The liberal arts as a tool for change

Through powerful words and personal reflection, students examine the impact of a liberal arts education in an annual essay contest.

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A liberal arts education not only creates well-rounded, informed and passionate students. It ignites students to transform themselves and the world around them, as two College of Letters & Science students illustrate in moving essays.

Justine Jones, a creative writing and conservation biology major, and Anna Blasco, who’s majoring in gender and women’s studies and communication arts, reflected on the connection between the concept of a liberal arts education and its applications to the real world in the UW-Madison Liberal Arts Essay Contest.

Jones’ winning essay looked outward, focusing on the impact her interests in conservation and communication could have on the environment. Blasco’s runner-up piece, meanwhile, turned inward, exploring how theory and activism played crucial roles in healing from abuse.

Alexandra Pleasant and Giovanna Stern received honorable mentions in the contest that garnered 68 entries.

“The essays our students have produced are a testament to understanding how rich and rewarding a broad education can be,” says Elaine Klein, associate dean for academic planning and chair of the University General Education Committee, which administers the contest. (It was previously a UW System-wide contest; find past winners here.) 

The following are excerpts from the two top-ranking essays.

If Ever I Have A Weapon

By Justine Jones

I agree with Nelson Mandela that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” — and if ever I have a weapon, it will be my education.

I know that whatever conservation work I do — in a classroom, a field or a lab — my training in the sciences will allow me to do a direct service to the earth. I believe the role of the sciences in a liberal arts education is to give us what is unequivocally necessary — knowledge, facts, the ability to interpret data — and ask us to use them to change the world, for the sake of life. As I move forward on my career path, I am certain that my liberal arts education in the sciences will be invaluable as I work to create that change.

One of the challenges I’ve perceived in the conservation world is that a certain insularity exists — much of the conversation and circulation of literature does not transcend the academic sphere, and is as such inaccessible to the public at large.

I want to use my skills as a writer and communicator to help bridge that gap, and make the science world more accessible to those who are not scientists. In such an urgent moment for conservation, I see it as imperative that we all take part in these necessary conversations about the earth, each in our own capacity. When we do this, we are empowered to make informed decisions about the ways we eat, waste, travel and live — and we may begin to change them.

Nelson Mandela’s famous quote positions education as a weapon, a tool that we can use to enact change. There are many changes I wish to see in the world, and my liberal arts education has given me a set of tools — and the appropriate skills — to attain them. At UW-Madison and everywhere that the liberal arts thrive, we learn both how to do and how to be. That is what I mean when I say my liberal arts education has made me who I am — a scientist, a writer, a poet and a community member. 

Healing Through Theory and Practice 

By Anna Blasco

Freshman year started off wonderfully; I was happy to be in an academic setting, I made a bunch of new friends, and I even had a boyfriend. Surely, the next four years would be a linear, clear success filled with internships and academic awards. To my surprise, however, I veered off track. I encountered a rather dark side to my relationship to which I never thought I would fall victim; I experienced abuse, gaslighting and manipulation. My moods dropped, and so did my grades. I had been disconnected from what I had loved to do — learn — and I felt purposeless. 

[An] idea stuck with me — maybe my education could be something more than just preparation for a career. Maybe I could heal through the classroom, and find peace somewhere deep in learning. I had been misguided, torn apart, and felt more anguish than imaginable, but in my liberal arts education, I found theory; this healing place, this sanctuary. 

Here in Madison, I found the next big step in my transformation: activism. I ambitiously sought out spaces in which I could apply what I learned. Activism must be inclusive and exhaustive of all possible routes; a task properly suited only for the critical thinker. I found my voice for the first time. And, of course, I learned how to be a leader, but most importantly, my education taught me how to be a part of a community and how to apply the sanctuary that is theory. 

My education has been an endless cycle of practicing and perfecting, getting it all wrong, and starting again. Interestingly enough, my healing has followed this same course; they are inherently and irrevocably intertwined. This new world of activism and resistance both informs and is informed by the theory I learned in the classroom. Theory has, without a doubt, prepared me to be an agent of change in my local community through skill building and my own healing.