May 28, 2004

Contact: John J. "Jack" Bricke, Department of Philosophy, (785) 864-2327.

KU senior's essay on trite political rhetoric wins Philip Whitcomb contest

LAWRENCE -- An essay on the banalities of contemporary political rhetoric by Matthew Gertken, Hutchinson senior at the University of Kansas, has won the 2004 Philip W. Whitcomb Memorial Essay contest at KU.

Gertken, who plans to graduate in May 2005 with a bachelor's degree in English and a minor in classical antiquity, will receive the $500 cash prize, according to John J. "Jack" Bricke, KU professor of philosophy. The prize includes a book and the inscription of the winner's name on the Whitcomb plaque in Nunemaker Center at KU. The award ceremony will be in September in Nunemaker Center, with a member of the Whitcomb family attending, if possible.

Bricke described Gertken's essay, "Dandelions and Objectivity: Degraded Language in Contemporary American Politics and Poetry," as "a remarkably perceptive commentary on the character of contemporary political rhetoric, whether on the right or left.

"It is, in addition -- and it must be said, surprisingly -- a parallel commentary on certain strands in contemporary American poetry. Mr. Gertken's own prose is certainly free of the banalities he finds in his twin targets: It's vigorous, sharply focused, laced with striking and effective images."

Gertken's idea for his essay came during KU's 2003 winter break, when he was at home in Hutchinson with time to read without the distraction of impending schoolwork. Often, he said, he would go to his grandmother's house a few blocks from his own "to read Louis Untermeyer's once-ubiquitous collection of old chestnuts of English and American poetry."

This time, though, he said he was reading a recently released book called "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care" by linguist John McWhorter; a new collection of George Orwell's essays; a few poetry journals; and some of Ezra Pound's writings.

"Like many readers, and most English majors, I am more sharply aware of the decadence of our speech and letters every day," he said. "The American audience's love of [Arnold] Schwarzenegger-style one-liners, sound bites and superlatives has come at the expense of articulation, complication, wit and subtlety."

Similarly, he added, politicians continue in a bipartisan effort to disguise the meaning of their statements.

"Straight talk and clear thought have been banished," he said. "The political implications of one's opinions require censorship in order that no one should take offense. We tremble to speak of ourselves, not to mention for someone else.

"I decided to write an essay calling for clearer expression, direct argument and respectful, but not necessarily politically correct, discourse. I explained what I believe to be good, concrete writing. I was inspired both by frustration with the current trends and hope for an emerging wave of honest writing."

This summer Gertken will teach a summer youth mandolin program for underprivileged youngsters at the Americana Music Academy in Lawrence. He also will play mandolin, guitar and banjo in an old-time bluegrass and folk string band, Devil Eat the Groundhog, primarily in the Lawrence and Kansas City area.

He will take an intensive Latin course this summer at KU and plans to attend graduate school to study either Anglo-Saxon language and culture or American literature. He is the son of James and Pamela Gertken of Hutchinson and is a graduate of Hutchinson Senior High School.

The contest is in memory of Philip W. Whitcomb (1891-1986), who earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at age 89 at KU in 1981. A journalist by trade, Whitcomb received a bachelor's degree in 1910 from Washburn University and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University from 1911 to 1914. His career as a European journalist spanned 64 years and 17 countries. As an Associated Press correspondent he covered both the first and second world wars. He also was a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, Baltimore Sun, New York Tribune and Boston Evening Transcript. Upon his retirement from the Christian Science Monitor in 1978, he entered KU's Graduate School.

Whitcomb's dissertation was titled "Essence and Existence in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome and Francisco Suarez." For part of his time at KU he was graduate teaching assistant in Western civilization. He died in Paris in 1986 at age 94.

The Philip W. Whitcomb Memorial Essay Contest has taken place annually since 1988. It is open to any undergraduate at KU, and past winners have come from engineering, English, philosophy, architectural engineering, anthropology, mathematics and other subject areas. Submitted essays are limited to 3,000 words, and guidelines say they should address "the relationship of knowledge, thought and action in public affairs and public policy."

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