In the nineteenth century, a visionary Congress adopted a bold strategy to invest a portion of a valuable national asset in an historic expansion of educational opportunity for the people of the United States. The consequences for the welfare of the nation and her people went beyond what even the most passionate advocates of the legislation could have foreseen.
Another Congress has an equally compelling opportunity today.
The challenge to America’s confidence about its future did not come about overnight. There had been earlier harbingers of difficulty as the nation moved beyond a period of dynamic growth and unquestioning self-confidence and prepared to meet the demands of a more mature economy and a vastly more complicated political and social equation.
Changes in the United States’ international relationships played a part; but the most serious threat to the common weal came from internal divisions which threatened to tear the nation asunder.
Those with uncertain faith in the resilience of the American experiment doubted that the United States could ever regain the confidence of its exuberant youth.
Eventually, the ongoing debate about the role and responsibilities of government led to the greatest political upheaval in the nation’s history, sweeping Republicans into power in Washington in unprecedented numbers.
The new government set boldly about constructing its own vision for America’s future, looking beyond the current turmoil to a period which — it confidently expected — would herald a resurgence of economic growth, driven by the powerful engines of individual initiative and new technology to propel the nation’s progress toward a destiny that could scarcely have been imagined only a few years before.
The year was not 1995 but 1862.
The Civil War was imposing unprecedented demands on the limited economic and civil resources of the federal government. And yet, remarkably, in the midst of enormous turmoil, when the very survival of the republic was in doubt, the new President and Congress had the perception to look beyond the immediate chaos to conceive and enact one of the most visionary and far-reaching pieces of legislation in the nation’s history.
The costs of prosecuting the war were immense, stretching the government’s financial capacity to its limits and making new investment in social or economic development problematic at best. But the Republicans in the 37th Congress believed that the union would survive, and that it was essential that they look also to the restoration of prosperity and the progress of the nation after the conclusion of the struggle.
The Morrill Act of 1862 was a keystone of their strategy. At its core was the proposition that the government would support the extension of higher education to a far greater proportion of the citizenry than had ever previously been imagined.
The federal government could not itself pay for this historic expansion of educational opportunity; but it could provide the essential financial catalyst by dedicating to this public purpose a portion of an enormously valuable national asset — the public lands — which it held on behalf of the people of the United States. Congress allocated 30,000 acres of land for each Senator and Representative from each of the “loyal states”; the land was transferred to the state for sale, with the proceeds going to the existing or newly-established colleges that they designated.
Historian Phillip Shaw Paludan observes that the Morrill Act was the basis for funding “agricultural and mechanical” colleges which evolved to become:
… universities of world wide reputation. The Universities of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California were born of or sustained by this law, and schools such as Cornell, Rutgers, and Brown gained further resources.,
The law underwrote training in agronomy and in what it called “the mechanical arts,”
…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.
The measure thus
…laid the foundation for a broad and democratic training in the knowledge that was shaping a more modern nation.
The contribution of the act over the next century and beyond was greater than even its most visionary advocates could have imagined. The impact of broadly available higher education on the growth of the American economy in the latter half of the nineteenth century was enormous. The sixty-nine land-grant colleges that the Morrill Act helped establish are today world class institutions of higher learning, attracting the ablest students from all over the world; American agriculture and technology are unexcelled.
Columnist Mark Shields, urging that current cynicism about government’s failures not obscure recognition of its historic successes, leads his argument by citing the land-grant act:
Consider the radically egalitarian notion that every able, ambitious student, regardless of economic status or social station, ought to have the chance for a quality higher education. Thus, the revolutionary premise of the great land-grant university plan was born in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, at a time when less than one-half of one percent of Americans had ever been to college.
Today, American public colleges award 502,000 degrees annually, including nearly two-thirds of the nation’s doctorates. From these same “government” schools have come the Salk and Sabin vaccines, streptomycin, the first digital computer, the first atom-smasher and more than 100 Nobel Prize winners.
One hundred years later, another President and Congress acted to ensure that a portion of one of the nation’s most valuable assets would be dedicated to the advancement of education, for the benefit of the nation, her economy, and the welfare of all of her people. A decade before, the Federal Communications Commission had reserved 242 channels for non commercial educational television stations, but only a few of the major cities and largest universities had been able to activate stations. In 1962, the centennial year of the Morrill Act, Congress enacted the Educational Television Facilities Act, authorizing the first federal matching grants for the construction of new educational television stations.
As with the Morrill Act a century before, the strategy was not for the federal government itself to establish educational institutions, but to reserve a portion of a national resource owned by all of the people — in this case, not the public lands but the electromagnetic spectrum — to provide the catalytic support necessary to enable the states and localities to organize their own institutions for this purpose.
And as with the Morrill Act, the Educational Television Facilities Act was enormously successful:
Like the Morrill Act of 1862, the Educational Television Facilities Act of 1962 and its successor Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 have resulted in the establishment of dozens of new institutions across the country dedicated to broad public education.
Those institutions have made the greatest treasures of our heritage and culture accessible to families throughout the nation, not merely to those of means living near the major cultural centers in the largest metropolitan areas. They have provided a wholesome educational “head start” to a generation of preschool children. They have provided life-long learning opportunities to millions of Americans who a generation before would not have dreamed that such opportunities could ever be open to them.
Many of them have become educational telecommunications centers, pioneering in the development of satellite broadcasting, captioning for the hearing-impaired, stereo television, digital transmission, interactive distance learning, and other applications of new communications technologies to education and public service.
Despite the reservation and activation of more than 300 channels, however, the investment in America’s educational telecommunications system is incomplete — and may even be in jeopardy unless Congress takes a new course to assure the continuation of its benefits to parents, students, teachers, and the public at large.
The Morrill Act not only encouraged the establishment of new educational institutions; it contributed a valuable asset toward the endowment of those institutions and thus toward an assurance of their continuing capacity to extend and enlarge their benefit to the public.
By contrast, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 contemplated the later enactment of a long-range financing mechanism for the new institutions of public radio and television; but the hoped-for structure to assure adequate financing for the long term, independent of annual federal appropriations, has heretofore proven an elusive (and as yet unrealized) goal.
As the century draws to a close, however, our government is once again considering the disposition of an enormously valuable national asset. And another Republican Congress has the opportunity — like the far-sighted authors of the Morrill Act — to ensure that locally-based and locally-responsible educational institutions will greatly extend the reach of our most powerful and effective methods of instruction “to promote the liberal and practical education” of the next generations of Americans.
With the tools of communications and computer technology now becoming pervasive, it will be possible to make the most inspiring and useful education that our best and brightest teachers can devise conveniently accessible to every man, woman and child in the United States, regardless of their economic circumstances, their social condition, their national or ethnic heritage, their previous educational experience, their home or workplace responsibilities, or their distance from traditional centers of learning.
The opportunity to enrich and ennoble the mind and spirit of every citizen, whether living in a low income urban environment, a middle-class suburb, or a rural area, is historic. The potential contribution to individual opportunity and to a new era of economic and social prosperity is staggering.
With the advent of the new communications technologies and market structures, and the growing perception of the paramount importance of the distribution and accessibility of information in the emerging era, the electromagnetic spectrum is assuming a value that is enormous even in relation to relatively recent expectations.
Television, telephone, film, and computer companies are proposing multi-billion-dollar mergers and acquisitions of each other in an effort to maximize their competitive access to this resource. The “information superhighway” has become the metaphor of choice in describing the educational landscape and the telecommunications marketplace of the next century.
Last year, the FCC auctioned off licenses for new wireless communications services for nearly $9 billion. The Commission estimates that if the second channels to be made available over the next few years for digital television were similarly auctioned, the government could raise at least $11 billion — and possibly as much as $70 billion, depending on economic circumstances; and if the present channels were sold after completion of the transition to digital broadcasting, from $20 to $132 billion could be realized. The window of opportunity will not remain open indefinitely, however. Digital compression technology is multiplying the capacity of the spectrum, but the spectrum is still finite. Once it is transferred, auctioned, sold or allocated by the government, it cannot be reclaimed.
Like the sale of public lands in the 1860’s, once the spectrum “acreage” is disposed of, it is gone, and with it the opportunity to dedicate a portion of its value to the advancement of broad public education in the age of telecommunications.
Few could have predicted the enormous impact of the nineteenth-century land-grant institutions on the progress of education in the latter half of that century, and even to the present day. A visionary Congress seized an historic opportunity, with historic consequences for the nation’s economy and the welfare of her people.
None can predict today the benefits that would flow from an equally historic expansion of educational opportunity through the institutions of public telecommunications. But there can be no doubt that, given the chance, the next generation of America’s youth will use that opportunity to its utmost, repaying the nation’s investment in them on a scale that is beyond our present imagining.
In the nineteenth century, in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of government, a bold and visionary Congress looked beyond the demands of the immediate conflict to enact an historic expansion of educational opportunity, with consequences for the nation beyond any that could have been foreseen.
At the threshold of the new millennium, another Congress has the opportunity to allocate a portion of a precious national asset to an equally historic investment in the education of our people.
It could complete the promise of the Educational Television Facilities and Public Broadcasting Acts by dedicating a portion of the spectrum to the stable, long-range financing of public telecommunications centers as the “land-grant institutions of the information age.” It could craft the electronic land-grant act for the twenty-first century.
The opportunity should not be lost. It will not be, if the 104th Congress shows the same vision and leadership that marked the 37th.
Newton Minow and Lawrence Grossman’s Digital Promise Project published a paper with a similar theme by Craig LaMay
Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, successor to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, and its PDF about the idea and the legislation, and the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act
Copyright 1995 American University