From Where I Sit - No Act of philistinism

November 15, 2012

A recent issue of Time magazine was devoted to "Reinventing College". Several full-page advertisements celebrated "Milestones in the History of US Higher Education". Partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the first advert had "1862" emblazoned across the top, accompanied by a photograph of President Abraham Lincoln.

Why the fuss about that year? Because the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act, signed by Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, created many of the US' leading public universities. The law's purpose was to democratise higher education. At the time few Americans attended college, and most who did came from families of means. The act's transformative impact on US education is being celebrated on many US campuses. My own institution, the University of Maine, just raised banners in its honour.

The law was named for Justin Morrill, a member of the House of Representatives from Vermont whose earlier submission had been passed by Congress in 1859 but vetoed by President James Buchanan. Once in place, the act gave each eligible state (any that had not left the Union to form the Confederacy) 120 sq km of federal land to sell for the funds needed to establish public colleges.

The first created was Kansas State Agricultural College in 1863. Nearly all the original "land-grant" institutions were called colleges rather than universities because of their modest size and scope. The oldest to hold land-grant status is Rutgers University, which, although created in 1766, was designated as New Jersey's land-grant college in 1864.

Public universities had existed before 1862 but were vastly outnumbered by the scores of new colleges, typically established and populated by various religious denominations.

In 1890, a second Morrill Act extended the offer to the former Confederate states, but with cash instead of land. That was not a problem: what was a problem was the requirement that each state demonstrate that race was not an admissions factor. Since 1890 was the peak of the South's post-Civil War Jim Crow segregation laws, a substitute provision required that separate land-grant state universities be established for non-white students. From this provision (albeit with vastly inferior funding and facilities) came several of the US' so-called "historically black" institutions.

It is commonly assumed that all land-grant colleges were created as de facto advanced vocational schools, but in fact they were never meant to exclude the liberal arts, not even Greek and Latin. And alongside practical offerings in agriculture and engineering, cutting-edge scientific and technical research was expected. Some educational and political leaders, seeking combinations of abstract with applied knowledge, envisioned farmers utilising the latest horticultural science to improve their crops as they simultaneously recited classical verses while tilling their lands!

The legislation, then, was hardly an indictment of the liberal arts. The growing number of public officials who demand primarily "job-creating" courses and the elimination of "irrelevant" majors love invoking Morrill as precedent. In so doing, they remind us of historian Richard Hofstadter's indictment of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). In actuality, Morrill and his fellow legislators understood that US public higher education would require long-term, qualitative measures of success, ones not reducible to the bottom-line quarterly corporate reports that contemporary educational critics often relish.

How wonderful it would be if this year's commemorations of the Morrill Act correctly grasped its actual intent.

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