Published by EH.Net (July 2017)
J. David Hoeveler, John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea. Madison: WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016. xi + 229 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-299-30780-6.
Reviewed by EH.Net by Marianne Johnson, Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin — Oshkosh.
In 2014, as part of the biennial budgetary process, Governor Scott Walker proposed to modify the University of Wisconsin’s mission, known as the Wisconsin Idea, striking the statements to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its
campus,” to “serve and stimulate society,” and to “extend training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition.” He also proposed to delete the phrase “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” Instead,
the university system was to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
When discovered buried deep within the budget proposal, the changes were met with outcry and condemnation from the University and its supporters. University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross stated “The Wisconsin Idea is embedded in our DNA. It is
so much more than words on a page. It is the reason the UW System exists. It defines us and forever will distinguish us as a great public university” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 4 February 2015). The
New York Times editorialized “Save the Wisconsin Idea” (16 February 2015).
When confronted, the governor denied instigating the changes and blamed a “drafting error.” Sued by the Center for Media and Democracy and several Wisconsin citizens under Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, documents revealed a deliberate attempt to circumscribe
the mission of the University of Wisconsin and its system of affiliated schools.
To understand both why the governor had sought the change and the reaction of those in the University of Wisconsin system, it is important to have a book such as that by David Hoeveler on
John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea. Combined with Nancy Unger’s biography of Robert La Follette (2000) and Malcolm Rutherford’s
The Institutionalist Movement in American Economics (2011), academics and interested readers now have a trio of excellent historical works on the Wisconsin Idea, Wisconsin Progressivism, and Wisconsin’s unique brand of Institutional economics.
Wisconsin gained outsized influence in the early part of the twentieth century, driven by larger-than-life personalities such as “Fighting Bob” La Follete and his partner in reform, University of Wisconsin President Richard Van Hise. The latter is usually
credited with the first complete statement of the Wisconsin Idea. Richard T. Ely and E.A. Ross remade the social sciences as taught at American universities, drawing on the German academic tradition of seminars. John R. Commons and his army of disciples oversaw
an expansive national political advocacy campaign for labor reform, unemployment insurance, social security and the minimum wage.
Ely was famously prosecuted for espousing socialist doctrines in 1894. The Board of Regents ruled in Ely’s favor, setting the standard for academic freedom. University President, Charles Kendall Adams, writing on behalf of the Board of Regents concluded
that “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” This statement can
be found on a plaque at the entrance of Bascom Hall, the best-known building on campus.
Though Bascom predates the great hey-day of Wisconsin Progressivism, Hoeveler makes a compelling case for Bascom’s importance in laying the foundation for change at the end of the nineteenth century.
During Bascom’s professional lifetime, two socio-demographic trends emerged that were to fundamentally alter higher education in the United States: an increased demand for specialized education and an increased demand by women for professional training and
careers. American universities responded to the first of these changes by expanding course work at all levels. The second shift involved the transformation of educational opportunities for women. With the influence of Progressivism and the suffrage movement,
public opinion slowly shifted to support higher education for women. Having lost the battle for co-education at Williams College, Bascom accepted the presidency of the University of Wisconsin in 1874. Earlier that same year, the university had affirmed a co-educational
curriculum. Bascom was an avid supporter of women’s access to higher education. Rather than limiting women’s education to domestic subjects and finishing schools, Bascom argued forcefully for their access to a full liberal education stating that “This exclusion
of women from our highest seats of learning is among the remnant…[of] a dark and savage past” (Bascom 1872, 2). Bascom’s two daughters both earned their bachelor’s degrees at Wisconsin, where he defended the right for women to face an identical curriculum
to men. Florence Bascom became the second woman to earn a Ph.D. in geology in the U.S.
Much of the book is given over to Bascom’s biography and intellectual influences, including German philosophical idealism, the liberal Protestantism associated with the Social Gospel movement in the U.S., and the theory of evolution. Hoeveler argues that
“Bascom made a creative synthesis of these intellectual systems and from them forged the beginning of the Wisconsin Idea” (p. 5). Individuals interested in the intellectual influences of the period will find the book particularly useful.
The first two chapters consider Bascom’s education and early career years, with a heavy emphasis on his own writings and philosophical struggles, particularly in reaction to the American Civil War. Chapter 3 addresses Bascom’s move to Wisconsin, where he
served as president from 1874 to 1887. Chapter 4 deals with the changing nature of American universities and their role in society at the end of the 1800s, and Chapter 5 looks at the impact of the Social Gospel movement on the University of Wisconsin and American
universities more generally.
The next three chapters address the origins of Progressivism which Hoeveler identifies in three distinct forces: (1) the temperance movement, (2) the women’s suffrage movement, and (3) the profound shift in perceptions of class struggles and of labor rights
in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Though much of the book provides interesting background for those that study intellectual history, it is Chapter 8 that will capture the attention of historians of economic thought. Most of the material in this
chapter will be familiar to economists who work in this period, but Hoeveler does a nice job of situating Bascom in this milieu of change and to introduce Ely who would later play such a significant role for the University of Wisconsin.
Chapter 9 returns to the Wisconsin Idea and guides the reader through Bascom’s departure from Wisconsin, the hiring of Richard T. Ely, Charles Van Hise’s presidency, the arrival of John R. Commons, and the great debates between La Follette and the university
over World War I. These changes left Wisconsin to be viewed as either the “the outstanding liberal university” (Howe 1989, 247) or a “hot bed of radicalism” (New York Times 1930, 34). Though Bascom’s presidency had ended before these momentous events,
Hoeveler does a great service by presenting an excellent account of the life of Bascom and reminding us that ideas emerge from a complex interaction of social, political, philosophical and personal forces.
Bascom, John. 1872. \”College Organization,\” Independent, September 5 (1872), 2 – 3.
Howe, Florence. 1989. “Practical in Her Theories: Theresa Schmid McMahon,” in
Lone Voyagers: Academic Women in Coeducational Universities, 1870–1937, ed. G.J. Clifford, 223 – 280. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.
Rutherford, Malcolm. 2011. The Institutional Movement in American Economics, 1918–1947. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Unger, Nancy C. 2000. Fighting Bob La Follette: A Righteous Reformer. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
“The Wisconsin Idea,” University of Wisconsin Madison. http://www.wisc.edu/wisconsin-idea/
Marianne Johnson is the author of several works on Wisconsin Institutionalism and Progressivism in economics including papers in the
Journal of Economic Issues (2017, 2015, 2011) and History of Political Economy (2014) — and a book chapter on the “Daughters of Commons” for Routledge (forthcoming).
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