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Wisconsin and the future of college

Wisconsin, more so than suburban Kane and DuPage counties in Illinois, always seemed like “the country” to me when I lived in Chicago. Part of this outlook was due to childhood stereotypes of Wisconsin as a state filled with cheese and cows. The other part was how the state seemed, from afar, a lot like where I had come from (Kentucky), with the Badgers playing the role of the Wildcats.

My only trips to Wisconsin during my 7 years in Chicago, though, were to Milwaukee, as part of a group that would gamble at the Potawatomi casino. We watched the 2013 Final Four from one of the restaurant-bars at the reservation while lots of money was being lost in the background. Still, even just being in Chicago will bring you in contact with plenty of UW alums; the UW system as whole is well-represented throughout the city.

Anyway, there was a dust-up today about Wisconsin governor Scott Walker supporting a motion to change the Wisconsin Idea, the mission statement that has long situated the state’s university system as driven by the ideal of public service. Walker wanted to change the text

“to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and toserve and stimulate society by developing … Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

to

“to meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Hmm.

The reactions to this proposal from the left have been understandably derisive. Universities were not originally created to serve corporations or, for that matter, to create jobs of any sort. Having a job is a relatively new lifestyle that has only crystallized in the developed world in the last 100 years or so. Before that, it was subsistence farming or being wealthy or the highway. Universities existed before capitalism, and they’ll exist after capitalism, too.

At the same time, I think this controversy, which also follows on the heels of Walker’s threats to cut $300 million from the UW system budget, brings up some good questions about what exactly college is for anymore. I wrote about this confusion last month in my entry, “The Last Man to Go to College,” expressing my own (I admit it) bitterness at how college had turned out for me.

No matter how much “truth” I found, I kept running up against the hard wall of an indifferent HR world. I ultimately got lucky thanks to a longtime friend. I don’t want to think about what would have happened if I had had to keep going on the dismal post college path in which I was continually told that I didn’t have “skills” etc.

College seems more and more like it is sandwiched between two unsavory possibilities. Either it 1) continues to subscribe to this notion of truth and public service, despite the growing power of corporations and wealthy individuals that don’t give a shit about any of that and now have the accumulated capital necessary to do whatever they want; or, it 2) succumbs to this idea of vocational training, in which case, what is the point of the massively expensive, on-site “experience” of college, replete with dorms, sports, parties, etc., when so much can be learned on one’s own?

I’m not a Scott Walker fan. But this issue with the Wisconsin Idea is as good an occasion as any to start figuring out why we still make people go to college.

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