The Big Idea

“Saaaaaaaaaaaaaay, what’s the big idea?” That’s a piece of old fashioned talk that nobody says any more, though you hear it in just about every black and white movie out there. It, is, however, today’s topic. Specifically, the Wisconsin Idea. Which is: “The boundaries of the University of Wisconsin are the boundaries of the state.”

In plain English, this means that the work of the university is done to benefit the people of the state. It is an anti-ivory-tower outlook, which attempts to guide a professor’s research into the hermeneutics of semantically exegetical dichotomies into an area more approachable by “the people.” It is not a call to water down one’s research, of course, but to take seriously the notion that learning is undertaken to benefit our fellow citizens. This week, I am on the Wisconsin Idea bus trip. It is a 5 day tour through some of this big state, mostly but not entirely for new faculty and staff. There are 40 of us, and it has been fascinating.

Let me start by saying that one of the best parts of the trip is sitting on the bus with fellow faculty members and picking their brains (I had a lesson on cell biology today). Here is a blanket apology to my colleagues for picking their brains until they bleed: sorry. (Not really, though.)

The premise of the trip is that, if your work will benefit the people of the state or be relevant to them or improve their lives, it is good to go out and see what is in the state. We just finished Day 2. I’ll provide a brief rundown so far.

We had a lecture, in Sauk City, on the demographics of Wisconsin, delivered by a UW geographer. Then on to the Aldo Leopold property in Baraboo. Are you one of those cretins who doesn’t know about Aldo Leopold? Me, too! He wrote a book called A Sand County Almanac, and is considered one of the fathers of the modern environmental movement. No, I haven’t read it, either. He taught at UW but bought a used-up farm north of Madison in Baraboo with the idea of returning it to its more natural state. He and his wife and 5 kids would stay in their shack on the property, which is a converted chicken coop. It is tiny but, I have to admit, charming. He planted tons of trees (too many, as it turns out – they had to cull a lot of them some 10 years ago) and returned some of the land to prairie. It is lovely, though I confess that a big part of my take-home message was that there are LOTS of mosquitoes in the Wisconsin woods.

From there, we went to a dairy farm in Fond du Lac. Fond du Lac means bottom of the lake, and the town is positioned, logically, at the southern end of Lake Winnebago (as in the RV. One of the local tribes of Indians used to be called the Winnebago, but apparently this was a derogatory term, and they now use their proper name from their language, the Ho-Chunk. I’m not making this up). The dairy has 1700 cows, which is a lot of cows. So many, in fact, that the farm has to be run with the kind of logistical planning you would associate more with the operation of a submarine. The milking machines are in use 24 hours a days. There are 3 shifts of workers. There are automated squeegee-like gizmos that push manure away in the feeding area. There is a nice, humane (bovane?) birthing area. The animals are clean and sleek, and huge. The farmer pronounced milk “melk.” I learned that no milk can be sold if it has any antibiotics in it at all. The farmers made the claim, convincingly, that organic milk is exactly the same as inorganic, and that in fact inorganic farms are more humane, since sick cows can be treated with antibiotics. While they are on the drugs, their milk is thrown away.

I’m skipping over all the lectures we had on the bus and after dinner. Today, Day 2, we started by going to a wind farm. It baffles me that people complain about the appearance of modern wind turbines – they are gorgeous. Here is a picture I took:

Note the PERFECT blue sky. The turbines make a slight hum when they are turning fast enough to generate electricity, and there is a hypnotic whoosh-whoosh. Farmland is leased to house them. The big problem is the enormous up-front expense. They last 25-30 years, with almost all that hefty expense in building and installation. Will America be comfortable with such an investment? I guess we’ll wait and see. I’m just watching and learning.

From there we drove to the UW campus at Manitowoc (put the stress on the first syllable and sort of slide through the rest, and you’ll be saying it right). This is a 2-year college in the UW system. I had an interesting lunch with one of my colleagues and the head of adult recruiting at Manitowoc (they have extensive adult education). Education is a tough sell in some places, and this is one of them. Adults are not convinced that going back to school will benefit them, and there are very few jobs in Manitowoc, so they may be right. We talked a lot about the meaning and value of a liberal education, something that used to be a frequent dinner table conversation when my brother and I were home on college vacation. I have been thinking a lot about what is the best kind of education I can provide my horn students in Madison, and I think this topic will keep returning as a theme of the bus tour.

Next up was a tour of Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. The Packers (“Go Pack Go,” I’m supposed to say, though in truth I don’t care about football, sorry sorry sorry) are publicly owned by people in the state (the borders of the Packers are the borders of the state, if I may restate the Wisconsin Idea). It’s actually amazing that such a huge sports team resides in such a tiny city as Green Bay. We visited a skybox (normally I would dis such a thing, but if you are watching football in Wisconsin in December, an interior space could be a necessity. Of course, your own TV is probably in an interior space, too…) and the field itself. Incidentally, our lecture on the way to Lambeau was about concussions. The topic, oddly, did not come up on our tour.

I’m writing this from a Casino Resort run by the Menominee tribe. Perhaps I’ll save the summarizing thoughts for the end of the tour (hoping I’ll have such thoughts). As a teaser, coming up will be a prison visit, and a ship building operation, and a sauerkraut producer. As I mentioned before, I’m not making this up.

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3 Responses to The Big Idea

  1. BlueLoom says:

    Thanks for the running commentary. I look forward to hearing more about the trip. Did you know that at least four of David’s father’s books (“Rascal” being the best known) are set in Wisconsin? In fact, the Sterling North house, where David’s father grew up, is now a nice little museum in Edgerton.

  2. David North says:

    The bus trip sounds like a great idea, and I wonder if other state universities do the same thing? Also, while we are on the subject of Wisconsin, I sure hope, Dan, that you are registered to vote and willvote in the recall election!

    That was a grand report and I look forward to the next one. David

  3. Ruth: no, I didn’t even know David’s father wrote books!
    David: no idea if other state schools do this. The Wisconsin Idea is a guiding principle of the university, and I don’t know if there is a Nebraska Idea, or Iowa. Yes, I will be voting in the upcoming election!

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