The problem with mottos and slogans is that after seeing one many times, it begins to lose its real meaning. As crucial as the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents’ 1894 “sifting and winnowing” statement has been to the development of the university, the three-word phrase probably seems trite to many current students. It is detached from the bold and rebellious devotion to the search for truth that drips from the quote when read as a whole.
Likewise, another of the university’s great ideals, the Wisconsin Idea, can, at times, seem like little more than a buzzword sprinkled throughout UW’s promotional materials. As members of the Iron Cross, a society which was devoted to this idea even before Charles Van Hise articulated it, we feel that the university’s official Year of the Wisconsin Idea marks an appropriate time to speak out on behalf of this philosophy and urge undergraduate students to ensure that it never loses the significance and passion with which it was imbued 107 years ago.
Ensuring the Wisconsin Idea’s continued relevance is a task that requires more of UW undergraduates than making sandwiches at a food kitchen once a year. Really, it requires more than even the most involved and time-intensive volunteer activities, which, while extremely valuable, are not truly at the foundation of the philosophy.
The Wisconsin Idea does not revolve around manpower; rather, its central tenets are creativity and the application of education to the needs of the state. It lays out a task of significantly greater difficulty than plugging yourself into a volunteer organization – a task without instructions or a clear place to start. It asks that we continue in the university’s long history of coming up with something new that will benefit the world at large. Roger Rosenblatt, in an essay on how to create great writing, eloquently describes this essence of this challenge and how it can be met:
“How can you know what is useful to the world? The world will not tell you. … The world is not a focus group. The world is an appetite waiting to be defined. The greatest love you can show it is to create what it needs.”
This process contains both the challenges of finding what the world needs and creating that thing that it needs. While we hope that you have not read the above as a denigration of simple volunteering, we now extol it. How can you decide what your community needs if you haven’t seen your community? The first step in meeting this challenge of the Wisconsin Idea is to become involved in these basic ways, by tutoring once a week, by getting involved in an off-campus community center (they aren’t far away), by doing whatever it is that gets you up in the morning. You must leave campus to make a difference outside of campus, and you must experience the world to have even the slightest idea of how you could slide into a nook and find a way to make a small piece of it better.
In summary, we urge undergraduates to do one thing, and to make this one thing a priority during both their years here and their years after graduation. It’s a task with a simple description that belies its true complexity – a challenge which could occupy you for a lifetime.
Look at the world. Give it what it needs.
In the Bonds,
Iron Cross Class of 2011