Higher education historian examines Penn State's land-grant tradition

Phi Beta Kappa, Lambda of Pennsylvania, Initiation and Awards Ceremony

May 13, 2011

The Practical and the Liberal Arts: Penn State and 150 Years of the Land-Grant Tradition

Roger L. Geiger
The Pennsylvania State University

We are fast approaching the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land-Grant Act that led to the establishment of land-grant universities in every state of the union. Although controversial in its time, and scarcely what a modern political scientist would regard as efficient public policy, the act nevertheless has stood the test of time as one of those unequivocally good actions by our federal government. Specifically, I would argue, it shaped American higher education in positive ways that would not have occurred as soon or to the same extent otherwise. And furthermore, the repercussions of those developments are still evident. Finally, nowhere is that legacy more fully realized for the 21st century than at The Pennsylvania State University.

Let me start with Congressman Justin Morrill. Although similar ideas were in the air in the 1850s, the Land-Grant Act was uniquely the result of his vision, tenacity, and legislative skills. He was born the son of a blacksmith in Strafford, Vt. -- a town that still clusters around a magnificently preserved late 18th-century Congregational meetinghouse. Unable to send all his sons to college, his father sent none of them. Justin received what was probably equivalent to a 7th or 8th grade education. After working several jobs, he ended up running the Strafford general store, first as employee, then partner and then proprietor. He was successful enough to retire at an early age as a gentleman, and to pursue an interest in scientific agriculture. Recruited to run for office by the new Republican Party, he was elected to Congress in 1854 and continued in office until his death in 1898 -- establishing a record for the longest serving congressman. He managed to shepherd the first land-grant act through a divided congress in 1859, only to have it vetoed by President Buchanan on grounds that the federal government had no role to play in education. A second effort in 1862 was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.

Four fundamental ideas were embodied in that original legislation. They were less formally worked-out arguments than Morrill’s considered reactions to realities of his time.

1. To provide educational opportunity for the "industrial classes." Colleges in his time were associated with preparation for the professions and largely patronized by that same class. He envisioned a college in each state, (in his words) "accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil" -- the "thousand willing and expecting to work their way through the world by the sweat of their brow." He hoped that the land grant would allow these colleges to charge no tuition, and work on the associated farms would help to cover living expenses. (Well, that part didn’t work -- but there was more.)

2. To provide instruction in the "practical avocations of life." The Act specifically mentioned agriculture and the mechanic arts as the leading object, leaving it to the states to work out the details. Education in what were then called the practical arts was a fundamental aim.

3. These subjects were already being taught, but rarely at the college level. The third aim was to teach the practical arts alongside "other scientific and classical studies." Morrill’s purpose was at once social -- to elevate these studies and students to the same social standing as other college degrees; and functional -- to advance these subjects through connection with the higher learning, which was also linked with his fourth goal:

4. To encourage what we today call economic development through scientific research. A large part of Morrill’s speech advocating his bill described the declining productivity of American agriculture in contrast with European countries where agriculture was being studied scientifically. Modern sciences, he argued, "are more or less related to agriculture or the mechanic arts." He envisioned professors of agriculture at the land-grant colleges who would apply scientific knowledge to obtain increased productivity, or what we praise today as technology transfer.

The Land-Grant Act left it up to the states to determine how to implement these goals. Each state chose its own unique course, but all found these goals difficult to accomplish.

A number of obstacles existed for attracting the sons of toil, chiefly an absence of secondary education to prepare them for college work. New York State offered scholarships for a student from each county, but Cornell was deluged with unprepared students who failed to graduate. Most land-grant colleges, like Penn State, attracted most of their student locally or regionally, just like the private colleges.

Probably the greatest challenge was finding the proper formula for combining the liberal arts and sciences with the practical arts. Some "university men" -- Andrew Dixon White and Daniel Coit Gilman -- championed the land-grants as our "national schools of science." But farmers' groups claimed them as agricultural colleges (and most were originally named A&M). However, there were few individuals who knew how to apply science to farming or how to teach the subject. The first model farm at wealthy Cornell was a disaster -- a model of how not to farm. Penn State was fortunate to be led by Evan Pugh, one of the few European-trained agricultural scientists. But after his untimely death in 1864, the college oscillated between emphasizing farming or the classical course under his successors -- you have all heard of these men, not from their deeds but from their eponymous streets -- Allen, Fraser, Burrowes, Calder and Shortlidge. This issue was only resolved when the largest street of them all -- George W. Atherton -- became president in 1883. He was a stalwart defender of Morrill's original impulse to combine liberal arts and the practical arts. At this juncture, Justin Morrill himself and the federal government intervened once again.

The 1887 Hatch Act, which Atherton helped to write, provided funds for Agricultural Experiment Stations to advance agricultural science under local conditions. The Second Morrill Act in 1890 then provided these universities with direct federal support -- cash rather than land. This provided them with a vital infusion of funds at a crucial point in time. The academic revolution was transforming higher education through the organization and ascendancy of academic disciplines, giving a whole new meaning to the liberal arts and sciences. At the same time, a system of high schools was emerging that could prepare students for higher study. High school graduates now included "sons of toil," and sons and daughters from all walks of American life. These students flowed into the state, land-grant universities, making them the largest institutions of higher education early in the 20th century.

Penn State was not one of the leaders in these developments, but it had the capacity to be a good follower -- to do the right things to adapt to these new conditions. Agriculture was the first field to undertake research. This was a crucial development because, once established, a fruitful research mission tends to spread throughout an institution. But engineering was the key field. One of Atherton's first acts was to send math instructor Louis Reber to MIT for a year to study how mechanical engineering was taught at the foremost institutional exponent. Penn State created a mechanical engineering program, and engineering soon became the dominant course of study. But this applied subject could not stand alone; investments followed in chemistry and physics. The humanities would long trail the growth of science and technology. However, they could not be neglected as other disciplines flourished. Fred Lewis Pattee joined the faculty in 1894, one of the first scholars to study and teach American literature and the first to hold a professorship of that title.

The dialectic between the liberal and the practical arts has been a central feature of American higher education, with the particulars and the dynamics shifting for each generation. After the achievements of American science during World War II, the federal government poured resources into academic research. However, over time these investments were heavily weighted toward defense technologies. This changed after the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. The race for space required a foundation of basic science. An enormous investment in basic science followed and transformed American universities. The liberal arts flourished as never before for the next two decades. But then it appeared that the pendulum had swung too far in that direction. American industry and the nation's economy did not seem to be benefiting from this investment in basic research. Around 1980, a reevaluation began to take place of the relationship between the liberal and the practical arts, in this case especially science and technology.

Since that era, the federal government and American society broadly have made huge investments in the creation of academic knowledge -- an effort that dwarfs the post-Sputnik boom. At the same time, this has been accompanied by the intention and conscious effort to see that this knowledge is disseminated to society. This has been an enormous project, with multiple dimensions. These would include the cultivation of science-based technologies, like biotechnology or nanotechnology, which enable advanced applications of the most basic forms of scientific research. There are analogues in social learning as well. The revolutionary advances in information technology have accelerated the consumption and circulation of knowledge. Together, these and other developments have produced our current knowledge-based society, and they have also altered the challenges of the land-grant mission.

Knowledge of the practical arts, if we can still call them that, now has become enormously sophisticated. Innovations from biotechnology or cyber science depend upon multiple layers of basic scientific understanding. Other areas of social or professional activities may be less esoteric, but they too draw upon the kind of cumulative, theoretical knowledge that universities produce. The audience for this kind of knowledge -- the consumers -- must have a foundation in basic learning in order to utilize it. Here the liberal arts play an indispensible role.

The challenge for universities of the 21st century is not only the production of new and relevant knowledge, but also the translation and delivery of such knowledge. And much of that now takes place beyond the traditional classroom and at the level of graduate and professional education.

Now, I want to make the case that Penn State has managed to meet this challenge as well or better than any other university in the United States, and this is a considered judgment. Moreover, we have done so without compromising -- in fact strengthening -- traditional academic programs. Developments in several areas have made this possible -- and here I can only indicate the organizational framework, not the specialized content, for two of them.

1. Of crucial significance has been the establishment and cultivation of overarching research institutes for the major areas of academic knowledge. There are now six of these: the Huck Institute of the Life Sciences, Materials Research Institute, Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, Social Science Research Institute, Institute for the Arts and Humanities and the Institute for Cyber Science. This is Penn State's organization for the advancement of knowledge. It exists alongside the academic structure for instruction in departments and colleges. That way, each structure can be best adapted for its purposes -- offering courses for credit and awarding degrees for the academic side, assembling interdisciplinary teams and identifying productive areas of investigation for the institutes. The institutes incorporate some longstanding units, but for the most part they have transformed the way scholarship and research is conducted at Penn State. Intellectual and bureaucratic barriers between departments and colleges have become irrelevant; research groups can draw upon expertise from any field to address real world issues like solar power or biofuels. The opportunities to advance and apply knowledge have attracted renowned scholars to Penn State, contributing to Penn State's outstanding results on the recent ratings of academic programs by the National Research Council. No doubt some of today's initiates have participated in undergraduate research programs at some of these units. The institutes have been instrumental in allowing Penn State to raise its stature in academic excellence while contributing more than ever to the knowledge needs of American society.

2. The second organization is the Penn State World Campus. Here, once again, we were not a leader, but an intelligent follower. At the end of the 1990s, a number of online universities were launched with great fanfare. They all flopped. The World Campus began instead on a modest scale, accompanied by a good deal of skepticism. We set out to use our comparative advantage. The first course offered was "turfgrass management." Over time, the technology, the pedagogy and the financial model have all been perfected. Now the World Campus offers more than 70 degree and certificate programs, the majority on the graduate level. Most of these are for what Justin Morrill would have called the "practical avocations of life," although outside of turfgrass he might have had difficulty recognizing them. Online education is now a conduit for delivering expertise in the practical arts to individuals who can utilize it. Moreover, it will certainly experience long-lived growth. Both the technology and the pedagogy are improving rapidly, and its advantages for certain types of courses will be increasingly apparent for students on and off campus. Today's initiates, if you have not yet taken an online course, you probably will in the future.

Penn State has adapted its units not just to pursue discovery on the breaking frontiers of science and scholarship, but also to utilize this new knowledge to address some of the most pressing problems of our society. It has also developed ways to make such knowledge accessible to individuals through new modes of delivery -- through the World Campus, new professional master's degrees and certificate programs. Penn State's success in this area, I believe, stems from its land-grant heritage. As President Spanier has aptly said, Penn State’s public mission is part of our DNA. In particular, it has stemmed from Justin Morrill's insistence on combining the practical arts with other scientific and classical studies.

Teaching the practical arts by themselves is nothing more than vocational education; teaching them in combination with basic, theoretical science and scholarship allows practice to be improved and advanced. This has been the Penn State tradition. It is interesting that so many of the scientific achievements made on this campus have a tangible quality. Across the street from us is Henry Armsby's calorimeter -- now a museum -- where he pioneered the measurement of the energy content of food as it was metabolized. Penn State physicist Erwin Mueller was the first person to see an atom, again with a device he built. A Penn State astronomer discovered the first exoplanet outside of our solar system. And Penn State anthropologists extracted and decoded genetic material from a wooly mammoth. Few people realize that Penn State conducts more research in materials science than any other university in the world. This includes everything from nanotechnology to clean coal, but especially materials for ceramics, electronics and now, in the new Millennium Science Complex, applications of materials in bioengineering.

A liberal education in this context provides a foundation for many things: for admission into the knowledge society, for critical judgment of the unceasing flow of new knowledge, for a deeper appreciation of art and literature, for active involvement in civil society and for productive engagement with the practical arts. Let me congratulate you, the 2011 initiates into Phi Beta Kappa. You have distinguished yourselves in your studies and have made the most of the learning opportunities at a great university.

Last Updated February 27, 2014