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The real promise
of land grant institutions

by Carol Kapaun Ratchenski
photos courtesy of NDSU Archives

W. A. Peck – alfalfa Demonstration 1913
The alfalfa on the right was grown according to Mr. Peck's directions, while that on the left was put in by the farmer according to his ideas.

When my son was four years old and into his early days of elementary school he wanted to be a professional football player, a farmer and a poet. It was his standard answer to the silly, cliché question. “So Adam, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Perhaps understandable as interests he saw each of his parents relish, but I think it held a deeper meaning as well. It did not feel incongruous to him. That is, it made sense to be an athlete and to create something beautiful with rhyme and meter and to grow things. He could hold all of this at once inside his small person and his big imagination.

If the world would later tell him that tight ends aren’t poets and farmers don’t care about meter and rhyme, it wouldn’t come from me.

Life may ask us to decide on a major or pick a career path, but that doesn’t change the nature of humanity — that we can and do value and honor and practice many things. Perhaps it is even a wiser and broader perspective that can hold more than one love, more than one lens through which to see this complex world, its questions and its gifts.

This indeed is the promise and the contribution of land grant colleges and universities. Established in 1862 by Vermont Senator Justin Smith Morrill and signed into bill by President Lincoln, the Morrill Act changed the face of higher education and in turn the character, opportunity and possibility of this country.

Prior to 1862 higher education was the privilege of east coast upper class white males. The 90 percent of Americans involved in agriculture did not go to school past some primary or secondary country schooling. After the civil war, Morrill and others became committed to making higher education available to rural populations and the growing American middle class, who were facing an increasingly industrial world.

Hundreds of colleges and universities and more than twenty-two million college graduates are the result. Morrill, who served in Congress under eleven different U.S. presidents, is responsible for the democratization of education in this country. Farmers and mechanics, the land grant ideal holds, live wiser, richer and more productive lives when they also study music and literature. Liberal arts and science and technology not only coexist in the land grant ideal, they dance, they complement, they evolve together and together create a stronger society. »

A 19th century idea with 21st century impact, still today, land grant institutions seek to create citizens, not just workers, not just thinkers or artists, but all that, in each person. True, education benefits individuals and can guide their decisions professionally and personally, but land grant colleges aim for more than that, expecting graduates to contribute to their communities, to the people around them and to the world.

Making higher education accessible and affordable has been an enduring legacy of the Morrill Act, also the education of generations of students who have joined the working world as thinkers and problem solvers, and engaged citizens.

In her February 18, 2015, article in the Washington Post, Loretta Jackson-Hayes, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Rhodes College says, “If American STEM grads are going to lead the world in innovation, then their science education cannot be divorced from the liberal arts. Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. Leonardo’s curiosity and passion for painting, writing, engineering and biology helped him triumph in both art and science; his study of anatomy and dissections of corpses enabled his incredible drawings of the human figure.”

Haile Chisholm, a blacksmith instructor at North Dakota State from 1902 to 1937, was also a poet. Chisholm insisted that his ironwork was no mere utilitarian pursuit, rather a matter of artistic fulfillment. Among his papers, archived at NDSU, is his statement that, “I have never regretted a dollar spent for loveliness.”

Fast forward to this century and the ongoing conversation surrounding the lack of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates nationwide, while concurrently nearly half of all scientists and engineers in the American workforce are nearing retirement age. Barry Batcheller, in an essay in the Fall 2013 issue of this magazine, cited that only 4.4 percent of U.S. born undergraduates are enrolled in STEM programs even though the U.S. expects a shortage of almost a quarter million high-tech workers by 2018.

In a February 2015 Huffington Post article, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, credits her degree in philosophy and medieval history in helping her become the first woman to lead a high-tech Fortune 50 corporation. The land grant philosophy is alive and well, with modern clothes and start-up energy. Quoted in the same article, Cornell University President David J. Skorton points out that scientists of all discipline require education in the humanities and arts, partly because, “We need the skill to communicate to nonscientists what we do and why it’s important.” Today workers in virtually every field need to apply cross-disciplinary thinking to an incredibly complex world.

NDSU is a land grant institution and its citizenry exemplify Morrill’s vision as well as the 21st century conversation that places high value on and seeks well-rounded scholars and citizens. Like the dreams in the hearts of five-year-olds remind us — it is possible to love many things, to be in many conversations, to have many aspects of our human selves alive and active in one lifetime.

May our children answer our silly question with their minds and hearts wide open. “I want to be a ballerina and a doctor.” “I want to be a farmer and a pastor.” “I want to be an architect and a rock and roll singer.” “I want to be a biologist and a cartoonist.” “I want to be a chef and a computer scientist.”

Let’s assure them that that is exactly what the world needs from them.

archive photos of alfalfa demonstration

Left to right:  Stage Band, 1974; Dancers, 1928; Drawing class, 1960

archive photos of alfalfa demonstration

Left to right:  Paint laboratory, 1950s; End of a race on Dacotah Field, Oct. 5, 1924

archive photo of Bison Brevities

Bison Brevities, 1960s

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