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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Fearless Sifting and Winnowing


More than 100 years ago, UW professor Richard Ely had the audacity to teach controversial and unwelcome ideas in his classroom -- and he nearly lost his job for it.

In 1894 Ely was teaching economics at Madison, including the various socialist and communist economic theories gaining popularity at the time. When this was discovered by Oliver E. Wells, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ely was attacked in the press not just for teaching left-wing theories to Wisconsin's youth but also for supposedly advising radical activists who were organizing a strike in Madison. When his dismissal was demanded, the university regents investigated his activities.

After a series of witnesses had testified, the regents found no cause to fire Ely. Instead, they issued a famous statement defending the importance of academic freedom in a democracy. "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere," they wrote, "we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found." That statement has become one of the foundation stones of intellectual freedom in America, and a hallmark of the University of Wisconsin. You can read the complete document and a longer account of the Ely incident at the Wisconsin Electronic Reader created by the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


:: Posted in Odd Lives on April 13, 2005
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