Origins of 'The Wisconsin Idea'

Author discusses his new book on a much praised philosophy for public higher education.

July 14, 2016

Last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's original budget suggested that his state move away from "the Wisconsin idea," a much admired philosophy about the state university and its relationship to all the people of Wisconsin. Walker, a Republican, blamed the resulting furor on a "drafting error" and pledged not to erase the Wisconsin idea. What is this idea that is so powerful that supporters rose up to defend it against a governor who otherwise has won many of the changes he sought for higher education?

That is the subject of John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea (University of Wisconsin Press). Bascom was president of the university from 1874 until 1887, and the book describes his role leading the university and promoting an ideal for public higher education. J. David Hoeveler, the author, is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Via email, he answered questions about the book.

Q: How would you briefly describe the Wisconsin idea and how it differs (or builds upon) the land-grant model of university?

A: The Wisconsin idea has several components. It embraces the idea that “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state,” an ideal that also prescribes the notion of the service university. It also signifies the role of professors who made their research available to legislatures or other agencies of government, that is, the assistance of academic expertise in creating useful and workable laws and regulations for the state. In Madison, the state created the Legislative Reference Library in 1901. The Wisconsin idea also celebrates academic freedom, the unencumbered “sifting and winnowing” of ideas and their dissemination.

The land-grant model of state universities (Morrill Act, 1862) emerged from concerns that American colleges were not sufficiently addressing the needs of farmers and the industrial working classes. Of course, it did not exclude the traditional curriculum, as for example, the ancient languages. The Wisconsin idea had a more expansive concept of the university’s role and an outreach to the political life of the state.

Q: What led you to decide to explore the origins of the idea?

A: I had been aware of the connections that Robert La Follette, who went on to be Wisconsin's governor, and Charles Van Hise, who became president of the university at the time La Follette was governor, studied with President Bascom when they were students at the university. Both graduated in the class of 1879. La Follette especially, on many occasions, acknowledged a personal debt to Bascom. The students went on to play the most critical roles in implanting the Wisconsin idea, and I wanted to understand how Bascom might have influenced them and otherwise laid the intellectual foundation of the Wisconsin idea.

Q: Many leaders of public universities, and many politicians, reduce the relationship of universities and the state to economic development -- training people for good jobs, and promoting economic development. How does that vision fail to embrace all of the Wisconsin idea?

A: I like this question. This book shows that it was a philosopher and theologian who gave the conceptual roots of the Wisconsin idea a firm basis in the great intellectual movements of the 19th century. Specifically, he drew on German philosophical idealism, liberal Protestant theology (including the Social Gospel) and evolutionary theory in making this effort. Bascom would see the stark utilitarianism that has won favor among some politicians today as entirely wrongheaded. As I state in the book, Bascom’s formulation of the Wisconsin idea could never render the university merely a “service institution.”

Q: Governor Scott Walker faced charges last year that he was trying to undo the Wisconsin idea. Do you agree he was challenging it?

A: The record seems so to indicate.

Q: How much of the Wisconsin idea is unique to the state's populist and other traditions? How much could or should be embraced nationally?

A: Of course the Wisconsin idea owes much to the populist leader Robert La Follette. But this populist did not have the anti-intellectual animus that populism often displays. I believe that the Wisconsin experience could have occurred in other states, but the university had very significant academics like Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons who played vital roles in giving the Wisconsin idea institutional life. (Ely’s academic trial in 1893 provided the occasion for the famous “sifting and winnowing” statement from the university regents.) Other universities were moving in the direction of the service functions, but Wisconsin had an exceptionally vigorous intellectual component to the new directions it was taking in the early 20th century, ones that followed in great part the foundations provided by Bascom.

How much of the Wisconsin idea should be embraced nationally today? All of it.


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