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Why Major in Italian?

Robert Larsen offers insights into his experience studying Italian

Robert Larsen.jpg

Whenever I tell people that I major in Italian, it is usually met with a wrinkled brow and a hesitant question along the lines of “Oh…what do you plan on doing with that?” The wave of relief that washes over them when I say that I plan on attending law school is both ironic and visible as they sigh and untighten their brow. While people and, even worse, universities are struggling to see the utility of humanities programs, I want to share how my experience as a humanities major has benefited my educational, professional, and personal development.

At the outset of my college education, I was not planning on studying Italian, rather I fell into it. Having learned Italian from living in Italy for two years as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I initially took a few classes just to keep up on my language abilities. I soon realized that I was passionate about what I was studying in those classes, and that majoring in Italian would allow me opportunities not available in other departments. For example, the smaller class sizes gave me a chance to work closely with my professors and develop personal relationships with them. In large part due to these relationships, I was trusted to teach weekly grammar and conversation classes, to help create new coursework, and to be a member of the Italian Club presidency. Each of these opportunities in turn allowed my professors to get to know me, and as I discussed my academic and professional goals with them, they were able to offer real and personal advice that has accelerated my academic growth. When the time came to ask for letters of recommendation for law school, they became my biggest advocates.

Beyond these relationships, studying Italian has exposed me to a wide array of opinions, theories, movements, and events. Studying people and topics such as Roman gladiators, Dante, the Renaissance, the world wars, Enzo Ferrari, multiculturalism, the mafia, and Italian gastronomy has deepened my knowledge of and appreciation for the beauty and brutality of what it means to be human. Wrestling with the complexities of both ancient and modern Italy has trained me to be cautious and critical before judging brashly or making an uninformed decision. My studies have served as a microcosm through which I have been able to analyze larger issues such as gender, xenophobia, and racism. Studying these subjects within the context of Italian culture and history has increased my cross-cultural understanding and augmented my sensitivity to and respect for people who differ from me. So, while my studies were specific to Italy, they still taught me how to deeply appreciate human diversity, how to lower cultural barriers, and how to effectively communicate within a global context.

Ultimately, majoring in the humanities was the best decision for me. That said, it may not be the right choice for everyone. If you want to design buildings, develop new vaccines, or put a man on Mars, learning how to do so is likely within the STEM field. Learning about the people who work in the building, the individual impact of a new vaccine, and the potential social consequences of going to Mars—that’s humanities. In short, STEM often explains how to do things as humans and the humanities explain why we do them. Both fields of study need each other, and in a hostile academic atmosphere where large universities across the United States are justifying gouging humanities programs by citing their inapplicability, it is important to remember the value of studying both the how and the why that together make us human.

Gaining a degree in the humanities, unlike other degrees where studying engineering makes you an engineer and studying accounting makes you an accountant, does not give you a set title. Rather, studying the humanities profoundly deepens your understanding of what it means to be human. Though we live in an increasingly globalized world, communication is slipping, conflict is spiraling, and people are suffering. Consequently, now, more than ever, there is a need for humanities majors who have learned the communicative, the persuasive, the understanding, the analytical, and the human skills required to elevate mutual understanding and alleviate tension. So, to answer the question, why study Italian…? The answer is simple. Why not?