LAS Essay Contest Winners
Prompt: In his Convocation Address to the class of 2020, President Danko discusses his personal experience with civil unrest and observes that the students of this year’s incoming class are also beginning their college careers “during a time of social, environmental, and political turmoil.” Accompanying this turbulent social climate are highly diverse opinions that students must navigate to develop their own perspectives and moral codes, while still maintaining a healthy respect for both critical engagement and alternative viewpoints. In an essay of no more than 1000 words, analyze how your liberal arts education has either facilitated engagement with the turmoil in one of the aforementioned areas, or prompted a change in attitude or perspective toward a social, environmental, or political issue.
It'll be okay mom
by Abdul Saltagi
“It’ll be okay mom,” I lied, trying to comfort my distraught mother. She had just heard the news that her nephew, my cousin, was captured by the Syrian Government and her sister hadn’t heard any news of him for days. This was not the first time my family had heard bad news rom Syria, but this time, it hit close to home. A few years prior to my birth, my parents immigrated to the United States to escape the economic instability and corruption in Syria. As a first-generation American with Syrian-born parents, the current situation in Syria, which has been classified as “the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era” by the United Nations, affects me deeply. However, prior to college, I lacked the resources, knowledge, and power to do anything very meaningful to help the troubled Syrian people. The people my parents were raised with. Furthermore, my upbringing and the ongoing situation in Syria slowed my understanding of other cultures or areas of study that didn’t pertain to my family or friends. My parents, who had to escape their home country to secure a better future for their children, focused heavily on teaching my siblings and I the language, culture, and customs of the Syrian people. Moreover, I attended a private school for most of my life with people of the same religion and a similar culture. As a result, I lacked a strong connection to cultures and ideas different than my own, and thus, I was not able to effectively gauge the attention of other individuals in regards to the atrocities in Syria.
Coming to Butler University was a catalyst to my understanding of the various cultures and ideas around me. Before even starting my classes, I was encouraged to read a book that the University sent out to all incoming freshmen called Ties that Bind, which included stories of people with unique experiences. This was only a taste of what I would experience in terms of learning about other cultures and ideas through Butler’s liberal arts education. My FYS, which focused on faith, doubt, and reason, further ignited my understanding of other religions and philosophical ideas that I had never learned about or thought of before. Yet another course I took that helped me understand others different than myself was my Global and Historical Studies course, which focused on Latin America. These core courses that make up the liberal arts education of Butler served and surpassed their intended purposes in my situation, and that has changed me into a more educated and informed individual.
Along with the core classes, many experiences at Butler have helped me connect with individuals of different race, religion, and culture. One of these experiences was being a teaching assistant (TA). As a TA, I not only helped students in lab with something they struggled with, but I also held interesting conversations with many of them on a number of different topics, and this has allowed me to understand the perspective and ideology of those around me. Another experience that has connected me with individuals unlike myself is my involvement with the Muslim Student Association (MSA). As a MSA executive board member, I have had the opportunity to meet fellow Muslims and also interact with people of different faith, which has helped me understand the various cultures around me.
As the situation in Syria continues to escalate, I decided I needed to take action. Through my newfound knowledge and understanding of those around me, I am now able to effectively connect with a diverse audience and raise awareness about the mayhem in Syria. I have become more involved with organizations around campus and with campaigns that help the Syrian people. One particular organization, Students Organize for Syria (SOS), created a campaign called Dares4Syria in which teams would complete dares to raise money to keep the Syrian children warm in the winter. The campaign raised over $75,000, and my team achieved second place. This campaign inspired me to start a SOS chapter at Butler, and I am currently in the beginning stages of starting the organization at Butler University. My vision for the organization is to not only raise awareness about the situation in Syria, but also about other humanitarian catastrophes occurring all over the world.
When I look at my mother now, I can confidently tell her, “it’ll be okay mom.” Through my liberal arts education at Butler, I am now able to engage with an audience and connect with it, and I hope that this power I possess will be used to educate others about Syria and other humanitarian crises. My dream is an America in which all individuals are informed about issues occurring in the world around them, and not just issues that pertain to the United States or allies. Recently, there has been an influx of Islamophobia, and as a Muslim, my peers and I have taken steps to make sure that the public is aware of the true side of Islam, and not the side that the media portrays. We have gotten more involved with interfaith and have organized events with churches to improve the image of Islam. Furthermore, the current refugee ban, which has been coined “Muslim ban” by many, has prompted me to speak out and take action against the discrimination in order to educate the public about the true side of the Syrian people and Muslims in general. These recent events have encouraged my peers and me in the MSA to organize events regarding the current issues surrounding Muslims and refugees, many of whom come from Syria. I hope that my liberal arts education will continue to improve my knowledge and understanding of other cultures, ideas, and disciplines that are unfamiliar to me, and I hope that it facilitates my peers to engage in fixing the issues that surround them. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
Prompt: Butler's commitment to a liberal arts education offers many different opportunities for students to raise their awareness about diversity issues, which often leads to a reassessment of beliefs and positions. Write an essay exploring how your exposure to the liberal arts has better enabled you to critically analyze a specific diversity issue and to put your deepened understanding to work in the context of your own experience.
by Kateri Vaughn
"If my parents ever said that to me, I would feel so unloved; like what?" my friend said, chuckling, not realizing the gravity of her words. The laughter echoed off each wall in the dorm room, before dying down to a muffled giggle. It was only the second week of school, and we had just become what seemed like very close friends. She had just seen the note my mother left on my dresser. My friend, unlike myself, was atheist. The note read, "Keep the Lord close - as difficult as it is to believe, he loves you much more than we do." This discovery led to an in-depth conversation about atheism and Catholicism; eventually she asked me what stance I had on gay rights and marriage, and my voice caught in my throat. I knew my parents were against gay marriage… Only one week away from the nest and I had been struck by the recognition that I had been seeing everything, while not necessarily wrong, from a very slanted perspective.
Upon arrival at Butler I was blissfully overwhelmed, surrounded constantly by innumerable students who were different than myself. However, I soon began to realize the extent and reality of the sheltered, Catholic, and conservative life I had previously led. I felt as though I had to unlearn looking at everything from a Catholic, conservative perspective. The whole situation felt awkward to me—like I was backtracking instead of moving forward like I thought I would. I felt displaced—the values I believed to be the very fabric of who I was, were not the immovable foundation I thought them to be. Having to unsee what I had seen my entire life was difficult. I was embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, my background, and chose not to talk about it.
I felt ashamed when speaking with others who possessed different beliefs on religion and sexual preferences than I did. I simply did not know enough on the matter, did not know the multiple views that were available and openly discussed in this new setting; I had only been educated in one way my entire life. Growing up, people who believed in God and the teachings of the Catholic faith surrounded me. I lived with a lingering, unshakable guilt that my religion, which I prized and took comfort in, had strict notions against gay marriage—which is why I, initially, chose not to speak about my background.
Thus, I turned to my education. The discussions in class or with peers, the books I read, the new, radical ideas I was exposed to, all required me to do more than parrot the ideologies that I had grown up with—to learn how to think for myself. I looked at these controversial issues through someone else's point of view; saw how it affected them, how it hurt them, how it helped them. It made me question myself, who I am and who I wanted to be, placing me in the, honestly, frightening position of trying to define myself, on my own, for the first time. I realized that I could either obliviously remain in my comfort zone, ignorant to these groups of diverse individuals, or I could let my struggles with faith and reason shape me into a more progressive, well rounded individual. An individual I wanted to become.
Butler's education introduced me to this struggle, challenged me to confront myself, and I am eternally grateful. I never would have dared to question my own personal beliefs or religion without my Liberal Arts Education. In high school, along with the majority of my peers, I simply followed the crowd. It seemed as though my ideas, opinions, and beliefs were made for me; my path was already chosen. I never questioned anything, largely because everyone seemed to believe the same thing. I was ignorant to my own strength to form opinions and think for myself. Whereas, when I came to Butler, I was exposed to a multitude of diverse people and was granted the freedom to explore my own ideals and personal beliefs. I was challenged at Butler. Challenged to think creatively and critically about the things that made me uncomfortable, to question myself and what was intrinsically right in this world. Where do I stand? What do I believe?
I can't say that my struggles are finished; I still grapple with the ideals of gay marriage and atheism, and do not have any concrete opinions formed. However, my perspective and attitude has changed completely. The importance of my Liberal Arts Education lies in the education—the introduction and growth of deep thought. Being exposed to such different people and seeing both hatred and compassion towards them, I've realized the worth of a kind and understanding individual who accepts others despite the differences between them. Who am I, another simple college student, to judge anyone else for whom they want to love or marry? While others may see kindness and empathy as a weakness in the face of adversity, I view it as the ultimate strength. It takes courage to remain so empathetic and considerate in a world that can be so cruel.
Essentially, the education at Butler introduced me to a world of creative thinking I was initially deprived of. It forced me to step outside my comfort zone and think critically about the issues at hand, instead of sheepishly following the herd. Butler forces me, in a necessary way, to bypass ignorance in order to further my education and my own person, now and after college. Understanding others and being able to empathize with them is my education, in a way. It transformed me into a more understanding and accepting person. And, as I said before - the transformation is not complete, and likely never will be. I am a work in progress, and excited to see the end result, thanks to my Liberal Arts Education.
Prompt: In describing Butler 2020 the university makes use of six different verbs to articulate the university's vision for its future, a vision deeply informed by and invested in the liberal arts. Select one of the verbs that are part of the vision for Butler 2020 and write an essay describing how your liberal arts education has made that verb part of your own vision for the future. In other words, think about and illustrate how you will be better able to enact that verb as a result of your liberal arts education.
Butler 2020: Integrate. Exemplify excellence in the liberal arts, professional education, and their effective integration.
by Katelyn Breden
A low, contented buzzing grows more audible every time I bend down towards the bees. They busily buzz around the flower of the squash while I harvest the fruit. Later in the day, my body will be sore and the sweat will run freely. For now, a morning breeze staves off the sun's heat while the bees and I work together.
Farm work is generally not the vision inspired by the words "liberal arts." We picture academics hunched over exciting papers, or geneticists analyzing DNA. A destructive piece of folk wisdom tells us that farmers are, generally, uneducated. Spend a day with a farmer, however, and you will observe the scientific analysis of crop planning, philosophical awe and frustration at Mother Nature, and lyrical understanding of the connections between it all.
These farmers are part of a much larger food system. Systems, by their nature, are integrative. In recent years, food activists have been working to improve both local and national food systems. Faced with looming threats from hunger, obesity, and climate change, these individuals and organizations must integrate their efforts. They build bridges and connections between nonprofits, businesses, governmental organizations, farmers, and everyday consumers, resulting in an impressive force that can meet the failures of an unsustainable food system with strong solutions.
My work at Butler University has been preparing me to enter this network of food visionaries. Already, I have participated in a year-long food fellowship through the Indy Food Council. I worked with Green BEAN Delivery, an organic produce and natural grocery delivery service, to communicate farmers' stories to consumers. Meanwhile, I represented Butler among my other fellows as we engaged in the community. During this fellowship, I found myself documenting the lives of farmers while experiencing the work for myself. This immersive experience complemented the strong liberal arts foundation I was, and still am, building.
As a double major, my experience at Butler has been necessarily integrative. I have combined my two academic disciplines in order to better understand the world. My education is multifaceted not only through my double majoring, but also through the interdisciplinary nature of both majors. Strategic Communication in the College of Communication combines the fields of public relations and advertising. In the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences exists a major very close to my heart. Science, Technology, and Society (STS) is not the most well-known major, but we are gaining traction. We are a unique group of individuals who are fascinated by the connections between the scientific and social realms.
I could choose to specifically pursue a degree in agriculture, biology, business, environmental science, history, philosophy, psychology, political science, or urban planning. However, through STS, I am gaining an invaluable liberal arts education that allows me to forge connections between different areas of thought and understanding. My professors and peers have consistently cultivated an environment where moving beyond the facts on the page is not only welcomed but absolutely necessary.
In a word, we integrate. We integrate ideas and knowledge from multiple fields in order to gain a more robust education. Butler 2020 has chosen the word "integrate" to describe the envisioned relationship between liberal arts and a professional education, in recognition that excellence is achieved through holistic experience. My experiences at Butler have been teaching me how to effectively integrate varying skills and knowledge. They have also solidified my passion for enacting this vision in my pursuits outside of academia, not only after graduation but in the present as well.
In my very first semester at Butler, I enrolled in an Indianapolis Community Requirement course called Humans and the Natural Environment. Dr. O'Malley taught us about psychology as well as environmental conflicts, challenging us to integrate the two areas as we learned about conservation psychology. Our class divided into groups, choosing to work with different community organizations. My group worked with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis (UUI). Interestingly, UUI is integrative in itself as the church is open to individuals of all faith backgrounds, and identifying as both Unitarian Universalist and another faith (or lack thereof) is seen as completely normal.
We were tasked with aiding UUI in surveying the surrounding neighborhood to understand residents' needs and wants in relation to a more environmentally friendly community. We engaged the congregation with educational tools to help them assess their own carbon footprints. My individual contribution was an online collection of healthy and earth-friendly recipes. This experience is but one example of the ways that Butler has allowed me to integrate multiple areas of knowledge.
My liberal arts education at this university will propel me forward, armed with these skills. I am thrilled at the opportunity to join the sustainable food system movement, where progress is only achieved through integration of all areas of the community.
Prompt: The distinction between what is right to do and what is callous or offensive marks many of our decisions and can shape our lives and the lives of those affected by our actions and attitudes for better or worse. Moral choices are pervasive; we encounter them in the occupations on which we may embark, the research we may perform, and the lives that we lead. There is no universal agreement on the principles that should guide our moral choices (e.g. many tend to equate what is right with personal advantage or with some religious or political ideology). Articulate and analyze the ways by which your Butler Experience (Core and Major Classes, Community and Cultural Requirements, Study Abroad, Service Activities, and so on) has helped you to gain personal insight into the distinction(s) between what is right and what is wrong.
The Moral Code of LAS
By Bryant Dawson
It was not until my freshman year at Butler that my morals were strewn into the inferno - and quite deliberately, in a seminar class titled, "Faith, Doubt, and Reason." Despite the burn, I emerged with a clearer understanding of right and wrong. The class was the spark I needed to step outside my conservative comfort zone of Southern Indiana and into reality. What I have discovered throughout my subsequent liberal arts studies at Butler University is that this reality is incredibly situational, but it can offer great insight into what is right and wrong when approached through a certain lens.
"Faith, Doubt and Reason" first exposed me to strong arguments challenging my method of thinking. An argument made by Paul Tillich in his book Dynamics of Faith states that "Science has no right and no power to interfere with faith and faith has no power to interfere with science" (Tillich 94). Tillich's philosophy rocked my way of seeing the world. "How is it that two items intended to improve human life and direct behavior for the masses could possibly ever be completely compartmentalized?" I thought. The questions inspired by this first class at Butler convinced me to change my major from Biology to the emerging field of Science, Technology, and Society. This has allowed me to broaden my perspective on a variety of social issues, ultimately making me a more accepting person.
In the major, abbreviated as "STS," I have found that I can continue asking the same philosophical questions that were so interesting to me as a freshman. Philosophy, however, is a paradoxical subject. The Greeks defined it as "the love of wisdom," yet most writers seek to exclude some ideology, preaching a one-sided argument. Maybe somewhere during the past 2,500 years we have lost the meaning of wisdom. Certainly excluding ideas is not wise.
This is exactly where I feel my Butler education has led me. Above all, an open mind is necessary to understand morals. Decisions about good and bad are relative, a lesson I have learned from observations of other cultures. Last summer I received my core community requirement volunteering with a medical brigade in Guatemala through Butler's Timmy Global Health chapter. During the trip I met a midwife name Maria Louisa, one of the community women helping bridge the language barriers between our American medical brigade and the rural Guatemalan community of Mayan descent. All day long, she had a blanket strapped around her back carrying a sleepy toddler. He eventually became restless and wiggled free to the ground, exploring what I assume was the newly discovered art of running. The Butler volunteers and I were enjoying his new found freedom until Maria Louisa caught up, snagged him by one arm, and lifted him up, giving him several resounding spanks on the rear end. The boy did not cry, but I wanted to. The scene was hard to watch and seemed unjust.
The act to me seemed morally wrong. "Can't spanking so frequently condition children to answer anger with physicality?" I thought I had read that somewhere, and it is certainly not what the world needs. Later that night, however, I learned the Church in Guatemala encourages women to spank to teach obedience. Maria Louisa was a single mother and she had never read a psychological study about the affects of spanking to make her question the action. What other authority did she have to listen to if not the word of the Church? How can I say that she was wrong?
While I experienced the situational nature of right and wrong in Guatemala, I also discovered the necessity of perspective in decision making during my semester abroad in Spain. I spent fall of 2013 on a Butler Spanish immersion program in Alcalá de Henares, a suburb of Madrid. As the semester progressed, I slowly learned about the city's most famous hero, Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. The book portrays the idea that perception is the key to understanding reality. In the book, Don Quixote's perception is so limited by the countless fantasies he reads that he is disconnected from reality. He famously mistakes windmills for giants and attempts to slay them. Regarding moral decisions, we need to be careful not to find ourselves caught in a fantasy. What Don Quixote needs, what society needs, and more specifically, what I need, is to be widely informed to make decisions about what is right and wrong.
Yes, moral decisions are incredibly difficult. Yes, we often do the wrong things. What can we expect from the first beings on Earth to try to understand decisions as being somehow right or wrong? Only sharing ideas, the "love of wisdom," can help us understand the puzzle of morality. Right or wrong cannot exist unless many options are known and understood so that choices exist. I know now that I was wrong to think Maria Louisa should not spank her child. She has no other choice.
I have learned right from wrong not from being told by my parents, or by discovering the answer in a single scientific experiment. It was obtained through the places I have been, the languages I have spoken, and the experiences I have had. The distinction between what is right and wrong is certainly a matter of perspective. It can be very situational, but the more informed we are about all ideas, the better adapted we are to judge right versus wrong. I am convinced that the true value of my liberal arts education is the exposure it has given me to other people, places and ideas.
Prompt: In Professor Marshall Gregory's forthcoming book, Good Teaching and Educational Vision: Not the Same Thing as Disciplinary Expertise, he writes of the importance of "[making] some kind of positive contribution to the world: to do something to make the world more sensible or more peaceful or more civil or more intelligent, and more congenial to human flourishing." Write an essay that analyzes how your liberal arts experiences (in your core and major classes, your community requirements, your service work, or other experiences) have inspired or prepared you to make similar sorts of positive contributions to rationality, peace, civility, intelligence, or human growth.
Bologna and Blogs: A Student's Journey Towards Actualizing The Purpose of His Higher Education
By Andrew Erlandson
Many students look forward to that magical graduation date when they will suddenly be equipped "to do something to make the world more sensible or more peaceful or more civil or more intelligent," as the late Dr. Marshall Gregory says in his forthcoming book, Good Teaching and Educational Vision: Not the Same Thing as Disciplinary Expertise. These students misunderstand the key to this challenging quote. When Gregory urges us "to do something" beneficial to the people around us, he doesn't exhort students to wait four years to start. That would be silly. As Boris Pasternak wrote in his novel Dr. Zhivago: "Man is born to live, not to prepare for life." The community of the Liberal Arts and Sciences encourages its students to actively pursue rationality, civility, and peace in the present moment through integrity of thought and action.
Our educational system's logic proceeds as follows: perform well in middle school in order to get into high school honors classes. Achieve excellence in high school in order to be accepted to a renowned university. Excel in college in order to get a good job. Get a good job in order to retire early, so that you can putter around for a few years before dying. Right? The Liberal Arts and Sciences has broken me out of this rut by removing the phrase "in order to," freeing me to concentrate on the world I live in, not the world I plan on occupying. Otherwise we end up following someone else's orders until we go tumbling off a cliff like lemmings.
When I enrolled in EN 455: Writing In Schools, I wasn't aware I would drive to Shortridge High School twice a week to make sandwiches. That's right, bologna sandwiches with that rubbery cheese. Unlike other collegiate classes, this one wasn't an opportunity to learn so much as an opportunity to act in the world. The focus was on helping the Shortridge students, not our grades. Utilizing our experience studying creative writing, we mentored the students in writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. We fed the students to ward off distraction, joked around with them like peers, gave them writing exercises, and supported them in any way we knew how. My proudest moment was watching the shy eighth grader I had worked with stand up in front of the whole class and present her poem about how irritating it can be dealing with annoying people. It was a special moment for all of us.
As a student of literature, I must ask myself how time spent analyzing The Divine Comedies or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn prepares me to make the world "more congenial to human flourishing," as Dr. Gregory put it. My answer came in November of 2012. A professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences came under attack by a student for the wording of her syllabus. Although the article was not hateful in and of itself, a number of thoughtless, hateful, and bigoted messages were sent to the professor as a result.
I wrote two articles in response to the event that I posted on my blog. Taking as measured and rational approach as possible, I examined first the student's argument and granted that there may be class curriculums that treat certain genders, ethnicities, or sexualities less favorably than others. Then I looked at the language used in his article, which claimed that the professor was asking the class to "disavow" their identities. The actual wording asked for students not to take any single type of identity "as the norm." My training taught me how to challenge the blatant misuse of logic and rhetoric, especially because of the harm it was causing to another person. I challenged that the twisted wording undermined the credibility of the author's argument.
Within hours I was the new target of vitriol from online users that underscored the importance of Dr. Gregory's call to civility and rationality.
My faith in the importance of the Liberal Arts and Sciences community came later that week when an open forum was held to address the situation. This conversation embodied the spirit of the Liberal Arts and Sciences. The word "conversation" originates from Latin "com-" meaning with and "vertere," meaning to turn. A true conversation involves two or more people "turning together" through thought. In this way the community navigated through this trying situation. For example, many attendees of the forum instinctively wanted to cast aspersions at the student author. The community guided each other away from such sentiments, because they lacked integrity, respect, or relevance.
It was important that the open forum was separated from the virtual realm. With online comments, a person can carry their extreme opinions, express them, and never worry over who they hurt or what reaction they provoke. The online community is a collection of disparate, anonymous, and isolated speakers who aren't required to listen or engage in conversation with the rest of the community. The open forum resisted this phenomenon by fostering rationality, civility, peace, intelligence, and the growth of those speaking and listening. Everyone brought their opinions, but had to engage with others and acknowledge, if not agree with, the their thoughts. It was the catharsis necessary to ease everyone's frustration and extinguish the fire that had raged on Facebook and Twitter for days.
Marshall Gregory's words embody the spirit of the Liberal Arts, and express how my studies have been more than educational. They have given me the drive to actively participate in the world, the opportunity to defend against dishonest discourse, and the clarity to live a deliberate life.
 Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 2010. Print.
 Lovelace, Ryan. "Students Told to Disavow 'American-ness, Maleness, Whiteness, Heterosexuality'" The College Fix. N.p., 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.
 Douglas Harper. "Online Etymology Dictionary." Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.
Prompt: Virtually all news and media outlets frequently and urgently remind us that we are at a historic crossroads and that local and global societies and economies are facing extraordinary if not totally unprecedented challenges. Yet many of us tend to feel disconnected from these challenges, watching them as if they were a show that we are free to observe or ignore or as a set of problems others are responsible for solving, preferably without our involvement.
In what ways has your experience at Butler moved you to and prepared you for a higher level of engagement with or response to these challenges? How has your liberal arts education encouraged or supported this change?
Mediating Disconnected Communities with a Liberal Arts Education
By Jennifer Redmond
In the midst of an Indianapolis evening, nothing makes you more aware of your surroundings than the homeless on 38th street, or the police vehicles blocking the road on your way home. Whatever the cause of this chaos, you will most likely find out on tonight's news. Yet, nothing makes you feel small like all of these issues overwhelming the sidewalks around you, and nothing makes you feel more relieved than knowing you can safely breeze by them in your car. It is these day-to-day scenes that are analyzed and statistically configured into textbooks and newspaper articles at schools, businesses, and non-profit organizations. But if, as Henry David Thoreau once said, "A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting," then perhaps all understanding of the world begins with the fundamental steps of reading and then experiencing. And that is exactly what I learned from reading Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh.
Vankatesh, a graduate sociology student, was assigned the mundane task of gathering data about impoverished neighborhoods via a multiple-choice survey. However, he turned numbers into faces by risking his life every day, getting to know people rather than focusing on data. Over the course of ten years, Vankatesh became friends with the leader of a crack-dealing gang, lived with inhabitants of the Chicago housing projects, and learned undisclosed information about the inner workings of a community so often deemed an "urban war zone." In short, Vankatesh became not only a student of sociology, but an activist wanting to identify with the "subjects" too often depicted in the context of empirical statistics, not as human beings. His approach revolutionized how students of the liberal arts gather information within fields such as sociology.
Four years at Butler University has taught me two important lessons about activism. These lessons, which are similar to Vankatesh's philosophy, show how liberal arts students are trained to enter into debate with "the facts" and blaze new trails to find their own answers. First, learning is more about questioning than acquiring knowledge. Knowledge may be the key to finding similarities between cultures, communities, and individuals, but a curious outlook is necessary to becoming an active participant. Butler is a special place because it is a cultural smorgasbord: there are foreign language classes, global and historical studies, a diversity center, and students engaged in philanthropy. With such an outlook, one can't help but realize people are meshed together by a universal connection to understanding and improving the human condition. Secondly, through the discussions so typical in Butler classes, I have learned that the liberal democracy in which we live allows us the freedom to write, speak, or advocate for anything we choose. This being said, perhaps the reason so many people feel disconnected from today's current events is due to a lack of broad-mindedness that comes from knowledge. Such a deficit allows democratic freedoms to be taken for granted.
Service-learning has opened my eyes to new opportunities for activism. Before I came to Butler my idea of an activist was someone who was properly trained, had a specific political goal in mind, was either "pro" or "anti" establishment, and was not tolerant to others' point of view. In the fall of my senior year at Butler, I joined Back on My Feet1 and found myself wanting to know the stories behind people so desperate for a new start. As I ran and engaged in dialogue with these people, I did not consider myself an activist because my fellow runners were my friends. Despite our different backgrounds, educations, ethnicities, or religions, reaching the finish line is what we had in common. As I helped others improve their life, I improved mine as well.
Prior to Butler, I would not have had the capacity or background knowledge to understand the issues behind homelessness, drug abuse, and recovery. Yet, because of the variety of classes I took (involving discussion and/or service-learning), I was able to feel compassion toward what we, as a society, often see or hear about only through the media. Perhaps another reason we feel so disconnected lies in the media's tendency to overload us with data. Data disconnects us from the reality of life and produces an illusion. For activism to exist compassionate human interaction is required. No sense of obligation will lead the true activist to bring about the desired change. And, admittedly, without personally engaging in the circumstances it is hard to feel compelled by the issues brought up in newspapers, television, the radio, or books.
Events such as the Occupy movement, "right-to-work" rallies, abortion debates, and environmental protests beg for a public response. Yet, despite the fact that not everyone is an activist, the media insist that we react rather than think during tumultuous times. As a liberal arts student, however, I feel I have a strong sense of guidance when it comes to engaging with local and global societies and economies. During historic crossroads the imagination, creativity, and criticism of a liberal arts education are pertinent to limiting the disconnect.
When I reflect on the matters addressed in this essay, I am reminded of Shakespeare's words, "All the world's a stage." The media reaffirm this every day, yet this is not the reality. As the audience watches the show, a liberal arts student sees the inner workings behind the curtain. And although media constantly changes in order to grab our attention, the liberal arts will always be a way to extract the unprejudiced truth from the world in which we live.
1 a non-profit organization that helps homeless veterans or drug abuse victims overcome challenges by running.
Prompt: Contemporary higher education is increasingly dominated by the realities and metaphors of the market economy. Education is an investment or a product. Students are consumers. Admissions counselors are salespeople and professors deliver their customers goods and services. Write an essay about this mindset and how it has affected your education. Have your attitudes towards the commoditization of education changed during your time at Butler? Fundamentally, how can or should liberal arts education fit within this worldview?
Metaphors of the Market Economy and The Learning Community
By Ben Sippola
As a student attending Butler University and pursuing a degree in the liberal arts, I am frequently asked the collegiate icebreaker of "what is your major?" This question is most always accompanied by its counterpart "what are you planning to do with that?" After answering the first question with a liberal arts major, this second question is usually asked sympathetically or in utter astonishment that I could possibly spend four years of my life studying biology, history, sociology, or literature. However the question is not merely "what will you do with your liberal arts degree?" Rather, it is "how will you make money in the cut-throat market economy with the tools of a liberal arts education?"
Previous to college these questions were omnipresent in my thoughts. How am I going to make enough money to be happy? However after gaining a liberal arts education, these initial thoughts of "money making" have taken a backseat and have been replaced by aspirations of becoming a member of the world community where true value lies in the ability to see the world from multiple perspectives and understand the intrinsic worth of belonging to a society of life long learners.
My initial preoccupation with making money prior to attending college is understandable. The discourse surrounding contemporary higher education is dominated by the clichés and metaphors of the market economy. Our student lives are mediated through slogans like money doesn't grow on trees, money is power, and another day another dollar. Time is money and so is education. Students come to an institution like Butler with the expectation that upon paying tuition they are to be provided with the goods and services necessary in the real world to make money. Thus, admissions counselors are salespeople, professors provide goods and services, and the student inevitably becomes consumer. However, the university as a metaphor for the market place is shallow to say the least.
To view the university as a place in which the individual is either commodity or producer is small-minded. This idea does not take into account the formation of relationships and the invaluable communities that form between students and professors. While money tends to come and go, relationships and communities last a lifetime.
In promoting the true value of belonging to a community of learners, Henry David Thoreau says it best. In describing what the student gains through the educational commune Thoreau states, "Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made" (1898). Thoreau makes the vital distinction that the "more valuable" education comes through association with one's classmates and professors. To view education solely as a monetary exchange diminishes the college experience entirely. I am certain that the conversations with my classmates and professors throughout four years at a liberal arts institution are the most valuable aspect of my education, preparing me for a future in which I will be forced to form new friendships and communities to be successful. It is the liberal arts community that makes this type of learning possible.
You may still be wondering what "type of learning" I am describing. I am talking about learning that emphasizes the importance of community, a form of learning trained at a liberal arts institution. With community comes the priceless opportunity to not only learn from others, but also to learn about others. To look outside one's self-centered mind is the most critical skill one learns from a liberal arts education. The liberal arts prepare the individual to analyze the world from multiple perspectives, to take into account not only one's own situation, but also the circumstances of one's fellow world citizens. It is through this ability that one realizes the common thread between all humanity and discards meaningless theoretical ideas such as nation, race, ethnicity, and language. It is only through communal learning that one can begin to understand the interrelatedness of all humanity, the plights and struggles of one's fellow men and women, and how to improve the world through human interaction. The liberal arts education forces the individual to look internally, discovering that as a human one holds an inherent duty to act in a selfless manner for the benefit of one's community members.
John Milton, arguably the most well educated man of the 17th century, stresses the importance of a learned community. He states, "The chief part of human happiness is derived from the society of one's fellows and the formation of friendships…For what can we imagine more delightful and happy than those conversations of learned and wise men" (797). As the university is dominated by a series of clichés revolving around money and happiness, there is one cliché that holds true. Money does not buy happiness. As Milton highlights, there is nothing more delightful than a society of friends and conversations between learned and wise men. What Milton means is that there is nothing more beautiful than people who can converse intelligently about the world. In order for this to happen, one must understand the world and its various perspectives and viewpoints. There is nothing fascinating or astounding about a solitary small town perspective. The world needs liberal arts to provide the foundation for a desire to learn about one another and to appreciate the many beautiful perspectives that color the planet.
Communal learning is the basis behind the primal love of the liberal arts education. It is why we love the Woods Lecture and Visiting Writers series that Butler puts together every year. We love to learn, but more importantly we love to learn from each other. There is one last cliché that holds true in the world of academia and that is you cannot put a price on education. Another item you cannot put a price on is belonging to a community. When the two are combined, education and community, the product is Butler University.
Milton, John. The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. 2007. 4. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.
Thoreau, Henry. "Walden." The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007. Print.
Prompt: New technologies and social media offer the public a myriad of options for reading and writing, and the sharing of opinions and experiences has never been easier or more immediate. But the immediacy and ease of publication is fraught with pitfalls and potential issues that provide new challenges for the next generation of readers, writers, and thinkers. Consider the place of your liberal arts education in this mix and write an essay in which you analyze how that education has better prepared you as a consumer of, contributor to, and critic of the texts that flow from new media outlets.
Mastering the Digital Age: How the Liberal Arts Can Turn Technology into Progress
By Caleb Hamman
Sitting in Clowes Hall for freshman orientation, I found the devotion of an entire segment to the dangers of Facebook a little weird. Two years ago, social media had yet to fully reveal themselves, at least to me. Obviously some suspected their shortcomings, such as the presenters in Clowes that day. But I doubt even the prescient could have predicted all of the perils and pitfalls that would accompany the opportunities of the so-called digital age.
While one might dispute its ramifications, the emergence of an electronic order is not up for discussion. In 2009, the average American consumed 34 gigabytes of information per day, with more than 91 percent of it radiating from electronic sources. As newspapers are bankrupted and books become digitized, the likes of Twitter multiply, and the ascendancy of the blogosphere appears ever more permanent. Facebook now has 350 million active users who on average spend nearly an hour per day surfing the site.
A digital age indeed.
But what of the liberal arts? If we can assume for a moment the risks of digitization, can we say a liberal education offers any prescription? Have I, a student of politics and philosophy, been better prepared for hardwired complexity? And what about students of the natural sciences, of the fine arts, of gender studies, of mathematics? In short, can we, for our efforts, hope to navigate the wilds of the digital labyrinth?
I sure hope so.
While I sincerely believe us to hold the tools for the task, I must confess to doubts about our prospects. The hazards of the digital age are not of a sort to be trifled with, and if we fail to give them due attention, I fear even the liberal arts may prove of no avail.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
It seems to me we must bring our attention back to the maze-back to the "wilds of the digital labyrinth"-for if we are to plot an escape through the liberal arts, we must first trace the impediments of digitization.
To frame the inquiry, I would suggest beginning in 1964, in the year Herbert Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man, a scathing critique of "advanced industrial society." While the era was far from a digital age, it was nevertheless a time in which technology was rapidly reconstructing human interactions. And then, like now, the process was not purely benign.
For Marcuse, the benefits of industrialization were accompanied by the systematic promotion of "one-dimensional thought." It was a condition that stifled liberal values like criticality and civic participation, for it made citizens complacent with their society and fused individual self-interest to the preservation of the status quo. As technologies like the radio and the television disseminated manufactured needs, so mass production delivered pacifying goods on an unprecedented scale. Thus came the intrusion of "industrial rationality" into the sanctuaries of language and cognition, and as one-dimensional thought hijacked reason itself, it fashioned it in a mold cast by technological imperatives.
Needless to say, this is less than a comforting vision.
I would apologize for the exposition, but it seems to me the parallels are too stark to ignore, the links between industrialization and digitization to profound to omit. The symptoms of one-dimensional thought, particularly the loss of criticality and reason-these seem to me the very dangers of the digital age, the wilds of its concomitant labyrinth.
Unfortunately, the connection is not as incredible as one might imagine.
Nicholas Carr, in his seminal piece, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," cites a panoply of scholars-psychologists, media theorists, neuroscientists-in arguing that the digital realm, more than a simple portal, is threatening to change the way we think. Technology, it turns out, may be shaping "the neural circuits inside our brains." This would seem to be cause for concern.
Of course the real question is not the rewiring itself, but rather the effects of the transformation. Anthropology and sociology have revealed the malleability of the mind, and digitization wields a hefty hammer. Thus the unknown is not so much the craft itself as it is what comes off the anvil. But here I've already staked my claim.
It seems to me reason and critical thinking are endangered species in an electronic order. When information is immediate, there arises a temptation to search rather than struggle with complexity. When knowledge appears to spring from all corners, every problem surely has an answer. One need only consult the mysteries of the omniscient Google. The question itself is damned, written off as a mere annoyance, and the digitized is severed from the edification of agnosticism. Entertainment, disinformation, and half-truths converge, blending insidiously to create epistemological chaos. And while intricacies are flattened with irons, so simplicities become obscured. In a land of limitless perspectives, all opinions appear equal, and certainty is made to seem mirage. The realm of answers renders reason to antiquity, criticality becomes a false concept, and one-dimensional thought is given renaissance in a digital age.
Obviously it does not need to be this way. Technology is an instrument, not an agent-its properties are a function our own. Yet it seems apparent, at least to me, that reason and criticality are being compromised. It may be a contingent truth, but the effect is unchanged. 34 gigabytes is just too much. Impossible to process, it must merely be skimmed, mostly dumped, a few bits stored.
So what of our question? What of the liberal arts?
It seems to me I have already given an answer. If you don't think so, maybe try Google, but I wouldn't recommend it. To conclude I will merely observe that the targets of digitization seem to be the very values nurtured by the liberal arts. Thus I say meeting the digital age is not a question of means but a question of wills. If we can find our resolve, then, perhaps we can do more than just sanitize our advancements. Maybe we can actually harness them to better the human condition.
1) Information consumption (34 gigabytes) from UC San Diego: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/archive/newsrel/general/12-09Information.asp
2) Facebook statistics: http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics
Prompt: Imagine that you had an hour to spend with President-elect Obama and your task was to make sure he understood the nature and value of a liberal arts education. What would you say to him?
Using this prompt as a starting point, the writer has the opportunity to imagine influencing the views of the President-elect on the eve of his inauguration, to speak to the centrality and importance of liberal arts education for an informed citizenry or perhaps to emphasize the relevance of liberal arts education to domestic or international issues he will be facing as President over the next four or eight years.
The Liberal Arts and Sciences Essay Committee selected two winners for the 2008–2009 contest.
Learning the Art of Creation
By Farhad Anwarzai
After watching your acceptance speech in Chicago, Mr. President, my father turned his eyes away from the television screen and told me a person's words could create a person's world. What you said on that fateful night created a world of unity. People from a variety of ethnicities, classes, and educational backgrounds stood in the snow, their heads held high and their eyes filled with tears. You listened to them; you listened to my father and me. Our voices were heard and echoed back to us over the television.
The liberal arts teach us to embrace and listen to new perspectives through various disciplines, similar to the way you listened and brought our nation's words to life. Your vision was broad, not appealing to some but to all. Such a way of thinking has not been so prevalent in this country. Our nation has only existed for a few hundred years, and the majority of those years has been spent perfecting industry and out competing other countries economically. The nation has not had time to create its own unique culture like other thousand-year-old societies. In a way, the United States has grown anti-intellectual. Money has become more important than our identities. We are isolating ourselves from the world by not embracing other ways of thinking.
When students think of the liberal arts, a job is probably not the first idea that pops up into their heads. In fact, one may view the liberal arts as a set of prerequisites for graduation, a way to "broaden one's horizons" before setting foot into the real world. However, to say a liberal education merely provides general knowledge to broaden horizons is an appalling understatement. The liberal education is more than the giving of general information; it is the never ending pursuit of wisdom, the advent of intellectual curiosity.
The human mind, Mr. President, is the most sophisticated and mysterious entity we know of. It allows us to compose music, paint portraits, write novels, solve mathematical equations, cure diseases, and create a history of our existence through poetic and abstract ideas. To deprive someone of the arts is to deprive them of their God-given capabilities. After all, art is more than self-satisfaction-it is the universal language that unites the human race, something that cannot merely be "learned" but only inherited as our common gift. Music, art, poetry, mathematics, science-these disciplines allow an American student to understand Japanese culture through a haiku or a scientist from England and a doctor from India to team up and use chemistry to produce better medicine. Practical information is used for the benefit of the individual to survive financially. The liberal arts contribute to humanity by being critical of humanity, and embracing ideas as well as questioning them. The arts grant us the freedom to choose how we should think and learn.
If the liberal arts diminished, rigid would be the best word to describe our thinking. Anything outside the realm of business and economic virtue would be considered useless, a misconception that many hold true today. The beautiful, staccato melody of Vivaldi's Winter would go unappreciated to the untrained ear. The only philosophy followed would be the philosophy of making more money. Our children would forget that the words of poets who sought freedom from the shackles of tyranny sparked the American Revolutionary War. We mustn't allow ourselves to view the liberal arts as "useless." If anything, the most useful aspects of life are learned through a liberal education. The best example is the ability to rule a government.
Implementing the best possible government for our people is based on the ancient Greek principle of democracy, or a government "held by the people." Our forefathers did not create this nation based on practical or "useful" information like hunting, trading, or selling merchandise. Our forefathers used theories from ancient governments and philosophers, histories of kingdoms that had failed throughout time and literature that depicted the thoughts of the people. With these elements they were able to craft the Constitution, perhaps the most important piece of art that scholars to this day interpret.
Aristotle once said, "All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth." As president, I am sure you are well aware that the future of this nation goes far beyond the production of money-making conglomerates. Our country works diligently to get its citizens into the work force; money, not wisdom, has become the basis of what we stand for. Is this what our children should grow up believing? Mr. President-the diminishing of the liberal arts means the lowering of educational standards. If we continue to think one dimensionally about the world as a place where only practical information matters, we are also thinning any chance we have of understanding our fellow man. The liberal arts teach us to be flexible in our thinking, to understand an array of ideas. One-dimensionality promotes ignorance and will only deteriorate any relationships we have internationally, for it is our children who will establish future relationships with other countries. A president who knows nothing of China's culture could in no way establish an alliance with China. Nor could the president fight a war if he knows nothing of the history of war, the philosophies behind a war. We are the most blessed country in the world. But if we have no understanding of the arts, our words will not create a world of progression and change.
Money is important, without a doubt. We must be aware, however, that our words will always create the world of the future. That is why we must listen before we speak. Money, for a person who makes a difference like you, Mr. President, inevitably follows, a concept that many of us forget.
An ancient Chinese proverb says, "A nation's treasure is in its scholars." True knowledge is priceless because it does not merely teach us-it inspires us.
Dear President Obama: The Importance of the Liberal Arts in Our Changeable World
By Michelle E. Skinner
Dear President Obama,
In your inaugural address, you made few promises on behalf of yourself and your administration. You reiterate this out of a conviction that it is not a person that rebuilds a nation-it is a whole people.
This is partly why we elected you. You tell us about a nation that we can help create, and this inspires us to act. You also tell us about ourselves-that in light of the "gathering clouds and raging storms," our inborn capacities as human beings can never be diminished. "Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year," you tell us confidently. In your eyes, we are a nation of "risk-takers, doers, and makers of things," and we respond to this because the notion of possibility stirs our ambitions.
You're right: Being human, we are born with the capacity to go, do, and create, and to use our skills for moral purposes. However, while these original capacities will never be diminished, it is important to recognize that our capacities will cease to be realized if they are repeatedly ignored in our education system. Like muscles, our capacities will atrophy if we do not exercise them.
All across the nation, public schools are cutting their arts programs because of insufficient government funding. This comes as no surprise- in times of economic instability, the arts are generally the first to suffer. By virtue of not being part of what the public school system considers essential to a standard core curriculum, children are quickly losing their chances to sing in choirs, paint at easels, or play a musical instrument. The belief underlying these cuts is the argument that arts programs do not teach students to calculate or think critically to the extent that math or science programs do-that the arts are "extra" rather than an integral part of a full education.
As a student who has had the privilege of having a higher education in the liberal arts at a distinguished university, I recognize the glaring problems in this belief. Because we are the sum of individual experiences, every experience we have is formative. By this logic, I know that education is most successful when its horizons are broad. If we isolate the arts from the sciences, for instance, we risk creating students who feel like they must operate as machines-always creating something new for a market of consumers. If we isolate students in the sciences, we risk creating students who feel like calculating drones. But if we are interested in creating students who regard themselves as unique individuals with the capacities to do many things-to learn a formula and imagine one-then we must agree that no one discipline is totally effective unto itself, and that each discipline is most valuable when considered as part of a whole fabric. Such is the nature of a liberal arts education.
The sum total of my education in the liberal arts eludes any one category. Rather than prepare me for a particular career, it has prepared me for all of them. It has made me an idealist wherein being an active agent of change in my world isn't just a vague aspiration-it's essential to my self-worth. It has made me want to live an examined, deliberate life, steeped in the cultures I have learned to adore.
Considering my own experience, I therefore know that by not stressing the importance of a liberal arts education in our public schools, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. In denying grade school children the outlets for their creative energies, we are denying them the chance to realize the full range of their humanity. By limiting the opportunities of young people to exercise their capacities in all disciplines, we are by extension the possibilities for the future of our nation.
At this crisis moment, an emphasis in a full education has never been more critically important. Focused study in the sciences and the humanities teaches reverence for our natural world, and conditions the skills that will help fix it. It teaches respect for the other. It installs in its students a healthy skepticism for sinister marketing tactics, excess technology, and inefficient government. Finally, study in the liberal arts promotes a collective spirit, reminding us that though we may often disagree, we share the same bodies and the same human capacities.
I therefore ask that your term in office include an agenda that has a renewed public emphasis on the value of a diverse education in the liberal arts. Central to this is increased expectations and wages for public school teachers as well as protection for disadvantaged children. In addition, there should be greater support for non-profit literacy groups and organizations like Teach for America that create jobs for people who strive for the betterment of our education system.
The thesis of my Butler education might be: A study in all disciplines shows us that the self is made, not inherited. For me, this is the salient point of a liberal arts education. When people realize this, they will begin to regard themselves as agents in a changeable world rather than subjects in a static one.
2007–2008: The Reach for Coherence: The Value of Complementarity Among the Sciences and Humanities in Your Liberal Education
The Liberal Arts as a Way of Being Humane
By Mike Meginnis
There is a temptation to say that a liberal arts education is essential because it enables us to fine the truth. This is facile, but close enough. While evolving understandings of the universe and our role therein offered by philosophers, scientists and anthropologists suggest it will likely prove impossible to achieve a final and authoritative understanding of reality, one who is versed in the traditions of said thinkers would closer to such an understanding than one who is not. If we must live without ultimate truth, we can at least try for a contingent truth in its stead.
We cannot presume to construct even a contingent truth, however, without reference to many methodologies and traditions. It is not enough to understand theology - we must also study geology. More difficult still, we must hold one accountable to the other. Theologians must respond to the fossil record. There must be, in short, communication between disciplines.
the alternative is not only dull but potentially deeply inhumane. In the eyes of the literary critic and rhetorician Kenneth Burke, the division of labor leads inexorably to apocalyptic slaughter. When there is a class of military men and a class of scientists, for instance, the military men will tend to subordinate every available resource to their purposes of destruction and domination. They in their role as planners of war will wage war for war's sake. The class of scientists, meanwhile, might be persuaded to quiet their consciences in pursuit of science for science's sake. Put the two together in a room without a third class of thinker—a poet, perhaps—and watch them make the atom bomb.
I don't mean to suggest, and neither did Burke, that they never would have made the bomb if only someone had been there to write a poem. I do wonder sometimes if the Manhattan Project would have been completed had those scientists been allowed to step into the future and read Yukiko Hayashi's "Sky of Hiroshima," just as I hope Truman and MacArthur might have reconsidered US tactics, especially the firebombing of Japan, had they been able to watch Isao Takahata's devastating Grave of the Fireflies . What I mean to argue is that the continual state of surprise, of openness, the humbling nature of conflict and argumentation fostered by the gathering of diverse minds into one institution where they are not only expected but required to converse is a necessary protection against sophisticated savagery.
The atom bomb is often employed in such arguments, usually with the clear implication that science is something to be treated with suspicion - something that attends only to the body, and often destructively, while literature, philosophy and religion steward morality and the human soul. While it's true the sciences cannot touch the soul if there is one, it is hardly the case that they are some inhuman force requiring constant humanizing by pretty, poignant lines of poetry or prose. To the contrary, the works of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling would have been humanized considerably by an awareness of genetic science and its erosion of the meaning of race. Likewise, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin would have benefited massively from such an understanding. Aristotle would probably have been more generous to women in his writings had he correctly understood their anatomy and their physical capacities, their psychological resources and especially their profound similarities to men.
There are many terrible and convenient possibilities and temptations opened by a selective ignorance of the world and our many ways of knowing. As Burke wrote in the culmination of Rhetoric of Motives , "On every hand, we find men, in their quarrels over property, preparing themselves for the slaughter, even to the extent of manipulating the profoundest grammatical, rhetorical, and symbolic resources of human thought to this end." In short, there are always material and cultural incentives to exploit and injure our fellows, and we can always depend on the human capacity for rationalization to help us justify ourselves in violence and graft. Whether by narratives of national greatness, the grandiose music of Wagner, the imperialist poetry of Kipling, cracked pseudo-sciences of white supremacy, political mandate or magic and mysticism, we can count on those with power or plenty, or sufficient hunger for both, to explain and sanctify their wars and our enslavement.
To solve this problem, he believed in was imperative that we try anything and everything, improvising, borrowing from others, developing from others, dialectically using one text as comment upon another." But why stop at texts? The temptation of the kill being so powerful, might we not grant ourselves every possible argument and type of evidence to contradict the murderous impulse? Whether by reason of religious conviction, economic practicality, anthropological concern, philosophical rationale, or even grandiose architecture, mercy and charity are the height of human achievement; they are rarer, more difficult, more precious and more admirable even than our best and least contingent truths.
The best a school of the liberal arts and sciences might achieve, then, is not the pursuit of truth. That would be good, even great, but we can aim for better. We can live together as engines for peace and human kindness. Even as economic blessings allow greater and greater specialization, even as we reach new heights in our own limited professional pursuits through the time and focus this specialization affords us, we can refuse to think strictly as poets, political scientists, computer programmers, chemists, students of physics or future physicians. Together we can help each other to think as human beings . Through argument and conversation, through competition and admonishment, through dialogue, we can together resist the kill. We can justify goodness, and, if we are lucky, we can even practice it as a university, a community, and a family.
Prompt: This essay opportunity offers you the chance to reflect on the value of a liberal arts education. We ask you to consider thoughtfully the ways in which the content and process of a liberal arts education throw light on the question of what kind of education is most worth pursuing, not only with respect to your future life and ambitions, but also with respect to the life you live now and the kind of person you are turning yourself into, moment by moment, day by day, choice by choice.
The Glory of County Roads
By Betsy Shirley
When the excitement of graduation settled, I found myself in that anxious summer between high school and college. I was working the red-eye shift at a local bakery, nannying for seven-year-old twin boys, earning practically nothing, and in other words, desperate for some adventure. My friend Kelli, who was spending her summer making lattes in a cramped café, shared this wanderlust, so we loaded her car with tents and banana chips and prepared for a weekend of camping in Door County Wisconsin. After assuring our moms that we had brought an axe, we pulled out of Kelli's subdivision, rolled down the windows, and cranked up the music. Blazing down the interstate with country music blaring, the thrill of adventure swept over us like the fresh air pouring through our windows. It was glorious. After a few miles, Kelli turned down the radio to a respectable decibel and I rooted around in the backseat for a map. There are essentially two ways to get to Door Country from the suburbs of Milwaukee. Our coffee-stained map highlighted a conventional and un-exciting route that would take us straight up the interstate and almost directly to our campsite. Though Kelli and I were anxious to begin our adventure, we were in no mood to waste 180 miles of unfamiliar highway on a crowded interstate that smacked of irritable drivers and harried vacationers. The alternative to the interstate was Route 43, a winding tangle of county roads that traces the shore of Lake Michigan and moseys through small-town Wisconsin. Though this route lacked directness, it was bursting with local color. After a brief moment of consideration, we "took the [route] less traveled by," and in the words of Robert Frost, "that has made all the difference."
In my opinion, pursuing an education is like taking a road trip. Some people see education as a necessary evil to get where they want to go, while others choose to relax and enjoy the drive. And if education is like a road trip, then choosing a liberal arts education is like abandoning the interstate for the lure of county roads. Unlike those who pursue an education merely to exchange a diploma for a career, those who recognize the importance of liberal arts know that the value of their education does not lie in what is handed to them upon graduation, but rather in what happens along the way.
As Kelli and I discovered, there is a lot of life on country roads that you would miss if you stick to the interstate. When traveling the interstate, it's easy to forget that the landscape is connected, that crowded cityscapes slowly fade into sprawling suburbs which melt into country towns, cornfields, and rolling hills. You begin to believe that cities are isolated civilizations, linked only by uniform stretches of gray asphalt, slick billboards, and greasy McDonalds. However, when you settle into a good county road, you begin to understand that everything has a context and that the signs for obscure historical landmarks, the campaign posters for county sheriff, and the advertisements for home-grown watermelons are all part of the life that's being lived there. In the same way, a liberal arts education reminds us that we cannot understand the world from any one particular perspective. Rather, we must look at the world through a broader lens and try to understand that it all works together.
Broadly defined, liberal arts is a practice which recognizes that the type of education worth pursing is achieved through the study of a variety of subjects and disciplines. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people hear "liberal arts" and roughly translate it to mean "impractical courses which do not help me complete my major." Viewing liberal arts in this way is like scorning a back-road adventure because it delays your arrival at your final destination: it violates the very spirit of the experience. The true spirit of liberal arts does not distinguish between "relevant" and "irrelevant" courses of study, but rather views every opportunity as a chance to think deeply about the world.
No diploma, liberal arts or otherwise, is going to provide all the knowledge and skills needed to excel in a particular career, for every career has its own quirks which can never be taught. What is more, people in recent generations change careers so frequently that when they retire, it is often from a field unrelated to their original career. This said, is there really any advantage to a liberal arts education in the twenty-first century? Certainly. The advantage of a liberal arts education is that it educates the total person. The liberally educated person is not intimidated by changing careers because he has learned to succeed in a variety of disciplines. The liberally educated person is not threatened by new ideas because she has learned how to think critically, formulate opinions, and embrace change. This person can express himself clearly, find creative solutions, and learn from what others have to say. In the dynamic environment of the twenty-first century, the liberally educated person is equipped to succeed.
That weekend Kelli and I found the adventure we had been craving. We biked through state parks, hiked through thimbleberry thickets, and waded in Lake Michigan at sunset. However, the highlight of our adventure occurred before we even reached Door Country. After stopping at garage sales, vegetable stands, and "The World's Largest Grandfather Clock (or so it claimed), we followed a hand-painted sign to an orchard where we spent nearly an hour on rickety ladders picking fresh cherries. It was completely spontaneous, the purest kind of adventure, yet it defined the mood of our entire trip. That is the true value of a liberal arts education: it sets the tone for the rest of your education, creating a context which connects your particular area of interest, your future careers, and in reality, the way you live your life, to a much greater understanding of the world as a whole.