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Leave it to an engineering student with little prior formal schooling to a win an essay contest about why the humanities matter.

The sciences are great for discovery, but they are also "equally capable of wreaking havoc," wrote University of Utah freshman Jacob Andra in his entry in the College of Humanities' recent challenge to describe the relevance of the humanities in 750 words.

The humanities provide a counterbalance for understanding what gives science its directions and the zeitgeist, or spirit, of our times, according to the essay that humanities Dean Robert Newman declared the best of 50 entries, earning Andra a $1,000 scholarship.

"Whether we are neuroscientists or English lit majors, we can be enabled to search inside ourselves and examine why we think and act the way we do," Andra wrote. "Hopefully, as more and more people engage in this sort of inquiry, a critical mass of society will become increasingly conscientious and less shortsighted."

Andra, 36, is a former painting contractor who started college last fall and plans to enter the biomedical engineering major next year. Although a voracious reader since age 3, he had little time for school growing up in Missouri because his father, a polygamist with 20 children, kept him busy working in the family businesses.

Newman organized the essay contest in response to a rhetorical outburst from conservative lawmakers last legislative session who decried Utah colleges awarding "degrees to nowhere" when they should be training students in math and the sciences. Andra's contends there is nothing wrong with majoring in the humanities, but it helps to have a footing in the hard sciences.

"It's important to have both," he said.

His views were shaped during an honors course in intellectual traditions he took this year with Ann Engar, an assistant professor of English. The essay will be published in the college's literary journal, The Kingfisher.

More online

O Read Jacob Andra's winning essay online •

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