Searching for Wisconsin’s Public Intellectuals

English: University of Wisconsin "Sifting...
English: University of Wisconsin “Sifting and Winnowing” plaque Located on Bascom Hall, University of WIsconsin Photographed July, 2002 by Daniel P. B. Smith. Photo credit: ©2002 Daniel P. B. Smith. Licensed under the terms of the Wikipedia Copyright. Click photo for copyright information.

You may have been wondering where all of Wisconsin’s public intellectuals are in these trying economic and political times we are living in. Whether in print or online, what are our academic and un-academic scholars and intellectuals, our men and women of letters, doing to contribute to the health of the commonwealth beyond writing scholarly papers and books?

While Wisconsin has many excellent journalists, the specialized depth and intellectual breadth of more patient, scientific/humanities-oriented work seems to me to be a lot harder to find on a consistent basis outside of the academic community.

The Wisconsin Idea was founded on the notion of UW professors addressing the issues of the day in an immediately helpful and public way. It was a time when state government was more supportive of its university and of intellectuals in general; it was, in short, a Progressive era when to be opposed to public education in the broadest sense was to be a supporter of “special interests” whose interests many people outside of schools understood were not their own.

Today, sadly, Wisconsin state government is governed by, generally speaking, an anti-intellectualism enthralled by the simplest of ideologies: money is power and speech.  Thus the more wealth you have, the more traditionally you have held power, the more of both you deserve to get; a large mining corporation, for example, will typically have more political clout now than a small family farm or any one family or child or woman or person of color.

So where are Wisconsin’s progressive public intellectuals? Or if political labels are too “polarizing”– where are our fair-minded, reality-and-evidence based scholars of the public good?

Well, I can tell you where they pretty much are not– in newspapers and on journalistic websites in Wisconsin. Nor are there all that many personal blogs by Wisconsin scholars devoted to politics or public affairs, at least many easy to find.

After UW-Madison professor William Cronon wrote a blog post on the work of the conservative master-mind ALEC, he was asked to turn over emails from his state-owned computer to a state official of the Republican Party. Cronon wrote about it on his blog and elsewhere but his “Scholar as Citizen” blog has not been updated since April 1, 2011.  It’s a pity because precisely what we need are more scholars thinking and acting as citizens. Cronon– who considers himself “a centrist and a lifelong independent”– wrote a fabulous op-ed for the NY Times at the time laying out precisely why, from a historical perspective, Gov. Walker’s anti-state employee revolution was so extreme:

“When Gov. Gaylord A. Nelson, a Democrat, sought to extend collective bargaining rights to municipal workers in 1959, he did so in partnership with a Legislature in which one house was controlled by the Republicans. Both sides believed the normalization of labor-management relations would increase efficiency and avoid crippling strikes like those of the Milwaukee garbage collectors during the 1950s. Later, in 1967, when collective bargaining was extended to state workers for the same reasons, the reform was promoted by a Republican governor, Warren P. Knowles, with a Republican Legislature.”

In a time when history and science are being constantly misused or ignored for political purposes, it would be good to have Cronon’s intelligent historical and environmental perspectives more available to address the issues of the day. Occasional op-eds are better than nothing, but why do so few academics have regular columns in Wisconsin newspapers or on blogs that address public affairs? Has the line between scholar and publicly concerned citizen become a red line too many intellectuals are not willing to cross?

Of course, professors are busy people; they must teach, publish scholarship, and attend academic conferences. And journalists are not eager to share their ever-shrinking turf, though one notable exception is independent historian John Gurda’s series of columns for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. To his credit, Gurda sometimes strays into the political present; two of his columns have dealt with Gov. Walker’s influence on Wisconsin and Milwaukee.

I certainly understand why professors would shy away from blogging, which lacks the prestige and gravitas (and just plain readability) of anything published in print. I am an ambivalent blogger myself, often wondering if my time could be better spent, especially since the work is usually its own reward.  And some academics no doubt prefer not to get involved in Wisconsin’s often uncivil political war. And yet . . . there seems to be an uncomfortable silence emanating from the more liberal side of the scholarly spectrum.

So I set about trying to find any columns or blogs that focus on public affairs from an intellectual perspective in Wisconsin, blogs not necessarily politically explicit or liberal but that display concern for educating the public in an accurate, humane way.  I have likely missed at least a few, and readers are welcome to point me towards any Wisconsin columns or blogs that meet my criteria.

What follows are links to columns or blogs written by Wisconsin scholars/intellectuals/artists that I consider to be in the service of the greater, public good:

Harvey J. Kaye– The Huffington Post, UW-Green Bay

EconbrowserMenzie Chinn, UW-Madison

Center for Information Policy Research, UW-Milwaukee

Center for Journalism EthicsUW-Madison

The Religious Consultation–Dr. Daniel C. Maguire, Marquette Univ.

Improving Population Health, UW-Madison

Center for Economic DevelopmentUW-Milwaukee

The EduOptimists blog–Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, UW-Madison

Marquette University Law School Faculty blog

nanopublic– Dietram A. Scheufele, UW-Madison

Elemental– Deborah Blum, UW–Madison

Portal Wisconsin blog

Antenna–Media and Cultural StudiesUW-Madison

Global Higher Ed– Kris Olds, UW-Madison

Blank’s Slate, Chancellor Becky Blank’s blog,  UW-Madison

Note: I should note that On Wisconsin Magazine has a helpful article on faculty blogs at UW-Madison.

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