Celebrating 150 years since changing the face of U.S. higher education

Published: February 12, 2012
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MARTIN Van Buren, eighth president of the United States, died in 1862. As did John Tyler, the 10th president. And Henry David Thoreau. All three left a legacy, but we would argue that none reaches the level of something that was birthed in that Civil War year.

It was the same year Abraham Lincoln revealed his plans for the Emancipation Proclamation, but that wasn't actually signed until Jan. 1, 1863. The great thing birthed in 1862, on July 2, was the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, creating a system of higher learning across the fruited plain.

In this 150th anniversary year of land-grant colleges, the Morrill act will be commemorated at a land-grant institution founded at Stillwater in 1890. That was the year the Morrill act was modified to include states that were formerly part of the Confederacy. Lincoln's predecessor, President James Buchanan, vetoed the original land-grant college legislation in 1859. Like most things that go through Congress, then and now, nothing is easy to pass and provincialism comes into play.

The Morrill act was named after a Vermont politician, but the idea had originated in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. It morphed from giving each state the same number of land-grant colleges to basing the number on population. Rather than limiting the institutions to a stress on agriculture and “mechanics,” a military training role was added. In some cases, existing colleges became part of the land-grant system.

The 1862 legislation created a land-for-learning swap: Federally owned land granted to states would be sold and the proceeds used to establish a college for “practical knowledge,” according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. “At mid-19th century,” the society's Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture says, “approximately 80 percent of the United States' workforce were farmers and artisans. Dissatisfied with the classical education offered at liberal arts colleges, educational and political reformers determined that colleges should provide practical learning for the agricultural and mechanical/industrial arts.”

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