Wisconsin Idea requires open-mindedness
The state Capitol has recently been home to needed debate.Image By: Amileah Sutliff
The Wisconsin Idea portrays the UW System as a guiding light, a beacon that shares its knowledge with all corners of the earth. We’ve been taught to stress the importance of this idea to show that the work done here in Madison changes the world. This is, in many ways, true: The things we do as a university, whether through research or other means, do make a palpable impact on the state of Wisconsin, and the planet as a whole.
An important aspect of the Wisconsin Idea that often gets lost in discussion, however, is that it should be a two-way street. The concept focuses on the difference that the university and its operations make; it stipulates that the school has much to teach the world. What we often forget is that this is a reciprocal relationship; we as a school also have much to learn from the world.
This argument may seem obvious: As is the case with all universities, most of our accomplishments build off of the knowledge and innovations that other institutions and people have already put forth. In a broader sense, though, this point revolves around how the University of Wisconsin interacts with and improves its environs. And this can’t happen unless we all, as a student body and as a community, are also willing to hear what the people in those environs have to say.
It can be difficult for many undergraduates to put themselves into the shoes of others. The idea that other people could feel drastically different about important subjects can be daunting.
Before embarking on a service trip over spring break that took me from Madison to South Carolina, some group members joked that they were anxious about being in “the South”—a place entirely alien to many people. Though these comments weren’t taken seriously, they represent a viewpoint that many members of this community may actually espouse. For plenty of people, those who look different, sound different and, most notably, vote differently, can appear to be of another species. We, predictably enough, ended up loving every person we encountered on the trip, and found talking to them to be one of the most pleasant aspects of the journey. By the end, these so-called “anxieties” were but a distant memory.
What’s important to note, though, is that not many people have these experiences and realize these truths. Many college students don’t have the opportunity to meet everyday people from other regions, and some wouldn’t take the opportunity if they did. Understandably enough, we tend to gravitate toward those who are similar to ourselves. This, however, creates a dangerous positive feedback loop that undermines the very concept of the Wisconsin Idea.
As someone who unabashedly communicates his political views, on this very opinion page and elsewhere, it was easy to find people on campus who had similar perspectives. What’s become apparent, however, is a palpable lack of debate in some social circles. An echo chamber can be created that makes some (even myself, occasionally) feel like they can’t voice alternative viewpoints at all. This deprives people of a vital formative experience in college, the opportunity to develop and test new ideas.
In a time of unprecedented polarization, it can be often difficult to even imagine reconsidering political beliefs. The “other” party is so often painted as the enemy and their views as antithetical to American liberty and progress. Antagonism and rancor are hallmarks of the era we live in, and it can often be all too easy to dig in one’s heels and refuse to budge.
This is especially true in Madison, where the widespread agreement on various issues led many to believe that they’re inherently and irrefutably in the right and have an obligation to educate the millions of people who don’t “see the light.”
This level of pretension leads to a perversion of the Wisconsin Idea, and a misapplication of its principles. Seeing the idea as a mandate to use what we learn and do here—whether it’s cutting-edge research or political ideals—and foist it upon others does little move our state or nation forward.
We should, of course, be proud of everything we have to offer, and continue to try to make our mark. But doing so without first realizing the mark that others can make and have made on us as a community, and embracing their ideas and differences, accomplishes nothing. And to a school that is ostensibly all about serving the world as a whole, that’s the biggest disservice we could do ourselves.
Sebastian is a sophomore majoring in history. Do you feel that the community does enough to embrace alternative ideas and political viewpoints? Please send all comments, questions and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter