The Wisconsin Idea, according to UW-Madison’s website, seeks to “influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.” It is the state’s application of what the world calls a liberal arts education.
Liberal arts education has been offered in American colleges for years. It is an established system that aims to prepare students by educating them in a variety of subjects. From the natural sciences to humanities to social sciences, this system prepares students to be well-rounded, knowledgeable citizens post-graduation.
General education, or gen-ed, requirements are a mechanism universities use to ensure that students take a variety of classes spanning across subjects. Although the requirements may differ slightly among each college within the university, all students must fulfill them in order to graduate.
UW-Madison implemented a single three-credit Ethnic Studies course into the gen-ed requirement back in 1989. This became required in order for students to become aware of history’s impact on the present, to be able to recognize and question assumptions, be conscious of oneself as well as others and to effectively participate in a multicultural society.
The Ethnic Studies requirement (ESR) enables the Wisconsin Idea to adapt to modern culture, and serves to make students aware of their own privileges and identities and how these intersect with their daily lives.
In an increasingly polarized political and social environment, courses on race and ethnicity in the United States are crucial to educating young people on the roots of these issues.Ideally, this intersectional education will help address the lasting notions of racism and develop cultural sensitivity.
UW-Madison sophomore Becca Chadwick said ethnic studies classes “teach you more than just math and equations, but how to be a good person in the real world.” She advocated her support for the requirement, saying, “even though it may not relate to my major... it’s important to learn about as a white, privileged female.”
Dr. Michael Thornton, a UW-Madison professor of Afro-American Studies and Asian American Studies, touched on how the goal of ethnic studies courses is to “give voice to people who are regularly last asked to come to the table, and only after the plans have been established.”
“When done right, these courses provide context and content to what it means to live as members of communities who have been vital participants in what we are as a nation,” Thornton said.
Despite its cultural necessity and support, ESR continually faces challenges. Students often take these courses less seriously. Many students aim to take “easy A” classes, attending fewer lectures and engaging less with the material in the process. Such downfalls inhibit the goals of ESR from being fulfilled.
According to UW-Madison sophomore Maggie Marshall, “the perception people have on ethnic studies classes are that they are ‘joke classes’, so they aren’t taken very seriously.” Her commentary highlights the plight the Ethnic Studies requirement faces — its importance and need is met with reluctance and resentment.
Thornton also discussed how ESR classes face a unique challenge regarding engagement because students “commonly come in with little prior knowledge and are often resistant to the conversations.”
Rooted in the largely white demographic of the UW-Madison student body, it is clear some improvements need to be made to the system in order to mitigate such challenges and foster intersectional understanding and willingness to learn.
For the ESR to effectively change the way racially privileged students perceive their own identity and interact with others that have differing identities, the requirement must be expanded from one three-credit course to six credits. Not only will this help instill long-term consideration of race in daily life, but it will help expand the coverage of various identities.
“If you assume many folks, but especially those who are white, arrive on this campus not having really explored the role race plays in their lives, an idea influenced by color-blind thinking, then clearly one class cannot do justice to the complexity of race’s influence both here and world-wide,” Thornton said.
This, in tandem with the fact that most ethnic studies courses only cover one ethnic/racial group’s experience, makes it clear that more than one class is needed to achieve ESR’s goals.
Adding more credits to the ESR is an idea that the university has dabbled in, according to UW-Madison Director of General Education Dr. Elaine Klein.
“Faculty have consistently reminded us that a six-credit requirement would be better, since we have a two course requirement for QR (Quantitative Reasoning) and Comm. (Communication A/B),” Klein said. “Faculty that teach ethnic studies have been working really hard to expand the array of courses that would be eligible for ethnic studies.”
Another common criticism of ESR is that the courses lack comprehensibility. However, after talking to ethnic studies professors Thornton and Kasey Keeler, it became clear that in order to fully achieve the goals of ESR, this attention to privilege and identity must be a university-wide initiative.
“The ESR by itself, as a tool for teaching college-aged students to think critically about race, ethnicity, indigeneity, is not enough,” Keeler said. “Developing an awareness of identity, specifically racial and ethnic identity, and privilege of one’s self and those around you within the institutional power structures of our country... this is life-long learning.”
Thornton also touched on this topic, talking about his own experience teaching Afro-American Studies courses which often discuss the less-covered topic of people of color to people of color relations, rather than simply white to POC relations.
“Even doing this does not make my courses comprehensive,” said Thornton. “But neither should that be a realistic goal in the ethnic studies requirement — to attempt to do so is an insult to the true extent of human diversity.”
In addition to refining the expectations of ESR courses, the university should also hire more professors and faculty of color in order to achieve maximum visibility and impact.
“Since I am black, white, Asian American, Native American and married to a Latina, I try to give voice to most of these groups in my professional work,” Thornton said. “I think my experiences allow me to better understand the diversity of experiences people have around race. That experience taught me that race is complicated and encouraged me to consider that no one group has the answer to any question.”
He went on to explain that since this class is required, and will be the only time many students will focus on people of color, “it is reasonable for these faculty to feel the need to focus on their own histories intertwined with white machinations.”
Keeler said she has seen UW-Madison acting on this exact thing, as she herself is a Native woman.
“The university has taken steps recently to hire more Native faculty and is currently undergoing a Native Studies cluster-hire across the School of Human Ecology, the School of Nursing and the Nelson Institute, as well as a joint position in History and American Indian Studies,” Keeler said. “I am thrilled to see this sort of hiring, and know students will see it too.”
Other suggestions made by Thornton and Keller included requiring ESR to be taken during students’ first two years at UW-Madison. While it is vital that students are required to take more than one course in order to cover at least two different ethnic/indigenous groups, this potential change would emphasize community-based learning and allow students to also “experience diversity in a real setting.”
Students would be able to apply the lessons and expand teachings of ethnic studies, race, religion, gender and sexuality, etc. into classrooms across campus over the course of their collegiate experience.
This last suggestion speaks heavily to what we believe the Wisconsin Idea stands for: by encouraging students to seek courses outside their field of study and engage with ideas of inequality and identity in a context of computer programming, environmental justice, gender and women’s studies, economics and much more, UW-Madison will not only be fostering intelligent citizens, but socially responsible ones as well.
“We must hold all of our professors and academic staff on campus accountable for incorporating social and racial justice within courses so that students are learning the histories and practicing the skills throughout their collegiate careers,” Keeler said.
While ethnic studies courses have good intentions, and many professors are committed to making their courses worthwhile and impactful for even the most reluctant of students, the university must increase the required amount of ESR credits, instill a sense of comprehensibility within these courses and further encourage that qualified professors of color should be teaching them.
University action, however, is merely a single dimension to a multifaceted solution; student attitudes must change as well.
Accessibility to a liberal arts education has the ability to transform students into well-rounded, socially and culturally responsible citizens. Students should fully embrace the benefits of a liberal arts education by dedicating themselves to a diverse subject matter outside of their major, especially ethnic studies courses. In doing so, the undergraduate student body will better reflect the Wisconsin Idea and “influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.”