The Wisconsin Idea Podcast #40

Aldo Leopold
Photo of conservationist Aldo Leopold, a student and some local farmers.

Chad Alan Goldberg explains how the Wisconsin Idea led to the progressive reforms of the early 20th Century and how its renewal can revitalize democracy once again. We discuss his recent book Education for Democracy: Renewing the Wisconsin Idea.

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They had an obligation to take the knowledge that they were developing, to take their expertise and put it in the service of the community as a whole and the service of its elected leaders.

Chad Alan Goldberg

Podcast Transcript

At the turn of the twentieth century, Wisconsin was at the forefront of the Progressive Movement. Wisconsin adopted the first modern state income tax. It initiated the first workers’ compensation plan. It enacted the first unemployment insurance program. Wisconsin even spearheaded important constitutional reforms like the direct election of Senators. UW Madison Professor Patrick Brenzel explains, “To say that Wisconsin was known nationally for transparent and egalitarian government is an understatement.”

These reforms were the product of a relationship between the public university, legislators, and other stakeholders. It is known as the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea is a belief the public university has a role to contribute its research to the service of the state. A common motto is “The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” 

The Wisconsin Idea remains central to the mission of the University of Wisconsin system to this day, but has become the subject of attacks from conservatives in recent years. Among the many efforts by Scott Walker to dismantle the administrative state included an attempt to remove the Wisconsin Idea from the university charter. It failed, but it highlights how there is a genuine debate about the role of public universities. 

Chad Alan Goldberg has been at the forefront of the effort to defend the Wisconsin Idea in recent years. He is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin Madison and the editor of the volume Education for Democracy: Renewing the Wisconsin Idea. This book features chapters from many leading scholars in a variety of disciplines including Kathy Cramer. 

Our conversation discusses some of the history behind the Wisconsin Idea. But it is really about the role of the public university. How is a public university different from a private university? Why does the public support universities? And how does a public university help to shape democracy? These are important questions I never thought to ask, but will mean a lot as we work to renew democracy.

But before we begin, I want to highlight another podcast that is part of the Democracy Group. Politics in Question features leading political scientists Lee Drutman, Julia Azari, and James Wallner. They tackle some of the key issues in American politics. Back in December Lee and I discussed his book Breaking The Two Party Doom-Loop. Lee, Julia, and James are big names in their own right, but will bring in guests like Ezra Klein to take their conversations to a new level. Their podcast is Politics in Question.

Now it’s about time I introduce you to Chad Alan Goldberg…


Chad Allen Goldberg, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Thank you, Justin. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Well Chad, this book, Education for Democracy, it does not read as though it has the usual scholarly distance if you will. It actually comes across to me as very personal to each one of the writers. So, before we get into the history, the politics, or even the definition of the Wisconsin idea, do you mind, if you could explain what your university, the University of Wisconsin, means to you?


Yeah, well, that’s a great question. You know, I have been faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for about 20 years. I started in 2001. I spent my entire career there really. And what it meant to me initially was a job which I was thrilled to have coming out of graduate school, a good job.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t really know that much about the Wisconsin Idea. It wasn’t really that central to my work early in my career. It’s something that I only learned about when I came to Wisconsin and came to appreciate after being there for a while. And came to appreciate in part, as a result of recent political conflicts in the state that my university was very much a part of and my own involvement in that. And that made me want to learn more about the Wisconsin Idea. And the more I learned the more meaningful and important it became to me.


So, can you explain what is the Wisconsin idea? And I’ll be honest. I knew nothing about the Wisconsin Idea either coming into this book. Explain the Wisconsin idea and is this something that’s exclusive to Wisconsin or is it something that’s broader within academia today?


Yeah, I’m sure you’re not alone. I’m sure there are other people out there who are saying, ‘What is this Wisconsin Idea thing? I haven’t heard of this before.’ The Wisconsin Idea with capital W, capital I, it has a long history. It goes back to the early 20th century. At one time, it was quite well known. It was a name that was associated with a lot of the pioneering social and political reforms that made Wisconsin famous in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Famous enough that when Charles McCarthy wrote a book called The Wisconsin Idea that was published in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt wrote the preface to the book and praised Wisconsin for the model, the example, that it set for the rest of the country.

So some of your listeners may not know about this history, but Wisconsin did do a lot to pioneer some of the reforms that we take for granted today. Whether it’s in terms of unemployment compensation, workman’s compensation, good government reform, civil service reform, a lot of these things came earliest in Wisconsin. And so, the Wisconsin Idea, the original meeting really it was a kind of shorthand for all of the various ameliorative activities of the Wisconsin progressive movement in the 20th century. That’s how Charles McCarthy used the term in 1912. The university was part of that. So, the Wisconsin Idea also has a kind of narrower definition that has to do with the university service to the state.

And, what we try to do in the book is to explore these two meetings. And I would say that the two meetings are not easily or uniquely separated. Today in Wisconsin, if you talk about the Wisconsin Idea most people will probably think about the university’s public service. That’s what it means to a lot of people. But historically it was always connected to this broader political dimension. I would say that in terms of the university service we can kind of break that down into maybe three main components. The historian David Hoeveler, who is a contributor to the book, outlined this really very nicely and his previous work in putting this biography of John Bascom, one of the early presidents of the University of Wisconsin.

David has shown him that the three components would be first of all the contribution that the university’s faculty has made to state government by lending their knowledge and their expertise and their policy advice to elected officials. That was one important component of the Wisconsin Idea particularly earlier in the 20th century. The second component is comprised of all the contributions that the University has made directly to the people of the state by helping to solve problems that are important to them, practical problems, or by conducting outreach activities. So, university extension work would fall under this heading. And the third component is a strong commitment to academic freedom and the pursuit of truth understood not as a privilege, but as really a necessary precondition for the university to carry out its public service responsibilities as a necessary precondition for effective social inquiry into common problems.

Gwen Drury one of the contributors to the book. Has argued that all this was connected to a democratic vision. The university’s work for the public was conceived in the words of the famous historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, as service to democracy. So, democracy was sort of built into the Wisconsin idea from the beginning and it’s built in another way. All of these components and all this notion of the university’s public service, all of it presupposes and implies that broader political dimension that I started with. So that broader political dimension is important in a number of ways in the early 20th century. We should remember that university professors and administrators were only one part of a broader reformist coalition that was promoting the Wisconsin Idea in the state. The university was only one of several institutions that were associated with the Wisconsin Idea that it rested upon.

And the Wisconsin Idea was connected to a whole set of philosophical beliefs and values, , which we try to outline in the book. Probably the most important of which is what we call a commonwealth model of society which presumes that there is such a thing as a common good or public interest that that’s really central to democracy. And that the common good is best achieved through some kind of enlightened cooperation fostered by public institutions. So, all of that is very much connected to the Wisconsin Idea.


You began with the description of some of the accomplishments of the progressive era within Wisconsin that are tied to the Wisconsin idea. Do you think of the Wisconsin Idea itself as more of an accomplishment or more of a process?


I would say it’s more of a process.  One of the reasons that we wrote this book, we didn’t want people to think about the Wisconsin Idea as just something from the distant past, just a kind of historical footnote in American history. We think of this very much as a living process, as a living tradition. I think certainly, if you come to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, that’s how people will talk about it. If you ask them about the Wisconsin Idea, they will talk about it in the present as something that many of the people who work at the university remain committed to.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Wisconsin Idea is static or that it hasn’t changed, or developed over time. So one of the things that we explore in the book is the way that it’s developed. But I would say it’s very much a living process of living tradition and remains for that reason a kind of flashpoint in political conflicts today.


I find it interesting how it tries to connect experts within academia to regular citizens, within Wisconsin that may not have even attended the University of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Idea, maybe progressivism as a whole, seems to blend together these concepts of technocracy and populism together. Can you explain how, how these two seemingly contradictory forces are blended together into something that creates a functional democracy?


Yeah, I think one of the interesting things about that Wisconsin Idea is that, not only is it something living and changing and developing over time, but it’s something that I think from the very beginning had a number of internal tensions that were just part and parcel of the Wisconsin Idea. Probably no political worldview or social philosophy is without these kinds of internal tensions. And so, the Wisconsin Idea is no exception here.

One of those internal tensions has to do with the way that the architects of the Wisconsin Idea in the early 20th century tried to bring together, on the one hand, a recognition that in a complex modern society we need experts. We need people with specialized knowledge to help us solve the problems that we’re facing and that we’re confronted with. But they also wanted to combine this again with that democratic vision. The idea that all of this should be in the service, not of moving away from democracy and replacing that with a technocracy, but in the service of strengthening self-government in some way. And so that of course the raises a really difficult question of how do you bring these things together? How do you reconcile these things, professional expertise and democratic self-government?

I think it’s something that the original architects were never really fully able to resolve in an entirely satisfactory way. It’s a tension that remains part of the Wisconsin Idea today. So sometimes the Wisconsin Idea has been criticized as a kind of technocratic philosophy that like a lot of sort of early 20th century progressivism wanted to subordinate political decision-making and democracy to the expertise of specialists. I think that’s a misunderstanding of the Wisconsin Idea. Again, I think if we look at it historically, what was really interesting about the Wisconsin idea was the attempts to incorporate expertise into public policy, but in a way that wouldn’t harm self-government. That would be compatible with self-government. It’s something that I think we still are struggling to do today.

We’ve seen in recent years at the national level the way that expertise has become politicized. Whether it’s about the COVID-19 pandemic and wearing masks, whether it’s about vaccinations, whether it’s about climate change. We see that there is sometimes a dismissal of science or expertise as being just an ideological perspective or something that should be subordinated to politics in some way. We see others who are concerned about undermining a robust self-government or a democratic framework. These are the same questions, the same dilemmas that those early 20th century progressors in Wisconsin were struggling with. We’re also trying to figure out how to formulate good public policy that’s based on sound science and the best knowledge that we have available. But in a way that doesn’t sideline or subordinate ordinary people who maybe aren’t specialists on this particular issue.


A lot of the writers in your book refer back to an early president of the University of Wisconsin, John Bascom. And I got the impression, and to be fair, I did not do this research. I’m basing this entirely on the writers in your book. But I got the impression that John Bascom resolved that dilemma between the experts becoming technocrats by redefining the members of your university, the University of Wisconsin system, as citizens themselves, and thinking of them as people who were expected to give service as citizens.

And we see the dark side of how politics can go when we don’t have citizens who are providing expertise. Because a lot of the legislatures, in order to get information, they’re relying on lobbyists who have a clear agenda, an explicit agenda to try to achieve, and they are relying on lobbyists and corporations to provide them information. And I get the sense that John Bascom thought that if we had citizens. People who knew information, but could provide it to decision makers. That it wasn’t technocratic necessarily, but it provided the information in a way that had less potential for bias and an opportunity for more of an epistemic democracy, a democracy that, that tried to get things right.


He is a really interesting historical figure. He’s a late 19th century figure. A legendary, , president of the University of Wisconsin. We have buildings named after him. And there is, as I mentioned, a really terrific book about Bascom by one of the contributors to our book, David Hoefler, a historian from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. And I think you’re onto something with Bascom. I mean, Bascom was a key figure in shaping the Wisconsin Idea and you’re absolutely right that this strong emphasis on the connection between public education, the development of new knowledge at a public university and public service was really I think, central to his thinking. It’s something that he really tried to impress upon others at the university and particularly students. And many of them took this to heart.

So, some of his students were very much influenced by this. So, people like Fighting Bob La Follette, of one of the early 20th century governors in Wisconsin, who was a progressive Republican, Charles Van Hise who later himself became a president of the University of Wisconsin.  So, these figures were influenced by Bascom’s philosophy and very much imbued with this idea that the university is a public institution, had to be in some sense a universal institution that was committed to the universal interest and the general interest to the public good. And that the people who were connected with the university, precisely because they were citizens, and not outside of the political process of the democratic process, of the democratic community.

They had an obligation to take the knowledge that they were developing to take their expertise and put it in the service of the community as a whole and the service of its elected leaders. And they certainly saw that as we moved from the late 19th to the early 20th century, they did see this as an important alternative to something that they like a lot of other progressive reformers were deeply concerned about. Which was what they saw was the corruption of the political process: special interests. The sorts of people that you were alluding to when you talked about lobbyists. We still have special interests today.  And they certainly would have agreed with you that it’s important that legislators and other elected officials be able to tap into some source of knowledge and expertise that’s independent of those kinds of special interests.


I think it’s important to also differentiate that your book, and the Wisconsin Idea in general, isn’t just about the connection between academia and politics. it’s about public academia, the public university. Your chapter opens with a question I had never thought about, “What is the role of the public university in democratic society?” And you go on to add on that same page, “Even those who work and study at public universities, rarely pause to reflect on this question.” As a graduate of a public university, I can admit that I did not think of that question. In fact, I attended Truman state university and like hundreds of universities in the Midwest it describes itself as the Harvard of the Midwest. Their goal, at least from a marketing standpoint, was to aspire to be a private university.

But what’s interesting about the Wisconsin Idea is to say that a public university should fundamentally be different than a private university. There was somebody who described the connection that Yale has to Connecticut will never be the same as the connection of the University of Wisconsin to Wisconsin.


I think it’s true and when I was working on the book, this was something that was really striking to me. You would think that people who have such a close connection to the institution would think of that. They would reflect about this. But for a host of reasons, we usually don’t. Often, we think we already know the answer to this, even if the answers that different groups would give might be a little bit different. Sometimes we don’t think about it at all, because the university is just a place that we work or the university is a place that we study, where we’re trying to get a degree that will help us get a good job when we graduate.

And so, in a way it was the political conflicts that arose in recent years in Wisconsin as a result of what I would describe as really aggressive efforts to reshape the public university in Wisconsin, to reorient its mission, to remake it in a new and different image. It was really the conflicts that arose out of that effort, I think, that compel people to stop and think about, ‘Well, okay. What is the purpose of a public university? Why do we have a public university?’

And it’s interesting that, one of the reactions during those years among some of my colleagues at the university of Wisconsin was, well, maybe it would be better if the university of Wisconsin was a private or semi-private institution, because then we would have some protection from political interference. The elected politicians wouldn’t be able to interfere so much in what we do and how we do it. And so, you did see a rise among some faculty at the university and support for that idea. There was a serious proposal at one point to try to do this. I always thought that was a mistake. I always thought that was misguided. It’s true that a public university by its public nature is more susceptible to political interference.

But there’s also something really positive about the public status. The public status of a state university imbues it, at least potentially, imbues the work that it does with a public purpose which is really different from a private purpose. Not saying that private purposes can’t also be noble, but they’re different. And this idea that the university has to be or should be a universal institution. And the sense that it has a responsibility to promote the general or the public interest, I think that is closely connected to the public status, public nature of the university.


The University of Wisconsin, especially at Madison, but also Milwaukee, is a quite prestigious university. It’s one of the most impressive research institutions in the country, and in the world. But at the same time, the Wisconsin Idea implies that the service of the university is for the state of Wisconsin. So does that mean that at times that connection requires it, and requires some of the professors, and some of those associated with the University of Wisconsin to set aside some of their ambitions so that their research aligns with the needs of the state?


So I would say that it’s a big university. And it’s not necessary that everybody at the university is working on problems that are specific to the state. It’s a university that like most others has aspirations to be a world-class university that’s oriented not just to the state in which it’s located, but to national and international questions. And I think that’s okay. That’s appropriate.


And to some extent, the prestige of the university adds to the prestige of the state.


That’s right. And these are not always incompatible or contradictory aims. So it sometimes happens that the problems that people are dealing with in the state are particular instances of a more general problem that people are dealing with in other States or even in other countries. And so it is possible, I think, to work on some of these larger issues and still be able to contribute at least indirectly to serving the people of the state, even while you’re helping people outside of the state at the same time.

That said, I do think that the university does have an obligation to devote a significant portion of its resources, not just a minuscule part, not just for window dressing, but a significant portion of its resources to giving back in a way that John Bascom envisioned to the people that support the state. And I think rightly expect some reciprocity. And so there are lots of ways in which the university can do that – the sort of lending of expertise, extension work, public outreach, and so on. Again, it’s not necessary that everybody at the university be engaged or involved in those activities, but some people definitely should be.


I believe it was Karen Bogenschneider who mentioned how sometimes the study of a problem specific to Wisconsin might not be applicable to the entire country. Do political scientists have an obligation to make sure that they’re spending time to do the research on those arcane issues specific to Wisconsin that maybe don’t receive the attention beyond the state?


So again, I think sometimes the distinction that people want to make between kind of local or parochial research and service, and a sort of a broader orientation to the country as a whole to the world, sometimes it’s a little overdrawn because I think sometimes there are connections between the two.


Kathy Kramer’s book is a good example. I don’t think that she expected it was going to have the broad role that it did when she began to try to study rural consciousness within Wisconsin. In fact, she didn’t even begin to study rural consciousness at the beginning of her research, but it’s become a book that’s seminal for the understanding of political identity, which is becoming increasingly an important area of study for political science, and sociology as well.


Yeah, it is a good example. I mean, here’s a study of public culture and political life in the state of Wisconsin. And, you know, you might think, ‘Okay that’s all well and good, but why should anybody outside of Wisconsin care what rural communities and small towns in Wisconsin are doing and thinking?’

The timing of her book was terrific, because the book was published in 2016, and this is the year that Donald Trump is president of the United States. And this question of the urban-rural divide and American politics becomes an issue that everybody is all of a sudden concerned with. Again, this is of course, not a new cleavage. It’s a very old and long-standing cleavage in American politics, but it acquired renewed significance. People became interested in this again. And Kathy Kramer’s study of political resentments in rural and small town Wisconsin was able to speak to that larger issue about that cleavage, not just in Wisconsin, but in States throughout the union


Speaking of which that brings us to the idea of the rise of Scott Walker. But earlier in the conversation, you also talked about all of the amazing things Wisconsin produced in the early progressive era. It feels like so many ideas come out of Wisconsin. This past election Wisconsin was the exact center in the electoral college that tipped the election to Joe Biden. There was just a 0.6% margin in the state itself. It was an incredibly close election within Wisconsin for the presidency. It feels like so much of politics within the United States is found in the state of Wisconsin. Why?


Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that maybe there’s a few different answers to that question. I mean, one, you sort of alluded to already. The sort of way in which the politics of the state reflects very close political division. This is not a solidly blue state or a solidly red state. This is a state, which is, people often say purple states and there are red areas and there are blue areas in the state. Historically it’s always been like that. I’ve been talking a lot about the legacy of progressive reform in Wisconsin, but we should also remember Wisconsin was the state that gave us Senator Joe McCarthy. So, it was always a kind of schizophrenia and Jekyll and Hyde kind of state and I think that that might be one reason.

Another reason, I think, is that although the Wisconsin Idea was a historically specific response to a set of problems that confronted the people of Wisconsin at a particular time, those problems were not unique to Wisconsin. They were not unique to that place or that time. And so I think, again what happens in Wisconsin and the way people have confronted their problems and dealt with their problems has a more general relevance for people. I would say that Wisconsin often finds itself at the center of national politics. What happens in Wisconsin is very often connected to a national developments, and in a very clear way. So, leading proponents of the Wisconsin Idea had ties to national and even international circles of progressive thought and organization.

Jane Collins in her contribution to her book suggests that it was really the strong ties that Wisconsin politicians and intellectuals to national policymakers, and their own status as national leaders, in crafting progressive reform that bolstered their successes within the state. And by the same token, right wing political figures in Wisconsin in the early 21st century were also well connected to the national political scene and to the national Republican party. The transformation that we’ve seen in Wisconsin in the early 21st century was part of a broader, long-term political development. It was one component of a larger decades long political project at the national level.

One of our contributors, Lew Friedland writes about that in his chapter in our book. And of course, it was precisely Wisconsin’s progressive history and legacy that made it a target for that kind of experiment. As Scott Walker said in his memoir, ‘If I can change Wisconsin, we can do it anywhere.’ So, this was a kind of perfect laboratory for people like Walker, who wanted to see if they could overturn, some of these earlier historical accomplishments and put the state on a very different, new direction.


Let’s get back to the Wisconsin idea for just a moment and understand why it emerged in Wisconsin. Now you mentioned that many people had had connections beyond Wisconsin, to the national community, the international community. There’s lots of states we could talk about who have ties beyond their state. Massachusetts, great example on the East coast. We can talk about California. We could talk about all kinds of States. Why did the Wisconsin idea start in Wisconsin? Was it just the leadership or is it something about the people?


Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, I’m not sure. I suspect it was both the leadership and the people. So, it was important that the progressive wing of the Republican party in the early 20th century had a strong presence in Wisconsin. So, you had people like Robert La Follette, Senior, early governor in Wisconsin who was, first a state level, and then when he became a US Senator, a national leader in progressivism within the Republican party. You have university leaders that we’ve talked about already Bascom, Charles Von Hise.

So, there, there was something special about leadership, but of course they couldn’t do what they did without building a broad reformist coalition that included ordinary people in the state, farmers, and wage earners, and workers. And so a part of the coalition that propelled the Wisconsin Idea in the early 20th century included German immigrants who were part of the backbone of the socialist party in Milwaukee, militant farm organizations that supported the Wisconsin Idea. So, it was really, that larger social base that was important. And some people point to the state’s German heritage as maybe being particularly important here.

Paul Ryan in recent years said, ‘This stuff,’ he’s talking about the Wisconsin Idea and Wisconsin progressivism. He says, ‘This stuff came from these German intellectuals to Madison, university of Wisconsin.’ There were a lot of German immigrants in the State and the early 20th century. The state was in part settled by German immigrants. Some of those German immigrants as I mentioned became Milwaukee socialists. But even those who weren’t, even those who were business owners may have been influenced by developments and intellectual traditions, cultural traditions from their country of origin. That’s something that Jane Collins argues in her chapter in our book. And I think there might be something to that.


That’s interesting because we don’t normally think of Germany as a laboratory for democracy. But at the same time, Germany was very divided throughout most of its history. And so, I would imagine that there’s a lot of local politics, local engagement that happens naturally when that’s the case.


Yeah, of course, Germany was no bastion of democracy. But you know, it’s interesting that there was a lot of traffic between American intellectuals, German intellectuals, and reformers in the early 20th century. There’s a great book called the Atlantic Crossings which is about some of those ties between American and European progressive reformers and Americans were interested in some of the social reforms, social policy that was being pioneered in Germany. Social insurance, for instance, was to a large extent a German invention. And they certainly weren’t interested in replicating the authoritarianism of the German monarchy, but they were interested in what they can learn about these kinds of experiments in social policy and social participation that were happening in Germany.


Now what I find very refreshing too, about the way that your contributors describe the Wisconsin Idea is how this idea of democracy extends beyond just the political and becomes part of the fabric of society itself. Curt Meine wrote about a picture of Aldo Leopold, the famous conservationist. His quote is, “I liked the notion of the farmer and the professor working alongside one another. Leopold and his student were no doubt learning as much as they were sharing it.” It was a picture of Aldo Leopold and one of the students just talking to two farmers and it creates the sense of the university becoming something that extends into the community itself. it’s like that bumper sticker statement, “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” So, can you talk a little bit about how the Wisconsin Idea extends beyond politics into society and culture?


Yeah. Again, this is another really good question. And I also really loved the photo that’s in the book that you described. That’s precisely why Curt wanted the picture in the book. It speaks volumes. And this goes back to our earlier discussion a moment ago about the tension between professional expertise and democratic self-government. So, you could imagine a very top-down model where the experts have all the answers. They come out and lecture farmers and small towns about how to do things, how to promote conservation, for example. And the farmers take notes and say, ‘Okay. Well, we’ll get to work on that.

And I think what Curt liked about that picture was that it was emblematic of a very different approach that Aldo Leopold personified which was a much more of a two-way flow of communication between Leopold, the specialist from the university, and the farmer who also has a kind of specialized knowledge, a different kind of knowledge. And they have something to learn from each other. So, it becomes very much a dialogue and a collaboration. And I think that’s an important development within the Wisconsin Idea. The strengthening of that kind of two-way model of communication. But more broadly, I would say some of the chapters do move beyond sort of politics, service politics, narrowly described to talk about the democratizing work at the university in more cultural terms.

Maryo Gard Ewell describes the university’s extension work in the arts throughout the 20th century. She emphasizes the participatory and democratizing aspects of the work. So, when extension agents went beyond the state capitol, beyond Madison, to meet with people, to talk to them about the arts, it wasn’t just to promote the consumption of hierarchy. It wasn’t just, ‘You should really appreciate Beethoven,’ right?  They really wanted to help ordinary people to develop their own artistic talents. They wanted to encourage them to make their own art, their own music, and in that way, it was really important that this arts extension work challenged assumptions which I think continued to bedevil support for this kind of work today. One assumption is that this is just frivolous. It’s not anything important or serious and there’s no reason to spend public resources on supporting this kind of thing.

And the other misconception is that art is for cultural elites. It’s not for ordinary people. And so, if you support the arts you’re not helping ordinary people, you’re just supporting elites. And so, her chapter really challenges both of those presumptions. It shows that the arts have the power to enrich people’s lives, to build communities, and not just for elites, not just for people in the East or West coast, but for everybody. Emily Auerbach’s chapter does something similar, but she looks at a contemporary program at the university, something called the UW Odyssey project. This is an award-winning program that was created in 2003 that I think really in many ways embodies the best of the Wisconsin Idea. It’s a program that offers humanities classes to adult students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

And there are, of course, a lot of legislators who think that the humanities are not very valuable to begin with. And they would probably think there is even less point in teaching the humanities to people like this. And Auerbach’s chapter shows why they’re wrong. She shows how somebody from a poor marginalized neighborhood and background can study Plato, for instance, and to work through it, to study Walt Whitman, for instance, and to work through it, to connect it to their own life experiences. This could be really transformative for them in their own lives and their own biographies. And this is a chapter I think that really shows that far from being frivolous and useless, the humanities can be actually very useful, very socially useful, if we understand social usefulness in a broad way.


So much about democracy is about communication. And the arts, both in the fine arts as well as in the humanities, oftentimes give people a voice that they otherwise would not have. People communicate in different ways and so it’s important to be able to teach people techniques so that they can express themselves in their own voice. And I think that’s a lot of what their chapters get at, especially when they describe real-world examples of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or just different backgrounds that are then able to communicate whether it’s politically or whether it’s just socially or however. But I think that that’s a big part of democracy.


Yeah, I agree. And I think it’s why these chapters are particularly valuable here. In a way this goes back to our discussion of the German heritage, because the classical German conception of education was about buildup. It was about self-development of the individual and building the best self that you could. That’s an idea that John Stuart Mill took up and sort of connected to his own work on politics and democracy. That sort of romantic conception that education should be in part at least about self-development, about opportunities for self-enrichment.

And, of course, John Dewey maybe did more than anybody to sort of connect that to an expansive conception of democracy, to an expansive understanding of what democracy means and what it could entail. What would a democratic society look like? And of course, Dewey is really relevant to your question, because one of the great things about Dewey is that he conceived of democracy not just as a system of government, but as a way of life. And so, that is a very broad conception of democracy. And I think it’s one that is consistent with the best in the Wisconsin Idea.


Now the picture of Aldo Leopold strikes a sharp contrast with the way Kathy Kramer describes the impression of people in rural Wisconsin as she writes in her book about rural consciousness and the rise of Scott Walker. Did the university lose its connection to the public or was this connection always a bit more of an ideal than a reality that it was striving towards?


Yeah, I think historically the connections were actually strong and genuine. And there’s good historical evidence to support that conclusion. Another chapter that sort of touches on this is Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen’s chapter on Willard Bleier who was a journalism professor at the University Wisconsin in the early 20th century involved in training journalists and professionalizing journalism. One of the things that she shows is that his activities really depended on strong connections with communities outside of Madison. And so, I think that historically the connections were quite good. I do think that over time there are reasons to think that these connections did weaken and that had to do with changes on the faculty side. Because of the way higher education as a career, as an occupation changed. Because of the ways that the incentives changed, faculty became less concerned with state and local problems.

We talked about a little bit earlier, and it’s also connected with structural transformations of the university and the organization of the university. I think a key development here was the creation of a UW extension and the mid 1960s, seemed to be a good idea at the time, but essentially what it did was to consolidate the universities into a new division, and then separate it from the research and instruction that was happening on campus. So in the long run, that that was not very helpful in terms of maintaining those strong connections. That said, I do think that there are some hopeful signs that maybe we’re seeing a strengthening of connections.

Just this morning one of the, Wisconsin newspapers, The Capital Times, reported that our current governor, he’s just submitted his budget proposal to the legislature. And one of the items in his budget is $600,000 to expand an already existing UW Madison program called University Year which basically taps the expertise and energy of students on the flagship Madison campus to solve problems and improve lives and communities throughout the state, not in Madison, but in other communities throughout the state. And so, he’s trying to, channel more money for that program to get more students involved in this kind of work. And if that succeeds, if he’s able to do that, and that kind of work does expand, I think that can only strengthen and rebuild those connections.


So, Scott Walker plays a prominent part in the book. I’ve heard you say before that Scott Walker may be the main influence for writing the book. I’d like to ask, Scott walker along with other Republicans undermined many aspects of the Wisconsin idea. They literally tried to take it out of the university charter or out of public law if I remember right. What was their vision for the university of Wisconsin and why was it antithetical to the Wisconsin idea?


So, Scott Walker who thankfully, I would say, is no longer governor of Wisconsin. He was a major impetus for the book. The book is in large part a reaction to what he was trying to do. I was opposed to virtually everything that Scott Walker did as governor, but I will say that he was a transformative governor. He always aspired to be a transformative governor. And I would say that in many ways he succeeded. And so, one of the things that he wanted to transform was the University of Wisconsin which was one of the main institutional pillars of the Wisconsin Idea.

When he tried to rewrite the university’s mission statement in 2015, what he did was he struck out the provisions that said that the university’s mission involves the search for truth and the attempt to improve the human condition. That apparently was not important, or not what the university should be doing. And instead he tried to substitute a more economic goal of meeting the state’s workforce needs. And so the university would basically become a kind of appendage to the job market. And let me say right there, just to avoid misunderstanding, I have never said that the university shouldn’t be involved in preparing students for future careers.  It’s an important reason why a lot of students enroll in university. They have every right to expect that the university will prepare them for future careers. I think it’s important work that the university should be doing.

So I never objected to having that be part of the university’s mission. What I objected to was an exclusive focus on that to the exclusion of everything else, all the other ways that the university has historically served the public and serve democracy. That I thought would be a mistake. So, when Walker tried to rewrite the mission statement there was a public outcry. He backed down. At first, he claimed that it was a draft error. We now know from reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it was not an error. That it was very much intentional. But in any case, he backed down and people thought that that was the end of the story. But in fact, the effort to reshape the university didn’t end there. Scott Walker, the regents that he appointed at the state’s Republican controlled legislature.

Basically, pursued the same end by different means. And so, this is something that we write about in the book. Those means included very deep budget cuts to the university of Wisconsin system, a very intentional weakening of tenure which is, of course, connected to the commitment to academic freedom. And they also vitiated the sharing of university governance with students, academic staff, and faculty. So, there was really an aggressive attempt to remake the university. This is not by the way, unique to Wisconsin. If any of your listeners have seen the documentary film “Starving the Beast,” this is the kind of overhaul that has been attempted at a number of public universities around the country in recent years. So, Wisconsin may have been at the forefront of these changes, but it was hardly alone.

And of course, we shouldn’t confine ourselves just to this aspect. The reshaping of the university was itself part of a larger political project by the radical right to dismantle the historic achievements of progressivism in Wisconsin. And so we outlined some of the other major policy changes that Walker and Wisconsin Republicans introduced when he was governor. I think these have to be seen as interconnected, as part of a larger project. And I think honestly that Walker and Wisconsin Republicans would agree that they were interconnected, that they were part of a broader effort, to really reshape the state in fundamental ways.


it’s so ironic because we’re in an era where more people are going to college than ever before. More people are enrolled in the university of Wisconsin system than if not ever before, very close to it. It’s a very large university system that interacts with so many students that would never have been imagined in the 19th century when John Bascom was a university president, yet we feel as though the university touches the residents of Wisconsin less, even though there’s more students going to the school. How do we renew the Wisconsin Idea in Wisconsin and maybe how do we renew it in other States?


I think that there are three or four lessons to be drawn from the Wisconsin experience.    University leaders very often think that they have to adopt a market model of the university that kind of market model that Scott Walker pushed in Wisconsin and then other governors have pushed in other States. They feel that they have to adopt this model as essentially as a protective ideology to legitimize the university to the tax paying public that if they want support from taxpayers, then they have to make the university conform to this model. I think the Wisconsin experience shows that in the long run, this doesn’t work. In fact, it has perverse consequences. It just emboldens more radical attacks on public higher education.


Actually, the, the idea you just mentioned about the market model. I find it ironic because a lot of these politicians that talk about the market model and running government like a business actually don’t have business experience. The most important thing for any business is the brand. And if the Wisconsin idea is the brand of the University of Wisconsin, then you can’t damage the brand. That’s the most valuable thing any organization has. Running it like a business would be revitalizing the brand.


It is one of the ironies of the attacks that we’ve seen on the University of Wisconsin is that even from a kind of business perspective, I think there’s a lot of reasons to avoid doing the kinds of things that they have done and have tried to do. Even somebody who approached this from a business perspective would say, ‘You know, there’s the potential here for doing a lot of damage and I think they saw the changes that they wanted to introduce as in their minds, just too important.’ It outweighed whatever risks of damaging the institution that were incurred as a result. I would say that there’s maybe a couple of other lessons for public universities outside of Wisconsin. One is that the university is public service, especially if we understand it as service to democracy cannot be easily separated from politics in a broad sense.

So, there’s a controversy about whether and how public universities should be involved in politics. Some people will say, ‘Look. They shouldn’t be involved in politics at all. It’s inappropriate, but the very public service mission of the state university necessarily involves it in politics. That was something that Charles Van Hise understood. So, the university to the extent that it remains committed to this idea of service, to the public service, to democracy, it has to work to promote the social conditions that make that work possible, that enabled that work. A third lesson is that I think a well-rounded ideal of service to democracy, as we’ve already talked about, it contains some internal tensions.

Sometimes people try to resolve these tensions in a way that ends up producing a much more simplistic or one-sided alternative. I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think we have to live with these tensions basically and manage them rather than think that we can create a system or philosophy in which they are, finally, once and for all resolved. And then lastly, I think the ideal of service to democracy is something that develops as it is reinterpreted over time. We’ve talked about that too. It’s not something static. This doesn’t mean that it can be redefined to mean just anything, anything that someone wants, but it also means that the meaning is not completely fixed by the people who originally formulated it. Sometimes, they made mistakes or they took positions that today we would definitely want to reject or reconsider. And that’s why we say that the ideal has to be renewed and not merely conserved.


Well, it’s a very interesting take. I think that it’s important to always approach ideas like democracy from different angles and different perspectives. And thank you so much for putting together this very unique and different perspective that ties together so many aspects from society and history and politics. So, thanks, Chad.


Thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation today. Thanks for having me on the podcast.

Key Links

Education for Democracy: Renewing the Wisconsin Idea

The Wisconsin Idea by Charles McCarthy

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine Cramer

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