Sam: It’s not about what they have in common; it’s about the goal in teaching them. Japanese and Latin have little in common either, but they both fulfill the requirement. My point is the the specific skills that we (academia) use to justify mandatory foreign language instruction are not actually unique to foreign languages. We don’t really teach an appreciation of the people, customs or philosophies of another culture in the limited amount of time that you get in LanguageX I and II. Maybe a little. But Strauss is right. Mostly we teach you to communicate. But with the level of competency you get after a year, you’re at best able to communicate with like a 5 or 6 year old. A 7 year old probably thinks you sound like an idiot. And almost no one (who doesn’t take further instruction or otherwise has a reason to practice constantly) realistically considers themselves fluent (or even literate) a few years later.
What you do retain, is the mental practice of learning how to learn. Since the language is foreign to you, it involves training your brain to study new concepts and begin to learn outside of your comfort zone. So To use your specific example, I think Art WOULD totally be an acceptable way to do this (for someone who isn’t an art major, at least).
It’s not that I think people SHOULDN’T be learning foreign languages. It’s more that colleges cling to them because of an outdated notion that its the “only way” (or even the best way) to teach those skills. I’d argue it’s far more useful to teach an “outside the major” skill that the student might be likely to keep up on after the fact. And the best way to do that is to have a grouping that you can choose from based on your interests. So, some business majors might end up taking Japanese, while others might end up decided to take Java. They might take intro to fiction writing, Philosophy 101 or sculpture. The most important part is that they stretch their boundaries (in a way that forces certain aspects of knowledge that the college tends to value). My suggestion is that “lets at least give them a reason to care.” Right now, that reason is the academic equivalent of “because I said so.”
Really, my ultimate solution would be extend Michael Strauss’s paragraph 3 stance even farther. I think everyone should be required to have a minor as well as a major. And I might even have a list of minors that DON’T count for that major. Meaning if you’re a French major I wouldn’t allow Spanish, Latin or German as a minor requirement (you’re allowed to minor in it, but you’d still be required to minor in something else as well). Computer Science wouldn’t be allowed to use Robotics or Electrical Engineering. English wouldn’t be allowed to use creative writing. Etc.