Skip to main content

Studying the philosophy of Tolkien in England and the human condition at home

| Alex Jansen

Initially, Austin Northagen wasn’t sure if he would find a study abroad program that would offer classes applicable to his degree while keeping him on track for graduation.

Austin, of Maple Grove, is an English education major and philosophy minor who also is pursuing a legal studies certificate. He found the perfect program during a study abroad fair at the beginning of his freshman year at UW-Eau Claire.

“There I discovered the majority of classes in the Harlaxton, England, program would apply to my degree,” Austin said. “It also meant living and taking classes in a Victorian-style manor, which was too good to pass up.”

He also was very influenced by the fact that the program doesn’t hold classes on Fridays to encourage students to travel each weekend. With the program settled, next came paying for the expenses involved with study abroad.

In addition to working two jobs, Austin met the requirements for the Bruce and Marlene Jannusch Global Awareness Fund, a fund that provides scholarships or study grants to majors and minors in the philosophy and religious studies department for travel abroad. He applied and was the 2016 recipient, which helped immensely in paying off his study abroad expenses.

Over the course of his semester abroad, Austin visited eight countries and also fit in some weekends in England to visit the hometowns of J.R.R. Tolkien and William Shakespeare, where he caught a performance of Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar." He also ran a half-marathon.

Ultimately, the study abroad program was also about academics, and Austin made the most of his time. He took a philosophy class on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien as well as classes on Irish literature and Shakespeare. As he describes it, “I may have been traveling every weekend but the weekdays were just as interesting as I greatly enjoyed each class.”

"Studying abroad has been one of the best decisions of my life," he says.

Austin added philosophy as a minor after taking Philosophy 101 with Dr. Sean McAleer. It was his first philosophy class and he still remembers it fondly.

“We studied 'The Republic' by Plato,” he said. “It is still my favorite philosophy class and was what first got me interested in philosophy.”

What he values about philosophy at UWEC is the program’s ability to bridge the gap between both ancient and modern philosophy and contemporary issues. With specific classes focusing on modern issues such as the philosophy of law or the philosophy of health care, the program provides students an excellent opportunity to think more critically about these topics.

“This connection is crucial, as far too often philosophy is criticized for being an exercise of thought with no practical use,” Austin says. “But I would argue philosophy is the best degree to sharpen and enhance your critical thinking skills. It teaches you how to consider differing perspectives, question the natural order of things and wonder about the human condition itself.”

As Austin continues down the path to a degree in English education and a certificate in legal studies, it is clear that his minor in philosophy has been a valuable addition. Because of his philosophy knowledge, he is ready to question anything and everything, and to theorize about what it means to be alive and to be human.