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About John Last Updated: Sep 8th, 2009 - 08:07:52

John Ohliger Institute for Social Inquiry

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A Proposal to Create the John Ohliger
Institute for Social Inquiry

By David Yamada


John Ohliger was an intellectual activist and lifelong learner who blended an insatiable curiosity, a stubborn independence, a keen mind and good heart, and a passion for creating a better world. To many of us, he was also a friend, partner, mentor, collaborator, gadfly, and inspiration.

During the last decades of John’s life, the primary vehicle for his work was Basic Choices, the small, independent center that he co-founded in the 1970s with friends and associates in Madison, Wisconsin. Basic Choices styled itself as “A Midwest Center for Clarifying Political and Social Options,” and it gave its founders a platform for raising important issues. During the early years of Basic Choices, John concentrated his efforts on opposing mandatory continuing education, and he received national attention for that work.

Eventually most of the founders of Basic Choices went their separate ways, but John kept the center going largely as a one-person operation. His largest body of work under the Basic Choices label was an ongoing series of unique bibliographical essays on a wide range of topics, often linked by a common theme of adult learning. During this time he maintained a voluminous correspondence with dozens of independent scholars, activists, academicians, and learners across the country, first through the Postal Service and then via e-mail. Many of these exchanges ripened into dear friendships, often including memorable visits with John and his wife Chris Wagner in Madison and other locales.

My own friendship with John and Chris started through those snail mail exchanges. When I first contacted John in the late 1980s, I was working as a public interest lawyer and doing various non-profit and activist projects on the side. In Ron Gross’s The Independent Scholar’s Handbook, I had read about Basic Choices and the roles that John and Chris played in it, and I was intrigued by what they had built. Eventually I became a law professor and worked with John on a few writing projects. I was delighted to be a supporter and board member of Basic Choices. Throughout this period, as my own worldview evolved and matured and I wrestled with the good and bad aspects of being in academe, I kept going back to John’s writings, “chewing on them” and getting more each time I did so.

The memorial service that Chris organized in the spring of 2004 brought together many of the marvelous people who were a part of John’s life. For me – for many of us -- it was a bittersweet experience. It was a time to mourn and remember John, but also an opportunity to get to know some of the special people whom John had been mentioning to me over the years of our friendship. I was saddened that this group had not somehow managed to come together more often under one roof during John’s life, and I found myself thinking of ways in which this wonderful network of people could stay in touch even without John at the hub.

Creating an Institute in John’s Name

The values and qualities that John embraced – independent social inquiry, a passion for understanding, and a humane and good society – are needed as much as ever today. One way we can continue to be inspired and informed by John’s example is to create an independent, homebrewed center that promotes John’s writings and nurtures the work of his many friends and acquaintances.

It is altogether fitting that we create an initiative in John’s name that will carry on the spirit of independent, socially relevant scholarship and action that characterized his life and work. Thus, the John Ohliger Institute for Social Inquiry will serve this purpose. The Ohliger Institute will be a non-profit organization – not unlike Basic Choices, but more geographically diffuse and “virtual” – that memorializes John’s work and supports the good works of his many friends and supporters.

This is a modest proposal, and thus I will not burden it with a lofty, ambitious mission statement. Anyone who is reading this is very likely to understand what is going on in the world around us and why the kind of work that John engaged in remains so important. These are difficult, even frightening times, and we must support the creation of healthy institutions as one of our responses.

The Ohliger Institute will support a variety of activities, such as:

• Archive – The Institute will promote John’s major writings. Through Basic Choices and other outlets, John produced several hundred essays, reviews, and bibliographies, but most of them are not readily available in libraries or online. Chris is now developing a website to house many of these writings, which will provide easy access to John’s work.

• Newsletter – A semi-annual newsletter, circulated by e-mail, containing short essays, reviews, personal updates from “Friends of John,” and other bits of information.

• Occasional Papers Series – People from John’s broader community would be invited to submit longer pieces under the banner of an Occasional Papers Series. This would allow the Institute to go beyond “merely” serving as a forum for John’s writings; it would encourage the dissemination of new work among scholars, learners, and activists.

• Events – Active participants in the Institute would be able to sponsor discussion groups, panels, and programs using the Institute’s name, subject to a straightforward sponsorship approval process. When appropriate, the Institute could also co-sponsor events with other organizations.

Organization and Funding

The Ohliger Institute would be established as a non-profit corporation, with appropriate papers filed to obtain tax-exempt status.

I envision a very simple organizational structure, comprised of several key officers and a small board of directors whose members would have primary responsibility for running the Institute.

At the outset, the Institute could be financed sufficiently through small donations ($25-$100). More ambitious projects and programs might require additional funding from individuals or perhaps foundations.

Early Timetable

The main objective would be to get the Institute off the ground during 2006. The initial tasks include:

• Selecting officers and a board of directors
• Drawing up necessary by-laws and legal documents
• Making the website operational
• Starting the newsletter
• Sending an annual appeal letter

Updated: December 7, 2005

Contact information: David Yamada, (w) 617-573-8543; (h) 617-983-3948;; 167 Chestnut Ave., No. 2, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130.

© Copyright 2004 John

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