Democracy’s College

By  Scott Peters

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the first Morrill Act into law.  Also referred to as the Land-Grant Act, it offered states grants of federal land to establish a new kind of college that would, in the language of the act, “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”  It was the first of several federal acts that built and supported what became known as the “land-grant system.”  Today this system includes 109 institutions located in all 50 states and several US territories.

In the concluding sentence of his book on the origins and early development of the land-grant system, historian Earle D. Ross wrote that land-grant colleges were “real people’s colleges—with all their limitations a distinct native product and the fullest expression of democracy in higher education.”  He communicated this point in the title he chose for his book, which was published in 1942.  He called it Democracy’s College.

Democracy in American higher education is most often understood to mean a commitment to open and equal access, to affordability, to public service, to liberal education, and to a broad curriculum that enables any person to pursue any study (to paraphrase Ezra Cornell’s famous slogan for the land-grant university that bears his name).  All these things are important.  But there’s something missing from this list, something that has long been and still is a critically important part of the “democracy’s college” tradition in the land-grant system.  We catch a glimpse of what’s missing in something the pioneering scholar of home economics Isabel Bevier said in 1920 to an audience gathered to celebrate the semicentennial of Ohio State University:

“And so another great door of opportunity was opened for human betterment; another chance was given for men and women, hand in hand, to work at the world’s problems.  That, to me, has always been one of the very great benefits that the land-grant college has given to our daily life—the fact that the men and women have worked together at the world’s problems.”

The “men and women” Bevier is speaking of here aren’t just academics and students.  They’re people from all walks of life.  Bevier spent decades as a scholar working with people from farms and rural communities in Illinois.  So we shouldn’t interpret what she’s talking about as an expression of the familiar concept of “public service,” where academics and students do things for a passive and needy public.  What she’s talking about is public work.  Work that taps and engages and develops the civic agency, talents, and capacities of everyone, inside and outside the academy.  Work that’s grounded in the “daily life” of the people, where “the world’s problems” play out in ways that women and men can do something about.  Work of this kind involves the practice of a democratic-minded civic science that is of, by, and for the commonwealth. And students who participate in it learn lessons that hold academic as well as civic value, as they make a difference in the real life of communities and our broader society.

Though it’s not widely known or appreciated, engagement in public work is the very heart and soul of the “democracy’s college” tradition in the land-grant system.  It’s central to the “expression of democracy in higher education” that land-grant institutions have embodied, however imperfectly.  But it’s no longer limited to the land-grant system.  The American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) is a testament to this.  Launched in the year that marks the sesquicentennial of the first Morrill Act, this new initiative represents a reclaiming of our civic mission, and a recommitment to and reworking of the democracy’s college tradition and spirit across the whole of American higher education.  And not to be missed, it also represents one of the most promising means of fixing this nation’s broken politics, by awakening and engaging the idealism, intelligence, and productive creativity of our nation’s youth and their academic and community partners.

Scott Peters is an associate professor of education at Cornell University.  His latest book is Democracy and Higher Education: Traditions and Stories of Civic Engagement (Michigan State University Press, 2010).