The Role of Higher Education, Optimism, Purpose and Science in Shaping Our Future

Last week, while researching the history of innovation, I stumbled across a reference to the role the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 and 1890 played in elevating the standard of living in America.  I was not familiar with it.  Seems the act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, and it was a groundbreaking piece of legislation that permanently altered the American educational and economic landscape. 

It was the vision of Vermont Congressman Justin Smith Morrill, and supported by a broad coalition of lawmakers.  The Act aimed to democratize access to higher education and promote practical scientific research. The Morrill Land-Grant Act significantly contributed to the improvement of the American standard of living, a testament to the foresight of its proponents.

In the United States we have a long tradition of being very sceptical of government involvement in just about everything, but the Morrill Land-Grant Act stands as a powerful example of how we can use foresight, optimism and vision to unite our efforts for the purpose of improving our future, and our standard of living.  

Justin Smith Morrill, envisioned a more democratized system of higher education. Coming from a poor background, Morrill believed strongly in the idea of self-improvement and saw education as a means of social mobility. Morrill and other supporters of the Act sought to broaden access to higher education beyond the privileged elite, enabling more Americans to gain the skills necessary for success in an increasingly industrialized society.

The Act's supporters were also motivated by a desire to stimulate practical scientific research. The Act specifically mandated the teaching of agriculture and mechanical arts (engineering) in addition to classical studies, reflecting the belief in the transformative potential of applied science.

The Morrill Land-Grant Act enhanced the standard of living for millions of Americans over the decades in several significant ways. 
  1. By providing federal lands to states to fund the establishment of public colleges, the Act democratized access to higher education. Today, there are 112 land-grant institutions that collectively enroll between one and two million students each year, and since its inception has graduated tens of millions. 
  2. The Act promoted research and innovation, particularly in agriculture and engineering. The agricultural experiment stations, for instance, significantly increased agricultural productivity, leading to a more abundant and cheaper food supply, a crucial factor in improving the standard of living.
  3. The Morrill Act spurred economic development at local, state, and national levels. As major employers and centers of innovation, universities have a substantial impact on their local economies. A 2019 report from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities found that these institutions contributed over $2.8 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017 alone, supporting more than 17.5 million jobs.
  4. The investment in applied sciences is foundational to economic growth and innovation which drives improvements in our standard of living.
  5. The Morrill Act has facilitated social mobility by providing affordable higher education to a broad range of citizens. A 2017 study from The Equality of Opportunity Project found that students who attend land-grant universities are more likely to move up in income class after graduation, reflecting the Act's original vision of education as a means of social mobility.
The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 significantly improved the standard of living in America, demonstrating the enduring power of its creators' optimism and vision. By democratizing access to higher education, promoting research and innovation, spurring economic development, and fostering social mobility, this landmark legislation has had a lasting and profound impact on American society.

*I use generative AI in all my work.
Kevin Benedict
Futurist at TCS
View my profile on LinkedIn
Follow me on Twitter @krbenedict
Join the Linkedin Group Digital Intelligence

***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.

No comments:

Interviews with Kevin Benedict