In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which granted land to states for the creation of agricultural colleges. The law, which created the modern-day land-grant colleges that are among the biggest brand names in higher education, celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. The institutions now enroll some 4.6 million students.
Last week, the University of Florida, the Sunshine State’s land-grant college, closed its year-long celebration of the Morrill Act anniversary with a symposium on the future of higher education. I was invited to speak at the event, and in preparation for the conference, I read the Morrill Act. Despite its significance in higher education history, I must admit that in the 16 years I’ve covered colleges and universities as a journalist, I never took the time to read the legislation.
One section in the law particularly struck me given recent debates about the purpose of higher education:
…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.
The law explicitly says that land-grant colleges should not exclude “classical studies,” and that they are meant to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.”
This is significant in Florida because late last year its governor, Rick Scott, a Republican, said that he would like to shift money from some degree programs to focus more on the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
His view, unfortunately, is shared by other politicians in Florida and elsewhere who want to encourage public colleges to produce more STEM graduates by linking appropriations to specific degree programs rather than just giving money based on student enrollment in any degree program. Such funding mechanisms will end up starving the humanities, and it’s likely that many public land-grant colleges will struggle to promote liberal education as President Lincoln hoped they would when he signed the Morrill Act.
We were reminded of the importance of the liberal arts last week after yet another survey of employers found that they want college graduates who are broadly educated and can apply their knowledge in real-world situations. The fact of the matter is that the economy is moving at such a rapid pace that the jobs of tomorrow will be different than those that are popular today by the time this year’s college freshmen graduate.
Each time lawmakers say we should invest less in the humanities to build up the STEM fields, academics rise up in protest. But they are not the best spokespeople on this issue; many just see them trying to protect their own turf. If corporate leaders truly think what the surveys seem to indicate they do, then they need to take the lead in fighting back proposals in the states to narrow our land-grant colleges to simply job-training academies and not the broad and open places that were designed to promote “several pursuits and professions in life.”
Photo Credit: Inside Florida