Great thoughts: Justin Morrill and higher education

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(Host) Commentator Libby Sternberg says that American colleges and universities owe a debt of gratitude to Justin Smith Morrill, a Vermont Senator whose great idea became the Land Grant College Act of 1862.

(Sternberg) Twenty years ago, I worked at a Jesuit college in Baltimore, Maryland. A liberal arts institution, it had built a reputation for providing solid theoretical and practical programs to the sons, daughters, grandsons, and granddaughters of the city’s immigrant population. In many ways, the approach of that college owes as much to Vermont Senator Justin Smith Morrill as to the teachings of Ignatius Loyola.

Senator Justin Morrill was the architect of the 1862 Land Grant College Act. The act donated public lands to be sold so that endowments could be set up to support at least one college in each state whose primary purpose was instruction in agriculture or industrial arts. But the act was more than just a good idea to jump-start the founding of state colleges and universities. It shaped how Americans viewed higher education, and it opened the door to people who otherwise would never have stepped over the threshold of ivy covered walls. It allowed the so-called “industrial classes” a chance to go to college to study practical as well as classical material. It combined, in what I believe is a quintessentially American way, thinking with doing, theory with application.

In fact, Senator Morrill never intended the act to merely provide career-training for the masses. Twenty-six years after passage of the act, Senator Morrill spoke to the Vermont Legislature. There, he said, “The Act of 1862 proposed a system of broad education by colleges, not limited to superficial and dwarfed training, such as might be supplied by a foreman of a workshop or by a foreman of an experimental farm. The fundamental idea was to offer an opportunity in every state for a liberal and larger education to larger numbers.” In other words, the farmer’s son could study to be a farmer if he wanted to, but he could also study to be a writer or a scientist or a great thinker. He was not limited by personal history.

Senator Morrill’s insistence on inclusion of classical and other scientific studies spread beyond the land-grant colleges to other American institutions of higher learning, ultimately creating a varied landscape of public and private colleges offering diverse programs. Many subsequent bills built on his vision of access, opening the door to higher education to even greater numbers of people – from expansion of the land grant concept to black and tribal colleges, to the passage of the G.I. Bill.

Justin Morrill’s great idea of inclusion – in both programs and people – has benefited generations of students and made our higher education system the envy of the world.

This is Libby Sternberg in Rutland.

Libby Sternberg is a free-lance writer, former chair of the Rutland County Republican Party, and is active in education issues. VPR’s commentary series, “Great Thoughts of Vermont,” examines the big ideas that came out of a small state. Learn more about the Great Thoughts series.

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