Morrill at 150

by Kevin S. Zayed

On Friday, October 26, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first Morrill Land Grant Act, a key occurrence in the development of higher education and one that led to the creation of this institution and campus.  At the event, panelists addressed an array of topics that (frequently, though not entirely) intersected with notions at the heart of the land grant ideal: applied research, service, extension, and democratization.  Of particular interest to the readers of the IPRH blog were the several mentions of the role of the humanities in preparing students for the workforce, including LAS dean Ruth Watkins’s linkage of Michael S. Malone’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed to the Morrill Act’s call for liberal and practical education, rather than just the latter.

The myth of the land-grant college is present on this campus, and the land-grant idea is part of the identity of this institution.  It is part of what leading historian of higher education John Thelin (by way of Burton Clark) would call its institutional saga: The Morrill Act plays a key role in the stories that we tell about ourselves that help bind us together.  This is apparent in the symbolic role of Morrow Plots, in prominent place of Billy Morrow Jacksons “Ag Time” in Funk Library, and in the way the institution publicly positions itself.  And, while Thelin would agree that this saga is important—he specifically uses the plots as an example in when he teaches about institutional saga—he would still encourage us to consider the actual historical evidence.

So what of that history? A few quick notes on the Morrill Act that are sometimes elided from celebratory events:

  • As trustee Edward McMillan noted at the conference, land grants for education were not new with the act but date to the colonial era.  Until 1862, they were most famously associated with the Northwest Ordinance’s provision for grants of land for “an academy and other public schools and seminaries of learning” based on the justification that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
  • The Morrill Land Grant Act did lead to the creation of new institutions and provide some additional funding to existing colleges, but it took the Hatch Act in 1887 and the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 to provide for the agricultural research and extension with which they are frequently associated.  The original act itself was insufficient, and continuing funding for the institutions was, at first, left up to the states.
  • Yet, as Eldon L. Johnson, a former vice president at Illinois and president of the University of New Hampshire, noted in his 1981 article “Misconceptions About the Early Land-Grant Colleges,” the founding of the land-grant institutions did not lead to immediate state largess.  Not only did states mismanage the funds they received through the sale of the granted lands, states were not forthcoming in supporting their new colleges with their own additional funds.
  • Johnson likewise pointed out that these were not immediately the “people’s colleges” of lore; few students enrolled at most land-grant colleges in their early years, and even fewer at the college level.  As Chris Ogren argued in The American State Normal School, normal schools, not land-grant colleges, were the democratizing institutions of the late 19th century.
  • While we might think of large public research universities as the prototypical land-grant institutions in the modern era, this was not only land-grant model.  States could and did use the money from the sale of lands in different ways, including providing it to existing agricultural colleges, giving it to other pubic colleges to add an agricultural or industrial element, creating new colleges, or giving it to existing privately institutions. Yale, for example, was the original land-grant college in Connecticut.
  • As was noted at the conference, the 1862 Morrill Act was joined by Morrill II in 1890.  This second Morrill Act lead to the founding of what we now know as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but celebrating it as an extension of higher education to African Americans is also problematic.  Six years before the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Morrill II entrenched ‘separate but equal’ as the legitimate path for educational institutions.
  • 1862 colleges might be most associated with introduction of agricultural and technical education but neither was new in the United States.  As Terry S. Reynolds demonstrated, colleges experimented with dozens of engineering programs in the decades before the Morrill Act. And, institutions such as Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) predated the act but later received funds from the sale of the lands that it provided.
  • Dean Watkins was certainly correct in noting that the traditional college curriculum was still present in land-grant colleges.  In many, including the University of Illinois, the traditional curriculum was dominant and preferred by both students and faculty.
  • Perhaps a corollary is Thelin’s argument in A History of American Higher Education that while we often emphasize the “A” in A&M, the “M”—the military aspect—was actually more successful than the “A.”
  • Finally, as with many of the most significant events in higher education, including the passage of many of the most significant pieces of legislation, the act was not just or even primarily about education; it was about land use.  Nor was it particularly important to Lincoln.  It was just another piece of legislation, signed without comment, during the struggles of the Civil War.

In the essay below, Kevin Zayed picks up on some of these ideas and points to the tensions inherent in the curricular ideas of the act.

Seeds of Learning, Fruits of Labor: A Historical Perspective on the Tension between the “Liberal and Practical” at Land Grant Colleges and Universities

In an address to the Michigan Legislature, geologist Bela Hubbard claimed, “The day has forever gone by when an enlightened liberal education was deemed useless for the farmer. Agriculture has risen into a science, as well as a laborious art; a science, too, the most comprehensive of all others, and which demands not alone strong hands and bodily labor, but active vigorous, cultivated intellect.”[1] These words were spoken in 1850, when the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 had yet to be debated or drafted and while the notion of agriculture colleges had but limited traction in the United States and institutional shape in France. However, the sentiment expressed by Hubbard was an attempt to reconcile the tension that would come to beset both the legislation and the colleges themselves. Specifically, it was an attempt to reconcile the tension between liberal education and agricultural (applied and/or practical) “work.”

This posting argues that the tension between the “liberal” and the “practical” permeated the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 and every facet of the colleges that the legislation provided the impetus for. First, I provide a brief discussion of the tension itself then trace it through the legislation. Next, I explore how the tension shaped institutional identity through a discussion of local farming interests, early college presidents, faculty, and students. Finally, I provide a brief discussion on the reconciliation of the tension by examining the architecture and services provided by modern land-grant colleges.

Land-grant institutions, much like any class of school in American history, cannot be detached from the democratic society within which they operate. Schools are influenced by society and seek to influence society as well. Indeed, as Susan Merrifield argues, “In the 1860s, the young nation was experiencing agricultural and industrial expansion…new populations had to be professionalized, and theories abounded as to how best to provide these new students with a college education that was liberal, yet served practical purposes…the issue at hand was no less than the very nature of schooling in a democracy.”[2] By providing an important clue as to the stakes involved in the debate over the developing land-grant philosophy, Merrifield allows us to see that the tension between the liberal and the practical is an outgrowth of the broader tension between democracy and capitalism that has beset American educators since the earliest schooling considerations. On the one hand, there is a necessity to prepare students equally for citizenship in a participatory democracy, yet on the other hand, there is the problematic desire of society to replicate the unequal division of labor from generation to generation while still adapting to student demands for the social mobility that often accompanies a credential.[3] By adopting this lens, the debate over the liberal and the practical becomes much more than simply the balance over the distribution of course requirements, it becomes the balance between preparing students to be citizens and workers. Given the symbolic nature of the “farmer” in American culture, the land-grant colleges were operating for and with a population that was considered to be the backbone of both American labor and citizenship.[4] How they would choose to reconcile the tension between liberal education and agricultural “work” had not only practical ramifications for students but also symbolic resonance for the nation.

Though these tensions were crucial facets of the American educational experience and would come to saturate every aspect of the land-grant colleges, the tensions, schooling, and education itself were merely afterthoughts in the congressional debates that produced the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. Indeed, historian Scott Key implied the following provocative question in his article, “Economics or Education: The Establishment of the American Land-Grant Universities:” Why would the federal government, in the midst of the Civil War, turn its attention to creating colleges, an area which it had never operated in before? His answer: “The Morrill Land Grant Act was not primarily a piece of educational legislation. Rather, it was an important piece of economic policy that solidified the shift from away from selling to donating the public lands to provide the federal government with revenue.”[5] Eldon L. Johnson agrees, noting that “Education was often the legitimizing factor, while the real objective was something else, perhaps pioneer settlement, speculation, or economic development.”[6] Given this fact, it is not surprising that “an imperial domain” of 17,430,000 acres was provided and that the bill was passed by “overwhelming majorities: 32 to 7 in the Senate, 90 to 25 votes in the house.”[7] Further, it is also no surprise that the “act was vague, leaving the actual design of colleges to individual states and institutional entrepreneurs.”[8] That said, Act did decree that “maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life” was a requirement.[9] Therefore, the tension between the liberal and the practical was built into the law itself. Once it was passed, “competing local agricultural groups and others sought to secure funds for their particular vision of higher education.”[10] As a result, the tension was less an idea or theory, but rather was commented on and carried forth by every local farmer, president, faculty member, and student that engaged the land-grants.

The local farming interests were perhaps the most vociferous critics of the land-grants. Historian Richard S. Kirkendall argues that “Most farmers…had little interest and some hostility toward the move to establish colleges…Most…did not believe they needed help. Convinced that fathers could teach sons how to farm…[they felt] the new schools did not differ sufficiently from the old; they devoted too much time to the classics and the basic sciences, too little to farming. They seemed to lack respect for farming, did not do a good job of teaching it when they tried, and turned farm boys away from it.”[11] Farming interests were not only held “an indifference, suspicion, or open contempt for the new-fangled method of learning to farm” but were especially hostile to the liberal education being offered at the land-grant colleges.[12] Historian Earle D. Ross cites a contemporary political cartoon that appeared in the Iowa Homestead to demonstrate this point: “A dehorned bull, ‘agriculture,’ stood dejectedly in the corner of a field in front of the agricultural college awaiting the charge of long-horned cattle labeled ‘Civics,’ ‘Astronomy,’ ‘Calculus,’ ‘German,’ ‘Latin,’ ‘Ethics,’ ‘Psychology.’ The caption pointed the moral protest, ‘Dehorned and cornered in its own pasture lot. This is ‘Ethics(?).’”[13] As time went on, extension work and other services convinced many in the farming communities that the land-grants had much to offer. However, the liberal portion of the curriculum always posed a direct threat to the desire of many farmers that the students of the land-grants would return to the farms from whence they came.

Though extension work was crucial in selling the practical portion of curriculums in land-grant colleges, presidents were perhaps the most vocal advocates of selling the liberal portion of the curriculum. For example, the third president of the State Agricultural College of Michigan (now Michigan State University), Theophilius Capen Abbot delivered his speech “Education and Seeing” in the towns of Ionia, Marshall, and Charlotte, Michigan between 1872 and 1874. In it he argued, “A new age has dawned upon the farmer, an age that demands of him, reading, discussion, thought.”[14] His argument was not simply to persuade the farming interests, but was also manifest in his teaching English literature at the college. A former student, Albert John Cook, later a Professor of Botany at the college recalled, “How Tennyson, and Milton, and greatest of all Shakespeare, took on new life as he opened their treasure to our dazed appreciation…Such a president always commands a loyal student support, and his influence will ever be in the ascendancy.”[15] Further, historian Roger L. Williams described meetings of land-grant college presidents and states, “Foremost was the question of balance between technical and general or liberal arts coursework, a burning issue that brought the presidents’ educational philosophies to bear on the subject. Most of them had been educated in the liberal arts tradition and were extremely sensitive to the charges that their institutions were turning out vocationalists.”[16] As presidents were often faculty members in the early land grant colleges, much of their sentiment pervaded the faculty. Certainly professors predisposed to teaching the liberal arts were in favor of keeping their jobs if not expanding them and the scientifically oriented professors “postulated the teaching of fundamental principles and underlying theories as the only adequate basis for application. Such teaching necessitated breadth as well as depth a ‘liberal’ background as a preparation for intensive specialization. They thus stood for adding to rather than subtracting from the content of higher education.”[17]

But, what of the students? In many ways, the lack of established student demand gave the colleges reason to be flexible with the curriculum.[18] Often, presidents and others were surprised to find how favorably students responded to liberal education. Indeed, the students felt, much like their professors and presidents that a strong liberal education preceded specialized scientific work. Further, many students wished to pursue careers in (agri)business or other fields where a liberal education would certainly allow them to flexible. Albert Bamber, a student from the class of 1883 at the State Agricultural College of Michigan wrote in his class history, “We believed it was our duty, to lend a helping hand to the literary art and sciences. And there was instilled into the better part of our nature this great universal truth ‘Knowledge is Power.’ These are the reasons that we members of Class ’83 are joined into a solid phalanx for our common good; that we might closely pursue the studies in the course of the State Agr’l of Michigan and thus obtain the framework of an education that is necessary in this enlightened age, to make us fine scholars, good citizens, and a power in society.”[19] Whether motivated by the desire to earn gainful employment, or the desire to impact American society, students appreciated the broad foundation of a liberal education and the ability to specialize in agriculture.

However, as time went on, employment shifted from agrarian pursuits to industrial to corporate ones. The land-grants became more comprehensive and grew into some of the largest universities in the United States. This was reflected in the architecture of the campuses themselves. Describing the University of Tennessee, historian Neal O’Steen suggested “The growth of the Knoxville campus in the 186 years…has kept pace with the University’s expanding goals and missions…Throughout the years, buildings have risen and fallen, the older ones being victimized by time and hard usage by the tens of thousands who have sought knowledge promised by the land-grant concept of public service and education. One may regret the loss of ancient landmarks, but perhaps the value of a college building should not be measured by its durability but by what has transpired within its walls, by the lives of the men and women who studied there.”[20]

As one who has spent almost his entire adult life at land-grants (Michigan State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), I have lived with the tension of the liberal and the practical. As a history major, I took numerous exams in gothic buildings labeled agriculture, driven past herds of cattle nearly every day on my way home, and have enjoyed the finest ice cream from their milk on a weekly basis. As we continue to reflect on the land-grant ideal after 150 years, I believe the liberal and the practical to be compatible. So long as we recall that colleges are groups of individuals and that we should respect the seeds of each other’s learning, and the fruits of each other’s labor.

Kevin S. Zayed is a doctoral student in the department of Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership. His research focuses on undergraduate curricular reform, general education, and liberal education during the mid-twentieth century.


[1] Quote appears in Herbert Andrew Berg, Financial Support of Michigan Agricultural College During Formative Years with Emphasis on the College Swamp Lands (East Lansing: Privately published by Michigan State University, 1966), title page.

[2] Susan R. Merrifield, Readin’ and Writin’ for the Hard-Hat Crowd: Curriculum Policy at an Urban University (New York: Peter Lang, 2005),9. Italics added for emphasis.

[3] This theory is best explicated by David F. Labaree, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals,” American Educational Research Journal 34 (1997): 39-81.

[4] Though many of its arguments have been superseded, one cannot deny the eminence of Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York: Vintage, 1955) as having both charted and continuing the symbolism of the farmer in American culture.

[5] Scott Key, “Economics or Education: The Establishment of American Land-Grant Colleges,” Journal of Higher Education 67 (1996): 215.

[6] Eldon L. Johnson, “Misconceptions about the Early Land Grant Colleges,” Journal of Higher Education 52 (1981): 335.

[7] Allan Nevins, The Origins of the Land-Grant Colleges and State Universities: A Brief Account of the Morrill Act of 1862 and Its Results (Washington D.C.:  Civil War Centennial Commission, 1962), 3-4. The best general account of the legal considerations and economic nature of the legislation can be found in Dennis W. Johnson, The Laws That Shaped America: Fifteen Acts of Congress and their Lasting Impact (New York: Routledge, 2009), chapter 3.

[8] Mark R. Nemec, Ivory Towers and Nationalist Minds: Universities, Leadership, and the Development of the American State (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 48.

[10] Nemec, Ivory Towers and Nationalist Minds, 48.

[11] Richard S. Kirkendall, “The Agricultural Colleges: Between Tradition and Modernization,” Agricultural History 60 (1986): 7-8.

[12] Earle D. Ross, Democracy’s College: The Land-Grant Movement in the Formative Stage (Ames: Iowa State College Press, 1942), 42.

[13] Ibid, 120-121.

[14] Theophilius Capen Abbot, “Education and Seeing” Abbot, Theophilius Capen Papers. File 66, Michigan State University Archives, East Lansing.

[15] Albert John Cook, “Members of the Early Faculty,” in Semi-centennial Celebration of Michigan State Agricultural College, 1857–1907 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1908), 76.

[16] Roger L. Williams, The Origins of Federal Support for Higher Education: George W. Atherton and the Land-Grant College Movement (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), 181.

[17] Ross, Democracy’s College, 87-88.

[18] Johnson, “Misconceptions About the Early,” 336-339.

[19] Albert Bamber, History of MAC Class of 1883, 1883, Folder 3, Bamber Family Papers, Michigan State University Archives, East Lansing.

[20] Neal O’Steen, “The University of Tennessee: Evolution of a Campus,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 39 (1980): 280-281.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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