James Holden and Micah Roberts
If it started with an idea, what is it? What do you make of it? What do you think of it? Do you even think of it?
It, of course, is the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea provides a foundational bedrock for the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, supposedly guiding a student’s existence and education. Look around where you are today—where you sit right now, in fact—and notice where you actually see the Wisconsin Idea.
What do you see? How would you define it?
Considering current events as well as a paradoxical lack of exposure surrounding the Wisconsin Idea and what it actually means, Illumination sought to explore whether or not the idea is still relevant to students and citizens in Madison today.
On tours of Madison’s campus, you hear the Wisconsin Idea mentioned, and perhaps even defined, if you pay attention. If you are a student, you heard it at SOAR, even if registering for classes prevented you from noticing. If you have graduated, you heard the Wisconsin Idea hailed at commencement as a hallmark that guides distinguished alumni in creating a better tomorrow for everyone. But will the Wisconsin Idea survive another graduation, and be mentioned next year? In ten years? Or in another hundred?
For an idea that allegedly defines Wisconsin’s premiere university’s educational philosophy, we certainly cannot define it. If you asked us at the beginning of August where the Wisconsin Idea came from, we couldn’t tell you; furthermore, we knew we could not be the only ones who felt this way. So we asked classmates, and got confused responses as well as perplexed glances. The Wisconsin Idea, an idea so integral to the very fiber of our University, had slipped away unnoticed. It has become a hollow exposition punctuating the University’s great accomplishments, which then slips quietly beneath Bascom’s floorboards awaiting its next mock performance.
But, is that really it? Just because this campus does not discuss the Wisconsin Idea does not mean we cannot define it for ourselves. Just because we do not know what the textbook definition is does not mean we cannot see what it does. Just because we do not debate its merit does not mean we cannot act out the idea in our daily lives. We began to wonder what would happen if we went out and asked people, “What is the Wisconsin Idea?”
So, we did.
From four members of the University of Wisconsin Madison community—a campus tour guide like the one who probably first told you about the Wisconsin Idea, a first generation college student from small-town Wisconsin, a University Housing facilities supervisor, and an alumnus turned Odyssey Project assistant director—we got results, and we learned a little something, too. We hope to share their stories with Wisconsin, and get more people thinking about what the Wisconsin Idea means.
Here’s what we heard…
Assistant Director of the Odyssey Project
Who are you?
“I grew up in Evanston which is just north of Chicago, and I did my undergrad at Michigan. Then [I] spent most of my twenties living and teaching in other countries, so I taught in Bulgaria for a bit; that is the one I go to the most. And, then Japan for a year, and Turkey for two years: one year in Istanbul and one year in the southeast. And, I had studied in Italy.
Anyways, for the next step in my education, I wanted to kind of go out into the world and see how other people see the world. Literature is about seeing the world through another person’s perspective. I had finished my undergrad and thought well, I want to do that but with cultures and groups of people and get immersed in each place so that I could start to see how other groups of people see life and what they find to be important. [ … ] And along the way I found that I loved teaching.”
How did you wind up in Madison?
“I first came to the UW to do my Ph.D. in English, and I came here in 2007. I studied 20th Century American Trans-Atlantic Literature, and finished up my Ph.D. a little over a year ago. I started working with Odyssey my last year of my PhD just doing a few hours through the Writing Center, and really fell in love with the course, connected a lot with the students, and was really drawn to what they are doing.”
UW-Madison Tour Guide
Why choose Madison?
“I actually didn’t want to come here, which is an interesting thing. But then within a week—just getting to SOAR, within two hours of being at SOAR—I thought, “This is the best place ever. I’ve found home.”
What do campus tour guides do?
“Anyone can call in and get a tour. […] For the most part, it is going around to different locations on campus and describing buildings, describing the history of the university, some traditions, talking a lot about academics, and the student life here. Especially on the prospective student tours.”
Why do you like being on campus?
“Coming here and experiencing the atmosphere as a student, as opposed to a visitor. Because when you are a visitor you feel like a little bit of an outsider, but then once you are actually part of campus you feel like, ‘I’m a student, I’m here with 28,000 other undergraduate students along with graduate students.’”
First-Generation College Student
Who are you?
“I’m a fifth year instrumental music education major, and I’m in the middle of my student teaching semester. So right now I’m teaching band at a high school and middle school. Hopefully I’ll go into subbing after. I’m from the small town of Brodhead, Wisconsin. It’s a metropolis; it’s actually a city, has over three thousand people.”
How is being a first-generation college student?
“The first generation thing, for me, doesn’t seem to line up with other first generation students’ experiences. First of all, I’m a first generation college student, but my sister went to college and she’s eighteen years older than me. I have always had this person in my life who went to college eighteen years before I did. So, honestly, it wasn’t like college was something that I really had as an option. I just had to go to college.”
What is it like being a music major?
“Being a music major was fun. There were a lot of different expectations going into it that I didn’t necessarily realize, […] that I wasn’t prepared for. Like I said, three thousand people in my small town. We had one band director for one hundred people in band.”
What was Brodhead like?
“In Brodhead I was the only tuba player, and I remember going to my first master class [at Madison], and listening to Tim Morris actually play the euphonium, and he just plays the shit out of this solo, and I was like, “Oh man, I suck!” I didn’t realize how much you could do on the tuba compared to what I had actually done on the tuba.”
UW Housing Facilities Supervisor
Who are you?
“My name is Lazaro Garza and I am a custodial service supervisor for Chadbourne and Barnard so I am working on their Housing Division in the Res-Hall facilities.”
Where are you from?
“Well, I am going to say that I’m not from here and I’m not from over there. The reason I’ll say it is because I’m born in Texas but that’s the only thing I can remember—just born… So basically, my parents take me down states, and raise me in Mexico.”
When did you come to Madison?
“I came here to Wisconsin—straight to Madison—in 1992, never moved back, never moved to another state, so I consider Madison, Wisconsin my hometown.”
How was moving to Madison?
“When I came here to Madison there was a handful of Hispanic, but in the last ten years, as I see it, the Hispanic and the Hmong community has grown so fast. But when I came here it was just Caucasian, African Americans… You feel like a fish out of the water because first of all language; my language was not that good, and still not that good, it’s still in progress but at least I can communicate now. When I was 23 years it was hard for me because not a lot of Hispanic people were living here.”
What is the Wisconsin Idea?
CAT: “So, actually, on every single tour we are supposed to mention the Wisconsin Idea and tie it into our tour. We usually express the Wisconsin Idea as the idea that what we learn in the classroom is not just applicable to that class, that paper, that semester, but using that knowledge and applying it outside the walls of the classroom—whether it is on a local level, a community level, or a national or international level—but using that knowledge we learned at the University of Wisconsin-Madison or any university in the state, and using that knowledge to better those around us.”
GARZA: “I can’t hardly remember exactly the whole content. But, you know, the Wisconsin Idea has so much of a variety of people here—the diversity. So, sometimes it’s good to know how other people are and how you can interact with other people. Because sometimes the language can be a little bit difficult. Or simply the way they do things in their country, and the way we do things over here in the United States […] sometimes it’s a lot different. So morals and culture, it’s way different and people need to adapt and adjust to where they are actually living at the moment, but also respect others and the way you can be more socialized, I want to say. You know, like interacting with other people without being offended, and understand their culture. But also people need to understand your culture.”
KEVIN: “The Wisconsin Idea is exactly what I’ve been talking about in terms of that responsibility, in terms of that feeling as though this is not, this should not be, a bubble campus. There should not be a boundary here that says, ‘Well, you didn’t pay the tuition so you aren’t privileged to the ideas.’ There should be a sense that we are all in this together. There should be a sense for everybody that is lucky enough to be a part of this campus that they then should be spreading this out.[…] There should be this feeling that there is a circulation, and that it doesn’t stop at the end of Park Street, or it doesn’t stop in terms of the borders of campus. It should be something that everyone feels like they’re a part of it.”
GAVIN: “I don’t know what the exact words are, but—and this is actually kinda the gist I had before—for me, from my point of view as a music educator, the Wisconsin Idea is about providing for people within the state, sometimes out of the state, almost giving back, kind of, this experience, and using it to help other. […] Something about how it was taking what we do at Wisconsin and UW and spreading it to the borders of the state and beyond and expanding knowledge, and blah blah blah blah blah. That’s the technical terms.”
How do you do the Wisconsin Idea?
CAT: “When we’re tour guides, we not only give tours, but can also be ambassadors to the University. So, sometimes we’ll have skype calls with different elementary and middle schools around the nation, and talk to them about what college is like, what the University of Wisconsin-Madison is like, and those are all outreach events where we get to put that idea into play that we are giving back to these communities without necessarily having to physically be there, but being able to educate people about what we are doing here over a computer screen, and give back.
GAVIN: “I’ve always tried to [give back] a little bit. When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to do music seriously between my sophomore and junior year. So I started going over to the elementary school and the middle school and doing lessons with the kids; I probably ruined some young tuba players. Hopefully I didn’t, but being involved, even if I wasn’t giving them the most sound musical instruction at the time, it was a way for them to see a role model.”
KEVIN: “I’ve changed in terms of my relationship to it. I now understand a lot more. It’s not just the rhetoric behind the words, it’s actually happening. You can see examples of it all over the place, where the university does reach out and touch people outside of its walls, outside of this campus. I think I see it a lot more clearly now, and I see the benefit of it, and I see that it is a very unique thing. It is not something you hear about in other states.”
Why is it important?
CAT: “I think it is important to remember where things come from, and remember their origins. Knowing where it comes from helps you maintain that or change that as you want to in the future. Especially as it is over 100 years old, it is bound to change somewhere or other, and students will tweak it to how it fits their needs to this day, and how it pertains to their life as a student, and what they can do as a student right now.”
GAVIN: “For me, it’s really great that while I’ve been at Wisconsin I’ve learned all this great music, and different ways that we can teach music, or relate to music, and what music really is. What’s neat is that as an educator I have the opportunity to now go out and share that and expand that horizon of what music is in our schools and what it means to us.”
GARZA: “23 years ago, ok there was not a lot of Hispanic people, but I was not feel discriminated against. I always feel like maybe they see a brown person, or a color, or Hispanic, but they don’t see you different. […] They always say ‘How are you doing?’ Questions that make you feel home, not like a stranger. But the difference I have seen now, especially more Hispanic people, a lot more Mexican restaurants, a lot more places that speak Spanish. […] But the city actually, the people here, welcome you with open arms. That is the only thing that do not change for those many years. You feel like—like home when you come over here. You don’t feel like stranger.”
KEVIN: “It strikes me as one of the coolest ways of thinking about what the University should be doing. It’s taking all of the expertise, and all of the knowledges, and all of the intelligence, and cleverness that is on campus and finding ways to export some of that out into the wider state. But even within the city. When I first got here I felt like there was a bubble, and now I am seeing that the Wisconsin Idea is one way to break that bubble […] to make it feel as though this is something that benefits the whole community, and then the state.”
What’s next for the Wisconsin Idea, and how will it change our future?
CAT: “If you want it, and you want it badly enough, […] you can make your own Wisconsin Experience. And, it will be nothing like mine, and it won’t be anything like the person next to you either, and that is kind of the beauty of each Wisconsin Experience. […] It is something that will […] resonate past my four years. It is something that will stick with you as an alumni as wanting to continue to give back whether it is to the university, to your community, and in your profession as well. […] You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give. It sounds horribly cheesy, and it is horribly cheesy, but it is something that I very much put in my own life.”
GAVIN: “I don’t know. Hopefully just keep on giving back. Obviously I’m in teaching for the money, but in addition to that, just giving back.”
GARZA: “Personally, I am not going to say it affects me or not affect me, but once I know more about the Wisconsin Idea. You can understand that the concept of what the Wisconsin Idea is trying to do. At that point, once you know all the basics, […] yeah for some people it might not be effective, but other people might look at it different and many people might say ‘You know what, this is what I was waiting for’ like this is the thing that’s going make this city, or that’s going make this University, or that’s going to make this place we live in a whole lot better than what we are now.”
KEVIN: “What I would love to see is a larger understanding amongst undergrads, as well as faculty and grad students, how much they owe the state. The state of Wisconsin. People are taking taxes on their paychecks, take home less money because they are contributing to this larger force for this state. You can see in the realm of job creation, but also the Wisconsin Idea shows us this public thing that by educating our young, bright people of the state that that will filter back. I think people should understand that a little more clearly, they are beholden to the people around them. […] If you are conscious of that, it changes the way you do things. You start to think to yourself, ‘Maybe I should do more in my community.’”
What will you do?
We have the Wisconsin Idea; we have testimonials. Cat, Garza, Kevin, and Gavin have given us perspective and insight, but can their ideas outlast the ink? Can they live beyond this page? That is our question. Even if they could not explicitly state the origin of the Wisconsin Idea, or cite an exact definition, each person we interviewed sees the Wisconsin Idea influencing their community, their lives, and their actions. You have read this far, and you might be the only one to do so. So what will you do? Will you ask yourself today, “What is the Wisconsin Idea?” Will you ask yourself tomorrow, “What will I do with it?”
For Gavin and Cat, current students, the Wisconsin Idea seems deeply entangled with serving the community. Both want to give back, and take what they have learned on campus to positively affect wherever they wind up next. Garza, who has lived in Madison since 1992, calls “Madison, Wisconsin [his] hometown.” He calls it this because he experienced the community the Wisconsin Idea facilitates in Madison, a place where “the city actually, the people here, welcome you with open arms.” Kevin believes that each student has an obligation to ensure that as the university benefits from the state, the state benefits from the university; that the “bubble” separating campus from community is broken.
But, what is the Wisconsin Idea for you?
After all, it’s your idea. As Wisconsin is comprised of us—the people who make a home here—the Wisconsin Idea is derived from us: me and you, student and professor, maintenance crew and research assistants, alumni and tour guide. You can give it a life and meaning. It is anyone and any two who determine that by working together, we can all ensure that hidden knowledge does not go undiscovered; that discovered knowledge does not go unspoken; and that when spoken knowledge cries forth, it does not go unheard. The Wisconsin Idea lives when we choose to take action, to collaborate, to spread knowledge, and to seek truth. The Wisconsin Idea lives when with great purpose we choose to impact our fellow students, our community, and our state—On Wisconsin.
So, what will you do?