The past few days I have been reading a 1995 Report – helped in part by La Follette’s own Terry Shelton – entitled “Wisconsin: Citizen, Community, Government, the 21st Century” by the SAVE Commission [a better version: SAVE Report, from La Follette (Thanks Andy!)]. In general, this is a pretty great report and some interesting reading. Obviously a lot of work went into the report (16,000+ people submitted some type of input) – even the cover page has a carefully crafted, cool, 1920’s Art Deco / Progressive era design.
I draw attention to this report because of its long-range thinking. How can the State survive the changing economic environment in the 21st century? What are our advantages and weaknesses, and how do we encourage our growth? In the Progressive era, Wisconsin’s citizens, their elected officials, and public servants made the conscientious choice to use the State’s most important resource (their citizens) to overcome economic and political challenges (collapse of wheat farming, growing interstate and international trade, etc). They chose to address these challenges with experimentation, education, and concerted efforts from multiple actors. This is from where the Wisconsin Idea came – uniting the University’s mission to economic development and efficient government of the entire State. The borders of the University are the borders of the State.
The SAVE Commission recommended the “new Wisconsin Idea will reflect the capability of citizens…It is developing and using the knowledge capacity and ideas of all Wisconsin people. Together we will come up with our own ideas that give us noticeably better citizens, noticeably better communities and noticeably better government, all moving Forward for a noticeably better quality of life” (Goal #13). The report was probably heralded at the time, but many of the recommendations remain unfulfilled.
While I am still learning about the great State of Wisconsin, the La Follette School seems to have the potential to meet some of the long-range improvements. Our faculty are superb; our students, diverse and inquisitive; our chosen policy fields, broad. If ever there were a place for experimenting on governance, La Follette would naturally be a part. My general question, however, is whether we can meet the challenge to study individual policy fields so closely and methodically and still see the big picture. Can we innovate and connect people and ideas outside the social sciences, policy-wonks, and even outside Wisconsin? How?
The report also has some historical irony to it. The authors worry about an eventual drop in blue collar, industrial jobs in the State. They propose encouraging Wisconsinites to work with their minds rather than hands; the higher education policy must adapt to this by being affordable, accessible, and interdisciplinary. The goal of using the internet and “the information superhighway” to get smaller, effective government is lauded.
Today, I see a backlash to the economic model built solely on sophisticated, ‘advanced’ education. I love the local farms, small business bike shops, and even small breweries that produce goods. Local farming initiatives for school kids to learn that not everything is on the internet, but also in their backyards, can make Wisconsin a more robust and enduring society. Computers are important, but, as a good friend recently pointed out, we are physical creatures that need to use our hands every once in a while. Local production and consumption (green energy, biofuels, local produce) might be a way to achieve a new ideal of citizenship. As the Commission writes:
“As part of a new citizenship ideal, we will solve our problems ourselves, using government as a last resort.”