“When I came [to Wisconsin] I just thought, ‘There is something different about this place, there is something very special about this place.’ And you can feel it … this place is extremely special, and it was no accident that it became so special.”
So says Gwen Drury, a PhD student in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at UW-Madison, who since coming to town has gained the reputation as our resident Wisconsin Idea expert.
If she had been talking about anywhere else, I might have dismissed the statement as parochial or self-involved. But we’re in Wisconsin. Like others I’ve met, my family came here for the UW, moved away for a time, missed Wisconsin and returned; we’ve since had opportunities to leave but choose to stay. From our perspective, a little Wisconsin exceptionalism is in order.
Recently on Wisconsin Public Radio, I listened to Drury explain how the Wisconsin Idea sets our state apart from the rest. Now at least 100 years strong, the Wisconsin Idea is the philosophy that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state–or in a 21st century wired Wisconsin, the university really has no boundaries. In other words, the UW has an obligation to serve all people, not just its own academic community. Other states tried similar approaches to public service, with less impressive or enduring results, maintains Drury.
Or as she and WPR host Larry Meiller adorably point out in the broadcast, it’s not the Wisconsin IDEA, it’s the WISCONSIN Idea.
The philosophy has roots in the UW’s earliest days, when John Bascom served as its president. Each Sunday, he lectured students at length on their moral obligation to the state, which had made their academic opportunities possible. His teachings powerfully impacted the students of his day, including all-star Wisconsin Idea proponents such as Robert M. La Follette, Charles Van Hise and Charles McCarthy.
Notably, around this time, Carl Beck wrote the original lyrics to the UW fight song, “On Wisconsin.” (With modified lyrics, “On Wisconsin” also became our official state song in 1959.) Beck himself was surely affected by the Wisconsin Idea. In 1912–the same year McCarthy published his book “The Wisconsin Idea”–Beck wrote an article titled “Wisconsin spirit–a discussion.” In it, he calls for rehabilitating the Wisconsin spirit on campus, “temporarily strangled [by] … first, a rapidly expanding university, and second, a larger inflow of the leisure class.” What made me seek out his article, though (with thanks again to Gwen Drury for steering me to it), was his assertion about Wisconsin’s specialness: there’s “spirit,” and then there’s “Wisconsin spirit.”
I couldn’t resist reproducing a table from Beck’s article, below.
|2. peculiar ability||efficiency|
|4. pervading influence||progressiveness|
|5. animating principle||democracy|
|6. state of mind||open-mindedness|
|7. peculiar quality||service|
Beck believed that, while these six somewhat vague characteristics of “spirit” combine to create a “peculiar quality,” “Wisconsin spirit” is embodied in six specific, positive attributes that all add up to “service.” Moreover, without all six working together, there’s no “Wisconsin spirit.”
From now on when I hear our state song, I’ll think about these deeply ingrained values that continue to make our state a special place.
As the Badger men’s basketball team heads into the NCAA Sweet 16 tournament, here’s a postscript about ‘On Wisconsin,’ which Wisconsin Public Television originally broadcast to commemorate the song’s 100th anniversary.