Full disclosure: Once upon a time, I was an English major.

Back in the 20th century, it never occurred to me to abandon Shakespeare or Hemingway for a more practical field of study. I simply had faith that my college education would be put to good use, and so did my parents.

But you can see why English majors today might feel a bit more defensive and their parents a bit more skeptical. Especially if they’re paying $20,000 or $40,000 or $60,000 a year for their studies.

That’s one reason that Mary Dana Hinton came up with the idea for “Liberal Arts Illuminated,” a conference in Minnesota next week about the future of the liberal arts.

Hinton, president of the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, is co-hosting the event along with Michael Hemesath, president of St. John’s University in Collegeville. They’re expecting hundreds of academics and other fans of the liberal arts from 25 states and three countries to descend on the two campuses Monday through Wednesday.

Hinton sees it as a call to action to defend and promote the humanities as a field of study, which she argues is more relevant than ever.

“Today there’s this tendency to want to reduce the value of education to a first job salary,” she said. “We need to respond to the critics.”

The online brochure gives a glimpse of what’s keeping college presidents and liberal arts professors up at night: budget worries, demographic shifts and, most notably, a growing sense that they are losing the hearts and minds of the public.

A keynote speech, by education strategist Zakiya Smith of the Lumina Foundation, will focus on liberal arts bashing in politics. “Many seem to feel that the liberal arts are under attack, particularly by those with an adversarial agenda in political office,” notes the blurb in the brochure.

For another panel discussion, “What Makes the Liberal Arts Essential for the Next 50 Years?” Hinton acknowledges that it can be a tough sell these days. But she believes that a humanities degree is more valuable than critics would have you believe. “They teach you the skills that even employers now say [they want],” she said. The kinds of skills that last a lifetime: problem solving, communicating well and working with diverse groups and individuals.

“All of us would admit we don’t know what the technical jobs will be 15-20 years down the road,” Hinton said. But those kinds of “soft skills” will always be needed. “That’s really what we focus on in the liberal arts,” she said. “That’s the best way to equip young people for an unknown future.”

Hinton knows, too, that this isn’t the first time the liberal arts have fallen out of favor, relatively speaking. “If you go back to the early 20th century, you will find articles that say the very same thing,” she said. “ ‘The end of the liberal arts’ … People have been decrying and questioning the value for a long time. The charge for us today is to articulate not only why the liberal arts have survived, but also to articulate why they need to thrive into the future.

“I think the future is optimistic if we go out and we talk and we explain the value of what we have to offer.”

 

maura.lerner@startribune.com