This week I've been on a bus tour of the state of Wisconsin with four dozen or so of the most interesting and engaged fellow faculty and staff I could ever hope to meet. We've visited public radio stations and private manufacturing plants, state correctional institutions (prisons) and state nature preserves (parks). We've talked to "regular" Wisconsin residents, alumni, and families only in the sense that there is no "regular" prototype into which they all fit. This is very reassuring. I've been reminded that we as UW faculty are well able to ask sincere but challenging questions to the people of our state -- and to each other. More importantly, we're usually well willing to try to answer such challenging questions. If there's been one disappointment for me on the trip, it's been the reminder from my own past positions of learning (both graduate training in social theory and corporate training in public relations) that the answers we allow ourselves to give to crucial questions around the state -- questions about justice and equity, development and sustainability, the meaning of the "good life" for Wisconsinites and the processes by which some are granted Wisconsinite status while some are not -- are often sadly limited by our own personal, cultural, and institutional positionalities. The warden of the Green Bay Correctional Facility says it is "not their problem" that their population is grossly misrepresentative in race and ethnicity of the Wisconsin citizenry as a whole -- just as I've sometimes heard that it's "not our problem" here in Madison that our incoming student body each year is similarly misrepresentative. It seems to me that the purpose of the Wisconsin Idea is to challenge us to think beyond our own positions, views, and responsibilities, if only for a moment, to consider our place in a larger circulation of lives, capital, energy, and ideas. It's a very ecological way of thinking, really, which should come as no surprise in the state of Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. But it's a way of thinking that can be difficult to learn and to sustain, especially when a lack of resources, attention, and political leadership make it easier for us to cocoon within our own institutions (or towns, or firms, or families) and ignore the outside world. If there's one thing I've learned from this trip, it is that we ignore that wider world -- it's problems, it's processes, and it's people -- at our peril.
(For more on this issue and the prison visit which inspired it, check out this UW News posting by Nicole Miller. And see my further musings on this trip at my main weblog, Uncovering Information Labor.)