Henningsen: Morrill’s Vision Today

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(Host) Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen is looking
forward to a historical commemoration that may also help chart the
future of American higher education.

(Henningsen) Justin
Morrill’s education was brief – primary school in Strafford and three
months each at academies in Thetford and Randolph – but his impact on
American education was immense. As a congressman, he wrote the "College
Land Bill", better known as the Morrill Act, which changed the face of
American higher education.

Prior to the Civil War, America’s
colleges were islands of privilege in a sea of democracy, havens for the
elite and those preparing for the so-called "learned professions."
Morrill argued for publically supported colleges focused on training in
the practicalities of agriculture and engineering, "without excluding
other scientific and classical studies." Abraham Lincoln signed
Morrill’s bill into law on July 2nd 1862, the same day he signed the
Homestead Act and the day after he approved a bill authorizing the
transcontinental railroad. Federal land grants would support all three.

result was widespread expansion and democratization of higher
education. New land grant colleges offered an education previously
unavailable to middle and working class Americans – an education that
addressed both the present realities and the future needs of a rapidly
changing society. Today, land grant institutions are found in all fifty
states and in territories like the Virgin Islands, Guam, and American
Samoa. Among them are – to name only a few – all six New England state
universities, Perdue, Penn State, Cornell, MIT, and the University of
California system. When we think of the millions whose lives were
changed because of the land grant colleges, we must call the Morrill Act
one of the most important events in the history of American education.

August 11th and 12th, the Friends of the Morrill Homestead in Strafford
will host a symposium celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Land
Grant College Act and forecasting what’s next for higher education in
America. High-powered speakers like Senator Patrick Leahy, Librarian of
Congress James Billington, and former UVM president Daniel Fogel – to
mention only three – will headline a series of lectures, seminars, and
workshops that tackle fundamental questions about the future of higher

We need these discussions. Although the contributions
of the land grant colleges and their graduates have made us a richer
nation, the broad access to education that Morrill championed is
narrowing because of increasing costs and declining public support. Few
will go as far as the Texas Republican Party, which included opposition
to the teaching of critical thinking in their recent platform, but many
are questioning the value of higher education. Even more are unwilling
to fund it more fully in tough economic times. Many students opt out of
further education to avoid crippling debt. And affordability is only the
largest of the many challenges facing today’s colleges and

Wouldn’t it be nice if a blueprint for action can
emerge from a conference on the future of higher education held at the
Strafford house where Justin Morrill first developed his idea of land
grant colleges? Let’s hope so.

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