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Henningsen: Morrill's Vision Today

08/01/12 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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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.

The 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.

On 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 education.

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 universities.

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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