Promoting Innovation: Journalism, Science, and the Wisconsin Idea

For January 17, 2018

Hi WN@TL Fans,

Let me go a little long tonight, please. It’s a tale four centuries in the making.

In 1579, Thomas Gresham—financial agent to Henry VIII and to his son Edward VI, and to his daughter Mary I, and to his other daughter Elizabeth I— died.  Based on his will and funded by his considerable fortune, in 1597 Gresham College was established in London.

Unlike the colleges in Oxford or Cambridge, Gresham College enrolled no students and awarded no degrees.

Rather, its seven Gresham Professors—in astronomy, divinity, geometry, law, music, physic and rhetoric—provided free public lectures to Londoners.

Notably, the lectures were required to be delivered both in English and in Latin—one the tongue of the denizens, the other the language of the international literati.  Thus, accessibility & excellence were dual expectations at what is now London’s oldest institution of higher learning.

After Civil War, regicide and the Commonwealth, the tumult of 1659 roiled into the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.  In November 1660 Charles II issued the charter for the Royal Society,  which was housed at Gresham for the society’s first 60 years.

Gresham College and its 421 years of free public lectures may have been preceded by similar institutions in other countries or cultures, but these are as yet unknown to me.  To my knowledge, Gresham is the oldest college still in continuous operation and dedicated to engaging the public free of charge in the intellectual pursuits.

And the early impacts of Gresham were not solely academic. Gresham professors in the latter half of the 17th Century included Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. These two leading intellectuals were also dominant drivers in London as it endured the plague of 1665 and as it rebuilt from the fire of 1666.

As is sung at Passover, dayenu.

In the United States the impulse toward, and investment in, engaging the public in the life of the research university has many origins.  Of course, I am partial to the establishment in 1862 of the Morrill Land-grant Universities, the funding in 1887 of the Hatch Act to support ag experiment stations, and the organization in 1914 of the Cooperative Extension Service by the Smith Lever Act.

But even at land-grant universities like UW-Madison, engaging the public in the scientific enterprise of the campus extended to other colleges beyond the Ag School.

This week we all will get to learn much more about how research from the College of Letters & Science (the liberal arts school of UW-Madison) came to be shared with people all over Wisconsin.

This Wednesday (January 17) Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication will talk on “Promoting Innovation: Journalism, Science, and the Wisconsin Idea.”

Here’s how she describes her talk:

“Wisconsin and UW–Madison have long stood at the center of journalistic innovation. Part of the state’s success in training the nation’s reporters, editors, and broadcasters comes from the influence of Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, who established the first journalism course on the UW campus in 1906. Cieslik-Miskimen’s talk will discuss Bleyer’s legacy in Wisconsin and beyond — and not just in terms of his influence on journalism education.

“Bleyer believed that newspapers were key to educating the general public on advances of the day, and as part of his work for the university, he launched several communications initiatives designed to promote the research conducted on campus. Through his Press Bulletin, he introduced the general public to discoveries and progress being made at the UW, both in the lab and classroom, and worked to turn the university into a nationally recognized leader in science and innovation.”

About the Speaker

Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen is a UW doctoral student specializing in media history. Her dissertation examines the historic role that print culture played in shaping community identity in the early 20th century, and her research interests include topics related to mass culture, sports communications, education, and memory. Previously, she worked as an account manager for a public-relations agency specializing in energy technology, and she also has experience as a multimedia sports reporter. Cieslik-Miskimen teaches upper-level media-theory and journalism-history classes, and she has earned several honors for her commitment to undergraduate education.


Five of Gresham’s seven original subjects overlapped with the classical Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) that comprise a liberal arts education.  I’m partial to the idea that a liberal arts education is the kind most suited to keeping a free person free.  And I’m adamant that the natural sciences, through astronomy, have always been key parts of the liberal arts.

To welcome the public into the vibrancy of the intellectual life:  Thomas Gresham had a visionary idea. But so, too, did the likes of Jonathan Baldwin Turner and Seaman Knapp—and Willard Grosvenor Bleyer.

As Garrison Keillor put it,  “American universities have seen plenty of radicals and revolutionaries come and go over the years, and all of them put together were not nearly so revolutionary as a land-grant university itself on an ordinary weekday. To give people with little money a chance to get the best education there is—that is true revolution.”

Hope to see you soon on an ordinary weekday, here at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!

Thanks again,

Tom Zinnen
UW-Madison and UW-Extension