- Historic Sites
“To Open The Door”
A famous educator reviews 100 years of service by the land-grant colleges
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
The year 1955 marks the centennial of one of the greatest landmarks in our American heritage of education for all the people. A century ago, the Michigan State College and the Pennsylvania State University were founded as the first of a group of uniquely new and evolutionary institutions of higher learning. These twin birthdays have been recognized by the issuance of a special commemorative U.S. postage stamp, dedicated to the two institutions and to the land-grant college idea as conceived in 1862 by Act of Congress.The year 1955 marks the centennial of one of the greatest landmarks in our American heritage of education for all the people. A century ago, the Michigan State College and the Pennsylvania State University were founded as the first of a group of uniquely new and evolutionary institutions of higher learning. These twin birthdays have been recognized by the issuance of a special commemorative U.S. postage stamp, dedicated to the two institutions and to the land-grant college idea as conceived in 1862 by Act of Congress.
The development of the entire group of land-grant colleges and universities has been an integral part of the unending process of keeping American democracy a literal and effective way of life. The story is a major chapter in the history of the nation itself.
Today, there is at least one land-grant college or university in every state, and in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. They now educate almost half a million students a year. They provide progressive and practical undergraduate and graduate training on campus for thousands who might otherwise be denied the advantages of higher education. They provide, through elaborate and well-organized extension and correspondence school services, educational opportunities for many other thousands unable to enroll on a college or university campus.
The traditional American faith in the necessity of mass education, without regard to inherited privilege or opportunity, is the point of origin of the land-grant institutions. The founders of the Republic were convinced from the beginning that education should be broadened to reach all the people. Only by doing this could every citizen be provided with the opportunity to make the most of his natural talents. Education restricted to a privileged few meant perpetuating a permanent restriction upon the freedom of the individual to seek that equality which a democratic society had promised him. This was one of Thomas Jefferson’s major themes. Jefferson looked upon the founding of the University of Virginia as one of the three greatest achievements of his lifetime, along with the writing of the Declaration of Independence and authoring the Virginia Statute for religious freedom.
It was well toward the end of the first fifty years of our history as a nation before the tradition that education was a privilege only of those able to pay for it began to give way to what we know today as “free public schools.” The states of the new West were ahead of the older East in providing for state laws which made free public education mandatory at the elementary school levels. Ohio passed such a law in 1825. Michigan followed in 1827. Pennsylvania achieved this goal in 183.). The rapid spread of democratic ideals and philosophy in the Age of Jackson under the impact of frontier democracy, and the growing influence of the eastern working classes, were back of these new achievements in our American democracy.
It took another quarter-century, roughly, to expand this concept of democracy in education to reach up to the college and university levels. Here education remained even more a privilege of the few. Even that provided for the few was narrowly classical and intended primarily to train for the ministry, the law, or the life of a cultured “gentleman.” Education in the sciences was limited. Courses in the practical arts of industry or agriculture were almost unknown. West Point was the only place in America where engineers were trained.
But the young nation was experiencing a tremendous physical and material growth. Complete revolutions were under way in its industry and agriculture. Agricultural societies demanded facilities to teach the science of agriculture. Industry and transportation needed engineers and skilled workers. Many a new industry found it necessary to seek such trained men from Europe because no American supply was at hand. The result was a mounting pressure for a vertical extension of education to provide a broader training for the average man.
So in the 1850’s, in various parts of the nation, agricultural societies and representatives of various industrial groups were talking and resolving in behalf of a new type of educational institution which would provide an answer to the mounting problem. In Michigan and in Pennsylvania these discussions came to a head independently in the month of February, 1855, in definite action to organize new and unique institutions of learning. The Michigan Agricultural College was chartered February 12, 1855. On February 22, 1855, the present Pennsylvania State University was chartered.