Education for Democracy: Renewing the Wisconsin Idea


Winner of the Midwest Independent Publishing Association’s 2021 Anthology Book Award

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What is the role of the public university in a democratic society? This book is about one conception of that role, which came to be known as the Wisconsin Idea. In a collection of lively and readable essays, contemporary thinkers and activists revisit the Wisconsin Idea as it has developed since the early 20th century, with deep concern about what it means today and what it can mean in the future. Drawing on a range of perspectives from the arts, conservation biology, English, history, human ecology, journalism and mass communication, political science, and sociology, the essays are bound together by four overarching themes. One theme is the value of new knowledge and its potential to serve as a catalyst for good government. Another theme is the university’s outreach and service to the public. A third theme takes the form of an enduring question: who are the people the university serves, and to whom is it responsible? A fourth theme concerns recent challenges to the Wisconsin Idea and the changing conditions that explain them. Read together, the essays underscore the urgent need for a renewal of the Wisconsin Idea. This idea emerged in a particular time and place, but it has more general relevance because the problems it addressed are confined neither to Wisconsin nor to the past; it is a conception that has changed and developed since its beginning but has remained tied to the core principle of service to democracy; and it is a conception that has been severely undermined in the 21st century by forces hostile to it but for that very reason is more timely than ever.

  • Listen to an interview by Michael Palmer for the Trending in Education podcast (October 15, 2020).
  • Listen to an interview by Stuart Levitan for Madison BookBeat on WORT-FM Radio 89.9 FM (March 8, 2021).
  • Listen to an interview by Justin Kempf for the Democracy Paradox podcast (March 23, 2021).
  • Read Jeff Snowbarger’s review for Wisconsin People & Ideas 67, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2021), journal of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters.
  • Watch an interview by Jason A. Smith, associate director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, for the Wisconsin Book Festival (October 23, 2021). Interview starts at 10:42.

“Goldberg situates the Wisconsin Idea in its historical, educational, institutional, and political context in ways that enlighten its original impulses, illuminating its significant contributions to rural and urban areas and to the very nature of the University of Wisconsin as a university of the people.”

— Michael Apple, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“An important look back at the progressive Wisconsin Idea and a look forward to its possible renewal. The authors take us through numerous ideas and practices that came to be known as the Wisconsin Idea and chart out a civic vision of higher education that is badly in need of being reinvented today.”

— Kevin Mattson, Ohio University