Gather ’round, French majors, religion majors and more. Let us celebrate what the liberal arts taught us.

Monday, August 17, 2020 - 14:30

Gather around, French majors and anthropology majors and you who focused your college life on the blessed study of religion. English majors, sociology majors, philosophy majors, you may as well squeeze in, too, because things aren’t looking great for you, either.

Together let us mourn the decline of the college subjects that helped make us who we are today.This lament is occasioned by the recent announcement that Illinois Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college in Bloomington, will stop offering degrees in religion, anthropology, Italian and French.Many of Illinois Wesleyan’s faculty and alumni are shocked and disturbed by the decision, which, as the Tribune’s Elyssa Cherney reported, was “part of an effort to adapt to growing student demand for career-oriented classes.”


Illinois Wesleyan is just one of the liberal arts colleges under similar pressure these days, and I’m not here to argue with its decision-makers. Many liberal arts colleges are struggling to stay relevant and financially afloat, while also figuring out how to educate students who in the past didn’t have access to college. It’s a vital and complicated struggle.

But I do want to offer an appreciation of the kinds of majors — the old-fashioned humanities courses — that don’t seem to lead straight toward a career.

Back in another century, I entered my liberal arts college with a flimsier high school education than many of my fellow students and a blurrier idea of the future. Lots of my peers were majoring in economics, mathematics, chemistry and political science as they aimed toward careers as professors, doctors and lawyers. I’d given no thought to a career. My part-time college waitress job, which consumed 15 to 20 hours a week, kept me from studying as hard as would have been optimal. It helped that my parents weren’t “professionals” and didn’t pressure me to be one either.

So when junior year arrived and we lollygaggers were forced to declare a major, I surveyed the scattered courses I’d already taken and declared I was majoring in “liberal arts with an emphasis on French, English and ancient Greek.”

I wasn’t accomplished in any of those fields, but I managed to graduate.

In retrospect, that line of study sounds like a luxury, made possible by the economy of the era, which allowed many young people — not all — to believe that they’d find a decent job come what may. But the economy, like most everything, has changed. In the past dozen years, many colleges and students have moved away from the humanities and into science and technology. By one 2019 count, the number of English majors had declined by 25% since the Great Recession of 2008.

Students and their parents aren’t crazy to hope that college is preparation for a job that pays the bills, including that jumbo student debt. But preparing for the world also involves skills and knowledge that only the humanities provide.

From the study of English, I learned many real-world lessons: the power of a well-written story to reveal truth and sway minds, how the mere rhythm of a good poem can shift a mood.

From French, I learned the feel of a different language on my tongue and in my heart, along with the important fact that the United States occupies only a small portion of the world and its history.


From ancient Greek I learned, well, honestly, I remember almost nothing about ancient Greek, except the name Herodotus and the Greek professor who would reply to my excuses for late homework by cackling, in English, and with an eye roll, “No problem, as the Greeks say!” (I’ve always wondered if the Greeks really say that.)

None of my coursework looks persuasive on a modern resume, and I wouldn’t advise this kind of hodgepodge major to a student today. At the same time, I can appreciate what many humanities majors know — that these seemingly esoteric lessons can become part of the solid ground of your life.

Humanities courses — taught well — seed not only knowledge of the wide and varied world, but curiosity about it. They teach you that you can’t understand today’s world only by listening to today’s news. A good liberal arts education, whatever your major is, teaches you that learning is always just the beginning of learning. It provides context, perspective, a sense of possibility. In short, it teaches you to think. Even as colleges adapt to changing demands and needs, those are lessons they and we should be careful not to disregard.

I bet Herodotus had something to say about all this, if only I could remember what.

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