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Creating the Mind of a Great University

John Bascom and the ‘Wisconsin Idea’

Aug. 30, 2016
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Although nowadays many people seem to think that universities should function as four-year vocational schools, the University of Wisconsin always professed loftier ambitions. State statutes refer to “the pursuit of truth” as part of UW’s mission. Moreover, the university was once considered a laboratory of good governance, a public think tank for public policy. Called the “Wisconsin Idea,” the project of drawing academics out of their ivory towers and into everyday life is inimical to obscurantism of late-modern academia and the anti-intellectualism of politicians such as Scott Walker. Although promulgated by the Progressive Republican Robert La Follette, the idea is traced to his teacher, the university’s president (1874-1887) and the subject of a new book, John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea.

For author J. David Hoeveler, a UW-Milwaukee history professor, studying Bascom is a continuation of his earlier book, Creating the American Mind, which explored how the university education of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and other founders helped shape the new republic. Part of the next generation of American activist intellectuals, Bascom campaigned against slavery before the Civil War and continued speaking for women and the working class. “You won’t find many university presidents of his time who advocated not only for organized labor but for the right to strike,” Hoeveler says. 

“He believed that the state had a responsibility for the common good that transcended the peculiarities of individual preferences,” Hoeveler continues. “He believed that philosophy should underscore the teaching of every subject and the solutions to the moral and social crises of the day.” Imbued with neo-Kantian idealism, Bascom “engaged with German philosophy and drew from it the idea that the mind was powerful enough to see through empirical reality to a higher vision, the higher truths. Unlike some philosophers, he took what he learned and applied it to practical reforms.”

Hoeveler will speak about Bascom at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 7 at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave.

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