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The Land-Grant University after 150 Years

Photos courtesy of NDSU archives

The Land-Grant
University after 150 Years

A REPORT TO SENATOR MORRILL, Thomas D. Isern, Land-Grant Summit, 12 June 2012

His own formal education amounted to only three months, but Haile Chisholm was the epitome of the educated man. He delighted equally in the forge and the lyceum. He was a great teacher because he was a great, lifelong learner. Haile Chisholm taught blacksmithing, and wrote poetry, at North Dakota Agricultural College.

Born in 1851 in Chazy, New York, Chisholm was held out of school on account of poor health, but oddly, began helping his father in his smithy. Subsequently he apprenticed with another smith, got a job in the locomotive shops of the Central Vermont Railway Company, and cast his first vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the election of 1872. He held several other jobs, started a family, settled for a while in South Dakota, and came to Fargo to work in the shops of the Northern Pacific Railway. In 1902, Chisholm became an instructor at NDAC, where he served until his retirement in 1937. This was a fortunate match.

Blacksmithing was a common study for students at the AC, and Chisholm's students remembered him as a teacher not only of skills but also of wisdom. Chisholm insisted that his iron work was no mere utilitarian pursuit but rather a matter of artistic fulfillment. He kept a book in which he wrote sayings and observations, which now reposes among his other papers in the North Dakota State University Archives. Among the jottings of Chisholm is the statement, "I have never regretted a dollar spent for loveliness." Other commonplaces from the pen of Haile Chisholm:

To sit idle when you feel that you should be doing something is the hardest thing in the world.

Work is love made visible.

Chisholm believed that those who were inclined to be bookish needed to learn the dignity of labor with their hands. Those who worked with their hands needed to learn to regard their work as art and to appreciate poetry. Thus he had something to teach everyone, something he continued to learn himself all his life. At lyceums and literary events on campus, there was Chisholm, and he had questions.

Among Chisholm's commissions of ironwork is the great gate that stands at the southeast entrance of the university. He also fashioned the ornamental gate that stood in front of the Teddy Roosevelt cabin on the capitol grounds and the trowel used to lay the cornerstone of the capitol in 1932.

In 1931 the college faculty awarded Chisholm an honorary degree, Master of Artisans, saying, "He has elevated the art of craftsmanship in iron working to a fine art." He had to retire in 1937 on account of deafness, no doubt induced by his work at the forge. After the death of his wife Mary in 1931, he lived with his daughter Anna until 1951, when the old smith died. Late in life he wrote,

I hear them say "He's passing fast,"
And what they say is true.
I'm not the man they used to know
In eighteen ninety-two.

'Twas not so very long ago
They called me hale and strong.
They found me ready night and day
To tote my load along.

My place beside the anvil true
I filled with honest pride;
My hands ne'er shrank from hardest tasks
By daily needs supplied.

If you listen to those stanzas, you can hear the hammer in them. And if you reflect upon the life of Haile Chisholm, Master of Artisans, you can achieve a good understanding of what we have come to call the land-grant ideal.

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At home I have a great old trunk that my dear cousin Bernice gave me. She told me Grandpa Isern received the trunk as a gift, and packed his stuff into it, just before he caught the train for Manhattan, Kansas, to attend the Farmers' Short Course, commencing 3 January 1905. According to the Kansas State Agricultural College catalog of that year, the short course was taught "on a different plane" than the regular term - more concrete, less theoretical. Admission requirements: be "at least eighteen years of age and of good moral character."

Here are some of Grandpa's textbooks - a physics text, and Principles of Plant Culture, by E.S. Goff of Wisconsin University. What surprises me a little is to find among them Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake and a book of Washington Irving's sketches. It surprises me only a little bit, because the agricultural colleges such as KSAC were never confined to teaching about crops and livestock. They always provided, as their congressional creators said, "liberal and practical education."

Oh my, here's Grandpa's composition book. It has a few physics equations in the back, along with some handy recipes for dosing horses, but mostly it contains the lecture notes he took and brief quotations he evidently was expected to commit to memory. This was just the short course, remember, but it looks like Grandpa absorbed a good bit of Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving, Robert Burns, Matthew Arnold, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Walter Scott, and the historian, Thomas Carlyle.

Here's a quick quiz I gave to my nieces, graduates of Kansas State University: Can you name any works of these authors your great-grandpa read in college?

Perhaps, instead, you'd like to try a few math problems from the assignment sheet Grandpa folded into his composition book. "If two horses weighing twelve hundred pounds each can just pull a load of four tons on the level, how many horses will it take to pull it up a hill rising 1 foot in 10, 600 pounds being taken as the limit of a horse's strength?"

All right, try an easier one: "With an evener 4 ft. long how will you place the hitch in order to give one horse 1/8 the advantage?"

And this was just the short course, remember, taught "on a different plane." By now I hope you have taken my point about the ideal of the land-grant university. The land-grant college, now land-grant university, is a glorious American invention, like nothing else in the world. It was an idea that originated with the democratic Zeitgeist of antebellum America, attained actuality with Republican dominance of the Congress during the Civil War, and is credited by historical memory to Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont, the father of the land grant university system, author of the Morrill Act of 1862. That act famously promised subsequent generations of Americans a "liberal and practical" education in a whole new class of institutions of higher education.

More specifically, the land-grant ideal comprises two essential elements, the first of which is access. The Morrill Act threw open the heavy gates of college to the sons and daughters of farmers and laborers who never before in history could have aspired to higher education.

The second essential element of the land grant ideal has to do with curriculum. Agriculture was a sine qua non, but studies in the land-grant colleges, Senator Morrill explained, "comprehended not only instruction for those who hold the plow or follow a trade, but such instruction as any person might need - with 'the world before them where to choose' - and without the exclusion of those who might prefer to adhere to the classics."

The union of these two elements is the land-grant ideal, an ideal of empowerment and inclusiveness. Historian Allan Nevins concludes that the assumption "behind the land-grant movement was that liberty and equality could not survive unless all men had full opportunity to pursue all occupations at the highest practical level. No restrictions of class, or fortune, or sex, or geographical position - no restrictions whatsoever - should operate."

The assumption of which Nevins writes is not a plan or even a map. It is an ideal, and it is a fine example of what historians have come to call "agency." Historians of agency, and I am one, reject the idea that history is driven merely by deterministic forces. Historians of agency say, we make our choices, and we live with the consequences.

A person exemplifying agency in history, such as Justin Morrill, believes that it might just be possible to form a more perfect union through that equality of opportunity afforded by access to higher education and by choice of curricular options.

As heirs of Justin Morrill, we inherit not only his ideal but also the agency implicit in it. No restrictions. The possibilities are as wide open as our prairies of yellow and green.

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The past few paragraphs have drawn me into the philosophy of History, which happens to me more and more these days, as my resistance to such philosophical digression grows daily weaker. And yet, it may be worthwhile to be self-conscious and explicit as to how the habits of a historian may extract meaning and, dare I say it, wisdom from the land-grant university experience.

Begin with the observation that History is one of the Humanities, and has little to do with social science. There are no predictable cycles in History. History doesn't give a damn where it is going.

History, in a word, is chaos. If you're familiar with chaos as theory, then you know that this does not mean there are no meaningful patterns in History, it just means the patterns are so long and loopy and multi-dimensional that we will never be able to discern them. This is why History embraces narrative as its explanatory mode. Meaning comes from the discernment of connections, one thing leading to another. This narrative way of doing History is wonderfully compatible with chaos theory, which takes account of sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Where good historians today differ from chaos theorists is that whereas History and chaos don't give a damn where things are going, we do. A historian who embraces agency, who insists that human events are not mere products of deterministic forces, will point out that some of those apparently random but consequential turns of events so dear to chaos theorists in fact are willed acts. Someone had an idea - perhaps the idea of the land-grant university - and acted, and the consequence was History.

Which brings us to another essential doctrine of good historians, contingency. Historians of the past were fond of chapter titles like "The Road to the Civil War," as if that road were graded and marked in advance, and there was no other path possible. Such historians might insist it was logical and irresistible that the little land-grant colleges of the 19th century would evolve into the big research universities of the 21st. The story to be told, then, would be a matter of rationalizing who and where we are now. This development, I say, was by no means inexorable. Any number of events, either random or willed, might have taken things in a different direction.

There is one more historical doctrine I need to add to the tool kit before proceeding, which is the conflation of History and memory. History, as Carl Becker famously observed, is not the events of the past; it is, rather, "the memory of things said and done" (emphasis added). Some things we forget, or choose to forget, and some things we remember, or choose to remember. What we remember, we arrange into meaningful patterns that are the basis of judgment and identity. At the beginning of this talk, I chose to remember Haile Chisholm, thereby making him History. I did so because we might emulate his good judgment, and because by telling his story, we might define who we are as people of the land-grant ideal.

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The genius and resilience of the land-grant university derives from willed acts on the part of historical persons exercising agency in moments of contingency. This is not to say that external circumstances are unimportant. Earlier, you recall, I spoke of the land-grant college as emerging from the "democratic Zeitgeist of antebellum America." By this I mean, during the 1840s and 1850s, with the democratization of American public life, there arose demands for what was known as "industrial education" - that is, education for the masses, the sons and daughters of farmers and laborers.

American conceptions of industrial education differed from those institutionalized in the nations that otherwise served as academic models for the United States, those being Britain and Germany. Agricultural colleges there were focused on making better, more scientific farmers. American reformers, on the other hand, consistently propounded what they called "liberal education" for farmers and laborers - which begs the question, what the heck did they mean by "liberal education?"

Close reading convinces me that the reformers knew what they were talking about, and it corresponded rather well with the ideals propagated by Henry Newman, western civilization's wisest commentator on the idea of a university. The reformers desired to make farmers and laborers better farmers and laborers through training in specific practices, certainly. They also wished to impart to them scientific knowledge, so they would be intelligent workers, not automatons, and lifelong learners, as we would say today. The reformers went well beyond this, however, when they spoke of liberal education. They wanted farmers and laborers not only to produce more but also to live better. Farmers and laborers should live fulfilling personal lives, through the understanding of nature, books, and art, and they should lead responsible public lives, able to read critically, speak effectively, and exercise judgment.

This was well and good, but nevertheless limited in scope, for the proponents of industrial education never quite grasped the ideas of equality of opportunity and advancement by merit that were coming to characterize America the way Tocqueville described it. They spoke of "appropriate" liberal education for farmers and laborers, as though such education should be different for them than for gentlemen, should not attempt to incorporate options beyond the social station of the students. Industrial education so envisioned was constrained by stubborn conceptions of social class hierarchy.

Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont brooked no such constraint. Did I mention, by the way, that he was the son of a blacksmith? Morrill proposed colleges for the sons and daughters of farmers and laborers, but he did not propose to train happy workers content with their stations in life. He embraced what one historian has called the "culture of aspiration" that would transform American higher education. The first thing, as Morrill saw it, was to let the students into college; the second was to let them study any darned thing they wanted, whether liberal or practical. And because existing colleges had only the liberal and not the practical, make sure that matters agricultural, mechanical, and military had prominent and respected places in these new colleges of democracy.

It is an initial condition of the highest significance that Senator Morrill conceived a mission for the land-grant colleges that was one of empowerment and aspiration, rather than constraint and hierarchy. This was, however, but the first of several points of contingency whereby historical actors exercised agency to shape the development of the land-grant university, and specifically the land-grant university as manifest on the Great Plains.

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Significant moments of contingency for the land-grant universities transpired again in the years following the Second World War, with two circumstances posing challenges. First, there was the advent of mass education, meeting pent-up demand and rising aspirations. The veterans availing themselves of the educational benefits of the GI Bill were but the advance guard of a larger legion - their children, the Baby Boomers. This prompted accommodations by the land-grant colleges, and by "accommodations" I do not refer only to the Quonsets they installed on their campuses to house people and programs. (I love Quonsets, by the way, and revere them for their historic functionality, but for some reason, modern university presidents just hate them.) More important, the land-grants generated an impressive array of programs, across the disciplines, and including graduate programs, to serve their eager constituents.

The other challenging development at the same time was the rise of the modern research university, and the land-grants differed in their response to this challenge. The Cold War and industrial capitalism, together and separately, posed research and development imperatives that were best met in a democracy by research universities. Most of the Great Plains land-grants, although not necessarily expeditious about expanding beyond their traditional strength in agriculture, entered into the transition fairly readily. The great exceptions, regionally and nationally, were the so-called Baby Land-Grants of the northern plains - North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana.

Policymakers in these three states, assessing prospects, foreseeing demographic and economic decline, and feeling a need to tighten their belts, were reluctant to participate in the proliferation of graduate programs, the investment in research infrastructure, and the overall expansion of higher education. This constituted a deliberate choice to practice retrenchment rather than become competitive.

That choice had consequences in the manner of self-fulfilling prophecy. The states of the Northern Plains possessed impressive political clout. Whatever they asked for, they got: military bases, agricultural commodity programs, transportation expenditures, infrastructure of all kinds. What they could not ask for, and therefore did not receive, was R & D money. They had no research universities to make use of it.

This failure of imagination is the unacknowledged shortfall of leadership on the Northern Plains in the second half of the 20th century. It is only in the past decade that we have closed the gap toward the establishment of modern research universities up and down the Plains.

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Thus the record of the Great Plains land-grants, although overall exhibiting good resilience, is checkered, and once again, they face a moment of significant contingency. In the early years of the 21st century, circumstances are opportune for the general redevelopment of the Great Plains. These transformative circumstances are most pronounced in North Dakota, the state which previous to the current era saw the most severe economic and demographic decline, but they obtain to a promising extent throughout the Great Plains as a region. These are the four pillars of regional redevelopment:

1. Long-term prosperity for agriculture. Increased demand due to higher standards
of living in much of the world, particularly on the Asian Pacific rim, has elevated
commodity prices, including agricultural commodity prices, to a new plateau.

2. Intensive development in the energy sector, particularly petroleum. With current
technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, and with additional
technological advances certain, the production potential of known formations is huge,
and that of formations as yet assessed is literally unfathomable.

3. An established and burgeoning knowledge industry. Both public and private initiatives
>have leapfrogged the Northern Plains into an enviable position for R and D and for intellectual
leadership. This element in regional redevelopment requires assiduous attention, but as a
regional driver it is just as potent as food and energy.

4. For the first time in a century, a positive brand. Positive developments are piling up
capital on the Northern Plains. This is a startling transformation that has captured the
attention, not to say envy, of commentators across the country.

The question now is, have we the perspicacity, the initiative, and the commitment to channel these advantages into the greater consummation of the vision of Justin Smith Morrill. Sensing the rising tide of democratic expectations in his time, Morrill raised his own sights even higher, deploying distinctively American institutions of higher education both to answer and to elevate the culture of aspiration. This was leadership of a visionary and foundational sort.

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.