- 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.
Both institutions began under rugged pioneer condictions. The town of East Lansing in Michigan, seat for Michigan’s new “state college,” was only five years old and located at the end of an ofttimes impassable dirt road. The new Pennsylvania school was located at the very center of the commonwealth in the midst of farm fields around which was to develop a new town. Both institutions were created as “people’s colleges,” and both were essentially the product of governmental support of higher education, rather than privately created and endowed. A new era in the history of education in America had been born.
Early years of both institutions were full of hardship and struggle. The newborn schools in Michigan and Pennsylvania turned to their state legislatures for further financial aid. Then, under rising popular pressure, the federal government through Congress was called upon to share what now appeared as a truly national responsibility. As early as 1858, a young member of Congress from Vermont named Justin S. Merrill introduced an act to set aside public lands for the several states to be sold to provide additional funds for state-created and supported colleges.
The Morrill proposal was vetoed by President Buchanan as outside the legitimate powers of the federal government. Many measures, vetoed by Buchanan under pressure from the South, were revived with the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Thus it was that in 1862 Morrill’s Land-Grant College Act was introduced again, passed and signed by Lincoln. According to Congressman Morrill, “the design was to open the door to a liberal education for this larger class, at a cheaper cost, and to tempt them by offering not only sound literary instruction but something more applicable to the productive employments of life.”
The act had as its purpose lour interdependent goals. First was the broad desire to provide a new type of liberal and practical education to supplement the prevailing classical higher education of the day; second, to develop systematic training in agriculture and the mechanical arts. Morrill himself stressed yet a third objective; to help those children of the farmer and the laborer who might wish to “adhere to the classics.” The fourth and final objective was to insure a systematic system of military training in these institutions as a basis for national defense. Each of the land-grant colleges has been committed to a program of military training for students.
Under the Merrill Act, 30,000 acres of federal lands were allocated to each state for each representative and senator. Land script was issued for these lands to be sold by the states. The income from land sales constituted a permanent endowment for those colleges designated by the respective state legislatures to receive this aid as land-grant institutions.
One cannot resist speculating whether or not Abraham Lincoln, as he put his signature to the Morrill Act, had a vision of the future growth and services of the colleges and universities which he thus made possible. I am inclined to think that he did have such a vision of the future. Henry Varnum Poor, in a series of mural paintings in Old Main at the Pennsylvania State University, pictures Lincoln as viewing the land-grant colleges as a triumph for the people in education—a step toward a fuller democracy.
It is in this light that we should view the land-grant colleges and universities. It is the proud heritage of all of them in every state and territory. The Michigan State College and the Pennsylvania State University, as the first institutions founded along lines of this unique pattern, are celebrating the triumph of a great democratic ideal and heritage. The ideal and the heritage are a free public education at all levels for even American box and girl.