Strauss: See, I think that’s complicated. I think there’s two questions at hand. One is “Why should I people learn a foreign language?” and “Why do we require it?” For the former question, sure, I agree with your first paragraph. That would be great. Being more literate and more communicative are wonderful goals, and ones that the US is lagging behind many other countries in. So yes, that’s a good reason to learn a foreign language. But that’s not why we force people to do it.
Which takes us to the latter question which you really get to in the third paragraph. The idea that you are fluent in a foreign language after a single semester, or even one year of study is ridiculous. Everyone knows that. No one expects it. Colleges do it for the very reason you say. “It makes for more well-rounded students” and the rationalization is usually exactly what I said “this fosters critical thinking.” In fact, when i started at Duquesne, I listened to a dean toting how proud he was that the school still forces that on all undergrads for exactly that reason. And I think there’s some logic to it. But I also think that “someone” inadvertently pointed to the truth when they were disputing me, and that’s what I was getting at. LOTS of things foster critical thinking. That’s the basis for the First Year Writing class that I teach (in English) and it’s the rationalization that CMU uses for forcing many humanities majors to take 15-127. And that’s a good thing. No one expects that because you took a single programming class taught in Genie Pascal in 1994 that you should be able to write anything approaching a competent piece of software in 2015. They don’t expect that you can do much more than write a bubble sort even at the end of just that one class. And as I said to “someone” no one expect that I can read Tale of Genji or even carry on a conversation beyond, “hello, my name is…” “goodbye,” “thank you,” and “where is the library/drugstore/bathroom?” The final one is a hilarious thing to even teach, because even though I can ask “doko ni basurūmu ga aru,” “où se trouvent les toilettes” and “¿dónde está el baño?” I don’t actually understand any of those languages enough to follow the answer I might get back.
The idea is that by having GenEd requirements outside of your major, you develop the ability to foster skills beyond the microcosm of whatever you’re an expert in and that makes you better at thinking in general. And I maintain that learning Latin is a good way to do that (assuming you’re not a latin major). So is learning Java (assuming you’re not a CS major) and taking a poetry class (assuming you’re not an English major).