Restoring confidence in education


It was rather revolutionary at the time. Thirty thousand acres of federal land for each U.S. senator and representative in a state.

The money from the sale of the land was used to fund a public college in that state that focused on agriculture and mechanical arts. A land grant college.

Sixty-nine were funded in that original grant, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ohio and Penn state universities, Purdue and Cornell.

We owe a lot of Justin Morrill, the longtime U.S. senator from Vermont. It was his collaboration, his dream that opened a new door to higher education to more than just the elite, white male.

Actually, the roots of this young country’s educational support reach back to the Continental Congress, which wrote in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787: “Knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The Morrill Act of 1862 was a long time coming. Morrill’s first attempt was introduced in 1857 — “but in the violence of political agitation at that time, and on account of the especial opposition to the exercise of power by the Federal government, it did not become a law,” wrote Eugene W. Hilgard in an article in The Atlantic in April 1882.

Five years later, in 1862, the political and social climate was right (and the secession of the Southern opposition didn’t hurt either), and Congress approved the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862 — 150 years ago.

“It is not for the purpose of learning how to plow and hoe, but why to plow and hoe at all, and when and where to do it to the best advantage, that parents are willing to send their sons to college,” Hilgard wrote.

I write this from Morrill’s home state, Vermont, where I’m attending a joint meeting of ag college deans, heads of Extension and experiment stations, and volunteer supporters of the land grant system. We’ve looked at those 150 years of history, but it’s also been a study of the land grant university’s role in the future.

As Ohio native, Bruce McPheron, current dean of Penn State’s ag college, put it: “When does this history become an anchor and not a springboard?”

Likewise, University of Vermont President John Bramley threw down his own challenge to the group. The Morrill Act led to an agricultural revolution, provoked huge amounts of scientific research, and helped build a U.S. economy that was education- and knowledge-based, Bramley said.

“But I don’t think we can be too self-congratulatory,” he added. “Frankly, we need another agricultural revolution.”

Public confidence in land grants, and in education itself, is waning, Bramley said, often seen as a “private benefit rather than a public good.”

Universities have to reduce costs and assure access, a main tenet of Morrill’s original act, Bramley said.

“We have to restore public confidence in us. We must reassert ourselves as a public good.”

The definition and shaping of “access to knowledge” today can mean so much more than students in a main campus classroom.

“We didn’t affect change by avoiding new approaches,” McPheron said. “If we aren’t agile, if we can’t innovate, somebody else will go to the dance in our shoes.

“The land grant system is a world solution,” McPheron added. “We should settle for nothing less than world domination.”

Morrill’s work is not over.

By Susan Crowell


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