Our Debt to the Future

I am fortunate to work at an institution that is proud of its status as the pioneering land-grant institution in the United States. But that status, like the word pioneering itself, is not without a troubling history.

I am proud that my institution and its leaders embrace a mission to democratize access to education and to bring the benefits of learning to people living not only in Michigan but around the world. We are working hard to address disparities in access that make it much harder for some to realize the benefits of a university education.

But it is important to remember that our institution and others like it are responsible for those disparities. Not incidentally, but directly.

Land grant colleges in the U.S. were established by the Morrill Act, passed in 1862. The Civil War ended three years later. The act awarded land to the states to establish universities, declaring that:

“each State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

Accounts of the political climate in which the Morrill Act was conceived and passed often note that the ‘Jacksonian Revolution’ played a role in its eventual acceptance. Originally vetoed by President James Buchanan, the act was passed under President Abraham Lincoln in an era of heightened populism that put pressure on an elite institutional culture that carried over from the colonial period. Lincoln’s own political reputation was thought to benefit from this movement to create opportunity for ordinary citizens where, before, only landed elite members of society were welcomed.

Morrill Act of 1862
Morrill Act of 1862

But we were very much a divided nation in 1862. Not only North and South, but in many other ways as well. Not everyone would be allowed to enjoy the “higher and broader education” that Senator Justin Morrill foresaw. Morrill’s vision, however noble, also suited the colonial project to settle the lands of the United States and to do so to both the exclusion of enslaved people and the continued marginalization of indigenous peoples upon whose lands the new universities would be built.

In an 1887 speech, Morrill recounted the intent of the law:

…a higher and broader education should be placed in every State within the reach of those whose destiny assigns them to or who may have the courage to choose industrial vocations where the wealth of nations is produced; where advanced civilization unfolds its comforts, and where a much larger number of the people need wider educational advantages, and impatiently await their possession…

At the time of the Morrill Act’s passing, our country was at war over just this question — who should be worthy of such a destiny? And by the time Morrill spoke these words in 1887, we were in the thick of sorting out what new limits on the virtues of freedom would or would not mark our reconstruction from that civil war.

It would be a little more than one hundred years later that Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking at Manchester College, would explicate the legacy of land grant colleges as a key part of the U.S. colonial project. He did so in a powerful speech made just two months before his assassination. In it, Dr. King declares economic justice the next significant challenge for the civil rights movement, describing the structural barriers to progress not just for black people, but for our democracy. He warned that our founding principles were at stake should we fail to address conditions that ensure disparate access to the promises of the American dream.

In one of several speeches on a familiar theme for Dr. King — The Future of Integration — he declared that our nation owes a “debt to the future.” What resonates with me as I re-read his words is just how squarely that debt falls on the shoulders of institutions like the one where I work. It is a debt that goes unpaid yet today.

Martin Luther King Jr. at MSU in 1965
Martin Luther King Jr. at MSU in 1965
Negroes were freed from the bondage of physical slavery in 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation. The thing that so many people forget is that the Negro wasn’t given any land to make that emancipation meaningful; he wasn’t given any money or any thing. He had been in slavery for 244 years and then a document stated he was now free and that’s all. It is almost like keeping a man in prison for many years and suddenly discovering that he unjustly was convicted and saying now you are free, but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town, you don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back, or to get started in life again. Every jury of jurisprudence would rise up against this, yet, this is exactly what Americans did to the Negro. It said you are free, but it left him there penniless, illiterate. Frederick Douglas talked about 40 acres and a mule and the nation refused to do that.
But the interesting thing about this, and the tragic thing about this is this: At the very same time that America refused to give the black man any land to make his freedom meaningful, through an act of Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.
They not only billed to give the land, but also built land-grant colleges through the same act of Congress, allowed the states to build them, and thus taught the people how to farm. Not only that, it provided country agents to deepen the expertise in farming and when it came to the point where they wanted to mechanize the farms, the government provided low-interest rates so they could mechanize the farms. Today, many of these people are getting millions and millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and so often these are many of the very people who tell the Negro that he should lift himself by his own bootstraps. The fact is nobody, no ethic group, has totally lifted itself by his own bootstrap.

I know that many of us may not be used to thinking of our great public research universities in this way. We don’t think of them as occupying land once populated by indigenous people whose knowledge of how to care for it, and how to garner nourishment from it we sought to recreate for a new scientific era. We don’t think of them as part of a nation-building enterprise open exclusively to white settlers who, having recently been granted free or deeply discounted lands, were “impatient to possess” the skills to transform the bounty of raw resources into wealth and prosperity. We don’t think of these institutions as creating the structural disparities that many of these same schools now aim to remedy in their missions, policies, and curricula.

But this is our history. This is our debt to the future. It is still unpaid.

Dr. King, as he was known to do, left the crowd at Manchester with a note of hope. He said “These problems can be solved…the question is whether the nation has the will” to solve them, or whether we will see other issues as more important, more deserving of our nation’s vast and growing wealth, power, and energy.

This is a question that resonates with me deeply as I go about my work at Michigan State University. I feel especially fortunate to work in an institution whose charter and mission contain within it the means to change things for the better if we — those charged with its care and operation — have the will. Universities are places of learning. This means that we expect to confront our past and learn from it. To see in the aftermath of a mistake an opportunity to improve. We do this as a matter of routine in the pursuit of creating and sharing knowledge. At our best, we cultivate habits of inclusion.

And, like Dr. King on that day in February at Manchester, we are surrounded by something that gives us hope for the future: our students. We see in them a chance to form a new legacy of inclusion, holding ourselves to a higher purpose embedded in the substance of our founders’ vision: to make higher and broader education widely available to all people. Dr. King spoke of the source of his optimism

Let me say to you the one thing that gives me new hope as I journey around the country is that over and over again I get the opportunity to talk with students, and I see a new quality within this student generation…They’ve come to see that America must undergo a revolution of values in order to get its priorities, its purposes, and its policies right and so this is the thing that gives new hope to me in the midst of the war.

I too take heart from the qualities I see in the current generation of students. But their success in crafting an inclusive society is far from guaranteed. We must invest in them — our resources, our time, our energy, our care — if we want those priorities to shift. We must pay our debt to the future.

*Photo Credits: MSU Archives & United States National Archives