The liberal arts form the foundation for the future

You can’t change the world unless you understand it, explain this year’s winners of the L&S essay contest.

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Students often come to college with passion and drive to change the world for the better. But it is through a liberal arts education that they truly learn how to do so, say the three top-ranking writers in the College of Letters & Sciences’ annual essay contest.

Winner Emily Klode, an English literature major who will graduate in December, shares a discovery about the power of words to help those in need. Runner-up freshman Owen Bacskai forges connections between communication and the world around us. And honorable mention Annalise Panthofer, a senior who graduates this month with degrees in Spanish and biology and a global health certificate, illuminates how a well-rounded education best prepares doctors of the future.

The following are excerpts from their essays.

First place winner Emily Klode (Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)

We All Lay Dying

By Emily Klode

There’s a concept in linguistics that I didn’t learn until coming here, “prescriptivism” vs. “descriptivism.” Prescriptivism concerns the way English should be, the rules it should operate upon, the way it’s supposed to sound. A descriptivist, on the other hand, articulates the way things actually are in English — the way we actually use words, the way punctuation actually punctuates. Prescriptivists critique language while descriptivists seek to understand how it exists.

Prescriptivists are high school seniors named Emily who come to college thinking they know what their future should be, what it means to be educated and what their world will be like. A liberal arts education at the University of Wisconsin, however, does not let prescriptivists stay prescriptivists.

A liberal arts student knows that understanding is a vital prerequisite to critique. I’ve learned to see and feel and describe the world as it actually exists, rather than the way it’s expected to exist. Through this, I have fostered the most important skill of all: to be a human being.

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying enraptured me my freshman year the way Game of Thrones has bewitched most of America. The way Faulkner uses language deviates structurally from any prescriptivist notion of English, using disconnected perspectives to tell the story of the Bundren family as they navigate their mother’s death. However, Faulkner also dismantles the English language as a concept, claiming in one of my favorite quotes that, “Words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at.”

As I Lay Dying taught me that words don’t have to be used the way I’d always thought they had to be; sometimes, it seemed, the most powerful words were nonsensical, broken and unfinished. Faulkner taught me the importance of connecting through words, through all the words not spoken by the members of the Bundren family. In all the missed connections, lopsided relationships and one-dimensional conversations, I learned that though language is imperfect and incomplete, it’s necessary for human connection throughout our lives. It’s through language that we can begin to share our brokenness and articulate our feelings in a way that will make others feel less alone. The Bundren family was trying to cope with death, but in omitting meaningful communication, they coped in isolation. Humans were never meant for isolation.

I’ll walk away from my liberal arts education with the ability to connect to, and give voices to, the marginalized and the unwell. Connection has the potential to save hundreds of lives. But at the very least, in accepting my own human struggle and realizing our shared struggle, I can color and enrich and save my own.

Second place winner Owen Bacskai (Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)

This is History

By Owen Bacskai

The first thought I had upon starting my second semester at the University of Wisconsin- Madison was that the lecture hall in Birge Hall looked strikingly, almost distractingly, like the lecture hall from the Indiana Jones movies. From the walls adorned with yellowing maps to the creaking wood and rusting metal of the aging chairs, the room seemed more poised to house Spielberg’s quick-witted renaissance man than my gaunt, sweatshirt-clad frame. Thus, when my professor —a serious, dark-haired woman — strode to the front of the room, I half expected her to introduce herself as “professor of archeology, expert on the occult and obtainer of rare antiquities.”

I was drawn back to reality, however, when she sauntered with a casual confidence to her podium and said, “Welcome to Introduction to Communication Arts.” I leaned back in my chair with a creak. Communication Arts, I thought. I don’t even know what that means. I had registered for the course on a whim, after a friend recommended I look into it to explore my love of journalism and writing. I knew little of the class, less about the topic and less still about why it was a significant area of study.

She answered each of these questions — and just about any other I could have formulated at that point — with her next line: “Everything you do,” she said, “whether it be emotional, social, perceptual or political, is communication.”

I was stunned. I had taken some weighty classes before this: Political science had taught me of the powerful interpersonal forces that can be the inception, continuation or destruction of a state, criminal justice had forced me to think about how we as a society define ethics and social acceptability and journalism had shown me how we can construct a common, unifying reality. But I had yet to hear any of my professors claim that essentially every aspect of my life hinged on their field of study.

It was at this moment, sitting uncomfortably in a seventies-era wooden chair in a cold lecture hall, that I was struck by the sheer power of a liberal arts education. Here I was, expecting that my schooling would gradually focus on my intended area of study, when in reality my liberal arts instruction is so much more than simply becoming fluent in a language, gaining expertise in a region’s history or understanding how molecules interact. It is, in reality, a connective tissue that unites the varied segments of human knowledge and work into an interdependent community of understanding and progress that operates on a universal set of communication principles. Thus, a liberal arts education, as a whole, is the awakening of the student to this goliath network.

I think my perspective on the importance of liberal arts education is best summed up by reverting to where we began: Indiana Jones. Before opening the legendary Ark of the Covenant, the movie’s villain turns to Indy and says of the biblical artifact, “Weare simply passing through history. This … this ishistory.” By enlightening me on how the world around me truly functions as an abstract whole, liberal arts education shows me how to connect with this world, question its predominant realities and be the harbinger of change and social betterment. Thus, this education allows me to be more than a historical pedestrian. It gives me the tools to be an engaged and impactful part of history’s progression, and it offers me the power to help cultivate an ever- brightening and perpetually improving future.

Honorable mention Annalise Panthofer (Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)

Tackling the world’s problems through expanding perspective

By Annalise Panthofer

My biological studies have taught me that diabetes mellitus type 2 can be caused by the desensitization of receptors to insulin due to incessant insulin exposure from excess glucose consumption, which in turn prevents glucose from being absorbed from the bloodstream into muscle, fat and liver cells.

My certificate in global health has taught me that as countries undergo the demographic transition, an increasing number of individuals develop this disease and other chronic diseases like it due to increased access to foods with high fat and sugar content.

My Spanish major has taught me the vocabulary and contextual clues necessary to communicate these concepts to different audiences.

My field study in Argentina taught me the dangers of gestational diabetes and the high risk of type 2 diabetes in infants born to mothers with gestational diabetes.

My research in aortic disease has taught me about the inherent risk of cardiovascular disease that comes with a diagnosis of diabetes.

This is just a brief example of how my multidisciplinary education has framed the way in which I think and will help me to tackle real-world issues in the future. Thus, a liberal arts education has played an imperative role in my development as a student, professional and global citizen.

In all aspects of life and future careers, perspectives gained in the humanities are valuable if not compulsory. Can you imagine trying to discuss, for example, why people get type 2 diabetes without also discussing societal inequalities that produce unhealthy lifestyles? Can you imagine interacting with a coworker who cannot coherently construct emails or discuss anything outside the realm of pipettes and beakers?

I do not believe that I would be half as passionate about my future career as a physician had I not pursued a liberal arts education. My courses about racial inequality, immigration and women’s rights have inspired me to strive toward addressing health disparities and personal

biases that may inhibit me from being the best health care provider possible.

My biology major and research alone would make me a fine provider, but the addition of these disciplines will make me a more conscientious, accessible provider. Thus, my liberal arts education will make lasting impacts on my ability to make a more substantial difference in the lives of others.