Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


The 'Wisconsin Idea' Brings the University to the Community

This year, following a previous commitment to use university resources to address societal issues, the University of Wisconsin creates the Extension Division. The Division immediately began to develop new programs aimed at applying the theory and research produced in the university to the reality of the surrounding communities. Unlike other extension services that were implemented at that time by other universities, the programs designed by the University of Wisconsin were not organized around the teaching of the traditional disciplines, but around the educational needs of adult citizens. They were not based on traditional lectures, but on a variety of innovative methods, and were not an appendix of other programs, but part of an autonomous office with its own mission and funding. This approach, that inspired many university extension programs around the world throughout the 20th century, has been known as "The Wisconsin Idea" .

This term was coined in 1912, when Charles McCarthy, a strong advocate of extension education, published a book entitled precisely "The Wisconsin Idea." The 'Wisconsin Idea' is not just an abstract concept. It is at the same time a philosophy in practice, a guiding vision, an epistemological rupture with the past, an attitude of solidarity, and a method. As Gooch (1995:15) has put it, the Wisconsin Idea is "the idealistic and humane concern that knowledge could and should have practical impact on the needs, problems and aspirations of the people."

Although the 'Wisconsin Idea' emerged in the early 20th century, the University of Wisconsin had a previous history that shows its commitment to the principles of university extension education. As early as 1860, Wisconsin University was taking university lecture series to teachers throughout the State. In 1885, funding in the amount of $5,000 was approved to provide a lecture series to farmers, and the University adopted an extension system based on Britain's model in 1891. By 1901, Robert M. La Follette (a.k.a. Fighting Bob), a graduate of Wisconsin University, brought new impetus to extension education when, in his first message to the legislature, he raised a concern about the social role of the university:

    The State will not have fulfilled its duty to the University nor the University fulfilled its mission to the people until adequate means have been furnished to every young man and woman to acquire an education at home in every department of learning. (cf Gooch, 1995, 15)

This vision was closer to realization when Charles R.Van Hise, a classmate, friend and supporter of La Follette's was appointed president of Wisconsin University in 1903. He immediately voiced the concept of "extending the boundaries of the University to the State," which eventually would become the slogan of the university (Gooch, 1995, 15).

La Follette had a noble vision and loyal supporters. In her look at research universities in society, Donna Shalala credits the success of the Wisconsin Idea to a vision that transcends political boundaries. After recounting several of the successes attributed to the Wisconsin Idea, Shalala concludes that:

    ... the Wisconsin Idea has worked for a good long time, because its goals have been popular beyond party lines, beyond politics. The idea of a disinterested technocratic elite, as it were -- the state's best and brightest working for all -- was so appealing that even after Fighting Bob La Follette's Progressives became history, the tradition that universities could improve the quality of life persisted (1991, 29).

As mentioned above, the concept of university extension under the Wisconsin Idea differed from earlier notions of university extension education in at least three ways. First, under the old system of university extension, some low-rank professors would deliver a few sporadic lectures in the field. Under this new extension arrangement, however, professors of the highest rank went into the villages, shops and factories as travelling teachers. At the same time, students in the field became in more regular contact with the university by means of correspondence studies, audio-visual devices, information pamphlets, workshops and short seminars (McCarthy 1912, Rosentreter 1957).

Second, while previous extension programs focused on lectures with low relevance to the daily life of farmers, the Wisconsin Idea emphasized the practical application of the scientific knowledge produced in academia, and organized the curriculum around the needs and interests of the learners.

The third difference between the old and new concept of extension was a specific financial commitment. In the words of McCarthy (1912, 132), "the distinctive feature of this department is that it has a faculty, an administration and an appropriation of its own." The legislature was also committed to funding the Wisconsin Idea. The 1907 appropriation of $20,000 for job training in factories made Wisconsin the first legislature to appropriate funds for a university extension unit at a state university. The legislature again demonstrated its innovative and leading spirit in 1911 when it provided opportunities for counties to jointly fund initiatives. The Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service was formally established in 1914, to take advantage of joint state, county and federal government funding provided for by the Smith-Lever Act.

In 1974, nearly seven decades following the first appropriation of funds for an extension unit, Wisconsin University's Extension Vice Chancellor George Strother echoed the critical importance of funding to the success of extension education when he said,
    Although the Cooperative Extension Service has its critics, I would begin with the premise that it is the most successful knowledge transfer model that the world has seen. Granting this premise for the moment, the most important single reason for the success of these programs lies with its funding pattern. (cf Gooch, 1995, 45)
In sum, a noble vision and a strong commitment, an innovative approach, and funding have unquestionably contributed to the success of the Wisconsin Idea. Nevertheless, as Donald R. McNeil, former Chancellor of Wisconsin's University Extension claimed, the most important factor to the success of the Wisconsin Idea was probably its flexibility:
    My eyes glaze over when I hear about THE way to structure a continuing education extension operation in a university. There is no one way, and I think we ought to stop trying to say there is. There are a lot of ways, and our efforts are going to be a mix, depending upon the cultural and economic bases of any particular area of the country. We are different and we are going to remain different -- the time we teach, the place we teach, and the student body we teach -- really make us so different that we can never really go all the way toward the old traditional way of doing things. (cf Gooch, 1995, 47-48)
Throughout the twentieth century, the Wisconsin extension program faced many challenges, including wars, the Depression, and the population shift from rural to urban centers. In spite of the need to undertake new initiatives to adapt to changing cultural and economic situations, the Wisconsin Idea remained true to its founding vision, which explains a many of its accomplishments. Perhaps the greatest tribute possible was paid to Wisconsin University during the 1960s. Over seventy years after the United States adopted the concept of off-campus lectures from England, Great Britain turned to Wisconsin Extension consultants to help them establish the British Open University (Gooch, 1998). From as early as 1913 with the "Philadelphia Pilgrimage," to the present time, the Wisconsin's model for university extension sets the standard for distance education delivery. It continues to make its mark with innovative solutions to distance education. A visit to the UW Extension web-site today will demonstrate its on-going vitality and continuing commitment to bringing the University to the community.

As Adelai Stevenson has observed, "the Wisconsin tradition meant more than a simple belief in the people. It also meant a faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society. It meant a deep conviction that the role of government was not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark, but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge and understanding it could find" (cf Wisconsin Network for Health Policy Research web page accessed March 21, 2000)


Gooch, J. (1995). Transplanting extension: A new look at the Wisconsin Idea. Madison Wisconsin: UW-Extension Printing Services.

Gooch, J. (1998). They Blazed the Trail for Distance Education [online]. Available: (accessed March 21, 2000)

McCarthy, C. (1912). The Wisconsin Idea. New York: McMillan Company. (accessed March 21, 2000).

Selman, G., Cooke, M., Selman, M. & Dampier, P. (1998). The Foundations of Adult Education in Canada, Second Edition. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc.

Shalala, D.E. (1991). New Paradigms: The Research University. In Society 92 (4), 28-41.

Rosentreter, R.M. (1957). The boundaries of the campus. Madison: University of Wisconsin.

Unknown [1999?]. Highlight History of Extension in Wisconsin 1862 to 1999 [online]. Available: (accessed March 21, 2000). New link: 

Unknown [1999?]. The Wisconsin Idea: Wisconsin Network for Health Policy Research webpage. Website: accessed March 21, 2000.

Prepared by: Susan Woodruff & DS (OISE/UT)

DS Home Page     Back to Index     Suggest or Submit a Moment

Website © 1996-2002 Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on June 13, 2002.

  Number of visits to the 1900s