The Wisconsin Idea is a widely acclaimed late nineteenth-century vision for Wisconsin higher education that promotes democratic engagement, the search for truth, and developing knowledge of importance to Wisconsin citizens. While the Wisconsin Idea is often celebrated as an enduring feature of public higher education in Wisconsin, this paper points to a myriad of cultural, economic, and political forces that have reshaped its meaning. Among these forces, fragmenting purposes of higher education, globalization, and changes in state political culture have edited understandings of the Wisconsin Idea in ways that have eliminated its moral and democratic purposes. These shifts that occurred throughout the twentieth century and early twenty-first mirror changes in the broader American higher education landscape. Ultimately, such changes have resulted in divided lives among students, faculty, staff, and administrators that seek wholeness, connection, and deep civic purposes in their work. This paper retraces the Wisconsin Idea’s history and concludes with a discussion about ways in which its early notions might be revived to inspire new thinking about higher education’s role in society.

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