College students have always worried about the Big Talk they might need to have with their parents.
In 1847, a student at the University of Pennsylvania might have had to explain to his parents that he joined one of the literary societies, which, on the eve of the Civil War, debated the role of slavery while pistols lay on the lectern.
In the 1960s, college students were worried about their parents discovering they were having sex.
In the 1970s, college students worried that we'd have to tell our parents that not only that were we having sex, but that we were having it with people of a different color, or from a different background or of the same sex.
You know what the Big Talk is for today's students? You know what they're afraid to reveal to their parental units?
The current topic for the Big Talk is telling their parents that they're going to major in the humanities.
Apparently what people are really terrified of is that their kid is going to end up in the humanities. They think that an English major, for example, is not specialized enough; they think English is something everybody can do.
One of my students said his father asked, "How is an English major going to help you? You already speak the language."
That's as narrow as thinking that anybody could major in biology because you already have a body, or major in math because you know how to count. It's not a valid argument, and English majors would know that, because we know how to make — or counter — an argument.
Although practical experience and the direct application of knowledge are the result of any good education, they're not necessarily what is most significant about it.
The importance of a good education, especially one heavy in the humanities, is about being able to survey, understand and either strengthen or dismantle the apparatus that underlies our civilization, culture and society.
Only a sense of context informed by history, the ability to understand competing philosophies and an intellectual curiosity can permit us to confront unexamined systemic injustice, manufactured falsehoods and the electing of a meme into a position of enormous political power. Not that I'm bitter.
Taking a lot of selfies doesn't mean you live an examined life, and you'll remember hearing that "an unexamined life is not worth living." That line isn't from Stephen Colbert or Lady Gaga by the way; it's Socrates via Plato.
We're in danger of losing our hold on a shared culture because we no longer have a shared basis of knowledge or basis to assess what has actual value. For example, just because you get a lot of retweets doesn't mean your ideas are original, judicious, or accurate.
One of the most interesting new presences on Twitter is called "@HalfanOnioninaBag," which is exactly what its name indicates. It was created only to garner more Twitter followers than Donald Trump and, in its brief life, it has amassed 768,000 of them.
One terrific aspect of a humanities education is that is allows you to distinguish irony, satire and humor from what is serious. You can distinguish a fraudcast from a broadcast.
Is language important enough to deserve study? Why don't we just listen to what people mean behind the words?
Because how we envision the world depends on how we construct our description of it. Language makes you see things in a certain way — and once you've seen it that way, you can't unsee it. Words can be as irrevocable as an action. They can cut as deeply as a surgeon's scalpel.
So what can you do with an English major? The quick answer is: Anything you please.
English majors, who know how to read carefully, think critically, write brilliantly, argue convincingly and speak with wit, panache and a vocabulary wide enough to include the word "panache" are in leadership positions in every field.
Whether in government, academics, business, technology, medicine, the law, teaching, writing or the fine arts, graduates who hold bachelor's degrees in English have the erudition, confidence and skills to organize and articulate the world's most interesting and vital ideas. You can write this down: Our future depends on them.
Gina Barreca (contact her at www.ginabarreca.com) is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and columnist for The Hartford Courant.