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The Idea That Inspired a Nation

By Morgan Adkins

When you say Wisconsin, you’ve said it all: Home of Titletown and Cheese Days, America’s Dairyland, Land of the Bratwurst, and leading exporter of cranberries, sweet corn and more. Wisconsin is known for a lot of things, but perhaps its greatest claim to fame is the Wisconsin Idea. Providing a vision for the University and the fuel to spur on the Progressive Era, it has played a crucial role in Wisconsin and the nation’s history. At the core of this idea lies UW-Madison itself.

Since its conception in 1904 by UW-Madison President Charles Van Hise, the Wisconsin Idea has been the mission and vision of the university, guiding it for over a century. Van Hise stated: “I shall never rest content until the beneficent influences of the University reach into every home in the commonwealth, and the boundaries of our campus are coextensive with the boundaries of the state.” This statement provided the foundation for lasting relationships within the state, across the country, and even around the globe, emphasizing service and outreach of the University to better the people of Wisconsin.

On a national level, the Wisconsin Idea was the foundation behind Progressivism and social change in the first half of the 20th century. State and national leaders were searching for answers to problems caused by an increasingly industrial and technological society. The new importance of big industry, the transformation of the labor force due to immigration, and the overall speed of daily life brought confusion, uncertainty, and distress to citizens across the country. In Wisconsin, these changes were addressed by Progressivists, headed by Robert La Follete, a graduate of UW-Madison, a Wisconsin governor, and a US Senator in the early 1900s. The guiding principle of this movement was the belief that the business of government was to serve its people. This appealed to people who wanted honest government and economic reform that would expand democracy and boost public morality. Progressivists sought to restrict corporate power when it interfered with individuals and their needs. As a result, reform swept across the state in the early 1900’s, and progressive legislation was passed to regulate factory safety, to establish a state income tax, to limit work day hours for women and children, to create worker’s compensation for those injured on the job, and to help protect natural resources.

This “power to the people” approach of government made Wisconsin a nationwide symbol of Progressive reform and ongoing Progressive research. Behind this movement was the idea that the inclusion of specialists in law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the most efficient government. This concept also came to be known as the Wisconsin Idea. As an effect of this shift in the political methodology of the time, faculty from UW-Madison played a substantial role in Progressive reform. They served as experts on government commissions, helped legislators draft laws, and advocated for a more efficient and scientific government. By the time the Great Depression came about, when the daily routine of American life was dominated by unemployment and turmoil, progressive ideals had become deeply ingrained into national politics, too. Much of FDR’s New Deal legislation was, in fact, drafted by Wisconsin citizens who were taught here at UW-Madison. Edwin Witte, for example, was a Wisconsin-trained economist who is known as the Father of Social Security. The progressive ideals of La Follete and Wisconsinites even found themselves embedded in John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society policies.

In addition to encouraging government efficiency, many of the experts from UW-Madison involved with progressive reform also made efforts to expand educational opportunities for citizens. This is where Van Hise comes back onto the scene. During his time at the University, the Extension Division was created to provide all citizens of Wisconsin access to university research and other resources so that they could learn and grow as citizens. Another example of extending knowledge to the public came in the form of the Legislative Reference Bureau. Founded in 1901, the Legislative Reference Bureau provides legal, research, and information services to the Wisconsin Legislature. Services of this agency are emulated in countries around the globe.

At its heart, the Wisconsin Idea is about empowerment. The purpose of this concept, this vision, is to share knowledge with the citizens of the state by creating connections to spread that knowledge, that power, across borders. Its goal is to give as much power to the citizens as possible. The Wisconsin Idea emphasizes reaching out to the citizens of the state, giving them the power to think for themselves and seek out new information. But the power of this idea doesn’t lie solely with cold hard facts and objective laws. At its beginning, leaders of the University placed a lot of importance not only on getting information to the students and citizens of Wisconsin, but also on helping to create environments and means by which they could interact with each other to develop as citizens.

The Wisconsin Idea has evolved over time and continues to alter in today’s changing world. It seems that people are attracted to different parts of the idea depending on how it fits in their lives. Yet each version is a separate piece of the same puzzle, and the full picture can only be obtained by putting all the pieces together. The concept is very diversified and spread out, and in order to continue to be a useful and meaningful vision, the pieces must be put together again. The Wisconsin Idea that made this university a national leader among research institutions is the same Wisconsin Idea that made this state a national leader for honest and clean government. Today, the Wisconsin Idea has become a catchy slogan that rolls off the tongue without much meaning, but reading between the lines opens the door to the hidden achievements that make Wisconsin great. It unlocks the rich history of UW-Madison and its commitment to serving the public. It tells the story of citizens taking back power from big business. A lot came out of Wisconsin that many don’t realize: entire economic schools of thought, New Deal policy, and government that gave power back to the people. And the Wisconsin Idea is behind it all.

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