The Life of the Land Grant Act

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Research Question:

How did advocates of the Morrill Land Grant Act envision its goals in the 1860s, and how have historians interpreted its outcomes over a century later?


2012 marked the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land Grant Act prompting many historians, policy makers, education reformers and higher education administrators to reflect upon the role and mission of Land Grant Institutions which explicitly were aimed at creating non-elite colleges where members of the working classes could obtain a practical and liberal education. The Morrill Act gave federal land to fund colleges in each state with the distinct purpose of

without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, 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.

At the time the Act was established farmers were the majority of the nation but now they constitute less than two percent of the United States labor force. As our population has become urbanized and suburbanized and as our workforce has become corporatized and industrialized have these institutions changed their mission in remaining the “people’s universities”? Is it necessary for them to revisit their original purpose? How do land grant universities fit into our new technology dependent global society? Funding for these universities is declining and on its sesquicentennial anniversary and moving forward land grant universities are reevaluating their futures, but to look forward, one must first look back.

Research Process:

While researching the role of higher education in civic engagement and civic education for a project last year I kept coming across mentions of the Morrill Land Grant Act.  I knew very little about the Act and the impact it had on education and society as a whole. During the course of this project I learned the bare minimum about the Act primarily from Wikipedia. I have continued to wonder though about the Morrill Act though and how it fits into today’s educational funding debates. This research project thus felt like the perfect opportunity to further my inquiry into this topic. The first thing I did was email some sample questions to the Professor to see if I was heading down the right track for this assignment. Fortunately for me, he sent back an email response with more sources then I possibly could have ever needed related to the Morrill Land Grant Act.  Before beginning to sift through this site though I felt looking at the language of the original Act itself would be beneficial. Through a Google search I was able to find a scanned version of the original statute for both the 1862 and 1890 Act. Once I had read those I began the task of looking through the resources cited on the website offered by Jack. I began narrowing them down initially by the ones I had access to through Trinity and then I skimmed through the abstracts to see which were historical depictions of the Act. I then did a WorldCat search for “Morrill Land Grant Act”, “Morrill Land Grant Act” and “History”, and finally “Morrill Land Grant Act” and “150th anniversary”. I was able to find a substantial amount of relevant articles through these searches, I read a few and found the piece by Alperovitz and Howard to be particularly helpful so I looked at the bibliography for this article and was able to locate some of the pieces they cited. At this point I perhaps have too many sources. I am glad that I have a variety though- books, studies and editorial pieces. I have found that as a thesis and draft begin to come together some sources eliminate themselves and a need for further sources may arise naturally, but I feel confident with the initial list I am offering in this proposal.


Primary Sources-

Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, United States Statutes at Large 504 § 130-4 (1862). Print.

“1890act.pdf.” Accessed April 4, 2013.

Secondary Sources-

Alperovitz, Gar, and Ted Howard. “The Next Wave: Building a University Civic Engagement Service for the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 10, no. 2 (2005): 141–157.

Cross, Coy F., Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges. East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 1998.
Dailey, Christie. “Implementation of the Land-Grant Philosophy during the Early Years at Iowa Agricultural College, 1859-1890.” M.A. thesis, Iowa State University, 1982.

Eddy, Jr., Edward D. Colleges for Our Land and Time: The Land-Grant Idea in American Education (New York: Harper, 1957).

Geiger, Roger L. To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research universities, 1900-1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities.1996. Taking charge of change: Renewing the promise of state and land-grant universities. Washington, D.C.: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities.1999. Returning to our roots: The engaged institution. Washington, DC.: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities.2000. Renewing the covenant: Learning, discovery, and engagement in  a new age and different world. Washington, D.C.: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Key, Scott. “Economics or Education: The Establishment of American Land-Grant Universities,” Journal of Higher Education 67(March-April 1996).

Levine, Arthur. “The Soul of a New University,” Op Ed, New York Times (March 2000).

Marcus, Alan I., “”If All the World Were Mechanics and Farmers: American Democracy and the Formative Years of Land-Grant Colleges.” Ohio Valley History (5/1), Spring 2005: 23-37.

Pates, Mikkel. “150th Anniversary of the Morrill Act.” AG Week, June 18, 2012.

Ross, Earle D., Democracy’s College: The Land-Grant Movement in the Formative State (Ames: Iowa State College Press, 1942; New York: Arno Press, 1976).

Wechsler, Harold S., Lester F. Goodchild, and Linda Eisenmann, eds. The History of Higher Education. 3rd ed. Pearson Custom Pub, 2008.

One thought on “The Life of the Land Grant Act”

  1. Rachael,
    I’m looking forward to reading the next installment of your essay on the original vision(s) of the Land Grant colleges, and how historians have interpreted its evolution over time. To make this a more manageable Ed 300 essay, I encourage you to think carefully about those two parts, and to decide whether you wish to devote your energy equally to them, or emphasize one more than the other, which would be perfectly reasonable. For example, if you find many divergent “visions” in the 1860s, you could focus more attention on analyzing how and why different advocates came to their point of view. Or, if you find rich and divergent interpretations by historians, then it would be appropriate to concentrate more of your time on digging into this historiographical part of the question. In other words, feel free to emphasize one side of your RQ more than the other if warranted.

    While your core research question is sound, I was a bit concerned that some of your supplementary questions may lead you astray. For example: “Is it necessary for them to revisit their original purpose? How do land grant universities fit into our new technology dependent global society?” While fine to raise in a conclusion, be careful not to fall into making either of these your primary RQ.

    Good work on sources, but some are more appropriate than others, which we’ll discuss in our conversation.

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