who have art history degrees or something equally “useless.”

Obama is not the first politician, from either side of the aisle, to make a comment of this nature. And plenty of articles have been written on his and other similar remarks pointing out, quite correctly, that art degrees have plenty of value. I’m one to agree with that. After all, I have two of them.

At a conference I attended last year for people working in higher education, a discussion arose when a presenter lamented that in a few years, she might not be able to find a plumber, because we’ve told the kids who wanted to be plumbers that such a career would be “beneath” them. The same people who have these art degrees that Obama and other politicians have been trying to steer people away from worried that we’re communicating that the best thing you can do for yourself is go to a four year school, no matter what you’re interested in or where your personal strengths lie.

But I find myself wondering how many people this actually applies to. How many students are studying art history or music who secretly yearn to be construction workers? For all I know, a lot, but also potentially very few.

I think it’s interesting to wonder how many potential welders, plumbers, or roof contractors we’re pushing to become English majors instead, and vice versa, but not particularly useful. Questions I think are more useful are things like, “Are you studying what you want to study, and are you aware of the consequences and benefits of studying that?” EVERY field has benefits and consequences. Every opportunity you accept shuts you out from other potential opportunities. This is true whether you want to be a writer, a doctor, or a construction worker.

I sometimes feel like there’s an “us vs them” rhetoric, especially when it comes to news articles about this. You can either find value in the arts or the sciences. You can either find value in getting a degree or in learning a trade. And that’s not surprising; much of modern journalism is rooted in creating or finding dichotomies. But I don’t think that’s going to help anyone. I think, instead, we need to make the realities of all careers and fields visible. Only then can students make informed decisions.

What do you think? Did you study or are you studying what you like? Are you working in that field? What do you wish you’d been told about that field before you began, and what are you grateful you knew ahead of time?