Chillin’ with Justin and Abe

04-28-2012

The weather turned chilly as our students hustled to attend final classes this week, readying for exams and, for many, graduation. I was among many folks who still managed to stop by the Rock on Farm Lane to celebrate another landmark we at MSU venerate, the Morrill “land-grant” Act. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law July 2, 1862, but we wanted to “fete and treat” before so many take their leave.

Despite the temperature, we had lots of takers for “Morrill Mint Madness,” a new limited-edition ice cream created by our friends at the MSU Dairy Store. The 19th-century–look T-shirts we also handed out went like hotcakes—it never hurts to wear another layer, and who wouldn’t want to look like those two historic gents who demonstrated to us that history needn’t be stuffy?

Congressman Justin Morrill and Abraham Lincoln represent the best-known of those visionaries who created America’s grand system of land-grant colleges, throwing open the doors of higher education to the common citizen. As a means of popular empowerment it was revolutionary—no less than the Internet today—and it put critical resources behind the vision of MSU’s own founders here in Michigan.

 The Morrill Act was the first national movement to fund higher education in recognition of its pivotal role in economic competitiveness and prosperity. America’s frontier as our founders knew it is gone, but they understood that knowledge discovery was, is, and will always be the final frontier. Land-grant universities continue to blaze our most important route to this frontier.

The Rock was an appropriate place to remind ourselves that the land-grant act was part of the bedrock on which America built its global leadership, developing erecting a higher education system that today is the model for a world working furiously to compete against us. When we talk today about the need to promote innovation, remember it was Justin Morrill who first framed land grant in terms of national competitiveness. On the floor of the House of Representatives, he argued in 1858: “We owe it to ourselves not to become a weak competitor in the most important field where we are to meet the world as rivals.”

He spoke of agriculture at that moment, but proponents also recognized that the “mechanic arts” would play an increasing role. (President Lincoln himself was an inventor.)

Today our world is even more competitive than in Lincoln’s and Morrill’s day, and the mission and values of land grant remain just as relevant. Our tools have improved and the scope of our vision now transcends state and national boundaries, something I’ve written about as the World Grant Ideal.

For more information about the Morrill Act and upcoming events, including a celebration on the National Mall this summer that includes a program developed by MSU Museum curator Kurt Dewhurst, visit msu.edu/morrill-celebration.

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