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Picture it, a skinny 18-year-old kid from Great Falls, curious and book-crazy, landing in Missoula the fall of 1974.

He’s hungry for knowledge, but he has no idea how to get it.

And then the magic starts: Harry Fritz reveals the “contrapuntal themes of American history,” and the Johns — Madden and Hay — light his mind with classical Greek, Homer and Euripides, and Cynthia Schuster immerses him in the horrors of the Holocaust, and Bruce Bigley teases out the value of young Wordsworth, and Jerry Fetz illuminates Dante and Goethe, and Gerry Brenner shows him how to write a semi-competent essay, and Lois Welch guides him through the rigors of literary theory, and Bill Bevis introduces him to 19th-century American literature, destined to be a lifelong passion. 

And this is a small sample — very quarter, every class, he is challenged and awakened and inspired with possibilities for knowing and traveling and thinking through. 

That kid was me, of course, and every day I thank my lucky stars I landed in Missoula all those years ago.

Those teachers transformed my life. They not only showed me the doorways into new knowledge but opened up my mind, demonstrated that Montana is part of a vast, beautiful, profound world. I found a calling in academia and public humanities, and the University of Montana made that possible.

But my story is not unique — my friends can tell similar tales of transformation. Humanities at the University of Montana enchanted them with life-changing literature, challenging thinking and rigorous teaching. Most of us do not become academics, but the humanities inform our lives as lawyers, fishing guides, doctors, nonprofit leaders, parents, journalists, business owners, political leaders, carpenters, community volunteers. 

We are all better — our communities are so much better — because of that humanities transformation.

And now I see young people from all over Montana arriving each fall and realize how lucky they are to study with the likes of Anya Jabour and Tobin Miller Shearer and Brady Harrison and Rosalyn LaPier and gifted teachers too many to count.

The magic is still here — but we have to cherish it, we have to value it, we have to support it.

The University of Montana is the flagship liberal arts university for our beautiful state. That’s something we simply can’t afford to lose.

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Ken Egan is the executive director of Humanities Montana, and writes from Missoula. 

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