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Biddy Martin

A new initiative at UW-Madison is designed to make a larger point about what it means to engage in a process of integrated, rigorous and unfettered thinking.

Starting this year, the university is choosing a book annually for a project titled Go Big Read, and asking the community - not only the university community, but also the broader one that extends well beyond the borders of campus - to read it and engage with one another. We are excited about the initiative, which is already under way.

First-year UW-Madison students received copies of this year's choice, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." The author, Michael Pollan, is best known for his perspectives on a safe, healthy food supply and for his criticisms of food production methods in the U.S. and around the world. In his book, Pollan explains what he believes to be problems with the "Western diet" and the "nutritionism" or food science that supports it.

This book was chosen because it raises issues of interest to faculty, staff, students and community members from a variety of backgrounds. The issues are of particular importance in Wisconsin, where the economic impact of agriculture is almost $60 billion a year.

Pollan will visit our campus Sept. 24 for a lecture at the Kohl Center. We have developed additional events associated with Go Big Read, including a panel discussion with Pollan on Sept. 25 and a "food summit" in the spring - all to provide opportunities for community participation.

Pollan's work is controversial. Some people have asked if the university's choice of this book represents an endorsement of its arguments. The book project is an opportunity for education and exchange, not for advocacy of a particular view. It presents arguments that need to be discussed, understood and subjected to contradictory data and different points of view. I believe promoting rigorous discussion of ideas, including those that are controversial, is one of a university's particular gifts to the larger society.

Agriculture is one of the state's most important industries, one in which the university since its founding has been deeply involved, one in which it takes enormous pride, and one on which its well-being depends. We are fortunate to have extraordinary expertise on campus and across the state to ensure that we use the Go Big Read project to learn more about modern agriculture from those who do the crucial work of providing the world's food supply.

By the end of our first-year experience with the project, it's unlikely we will reach consensus on the perspectives of Pollan or critics of his book. But we hope our community will come away with a greater understanding of the complex issues involved in the production, distribution and impact of our food supply; the relationship between the food we eat and our health; and the relationship between the production of our food and a sustainable earth.

Our long-term goal for Go Big Read is to continue to provoke questions and stimulate debate on issues of relevance. In this way, we hope to instill in our community a lifelong love of learning and a commitment to the continuous "sifting and winnowing" that defines the character of this great university.

Martin is chancellor of UW-Madison.

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