the spread of colleges across america -- 12/12/17

Today's selection -- from Divided Highways by Tom Lewis. The America of the 1800s was exploding in size and wealth but lacked the trained engineers to keep this momentum. The federal government came to the rescue with "land-grant colleges," which blossomed across the country. One beneficiary was Thomas MacDonald, the "founding father" of America's early system of roads:

"The man who created the interstate routes did as much as Henry Ford or Alfred Sloan to put America on wheels. He funneled billions of federal dollars to the forty-eight states to build roads. His momentous decisions transformed the American landscape and affected the daily lives and movements of almost every citizen. Yet few in America in 1926 knew his name or even his office; today, almost no one does. He was Thomas Harris MacDonald, chief of the Federal Bureau of Public Roads. ...

"The foresight of a conservative Republican congressman who had quit school at age fifteen enabled Thomas MacDonald and thousands like him to attend college. In 1862, Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont introduced a bill granting public lands in each state for the 'endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college ... to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.' The Senate approved the measure, and President Lin­coln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act into law. In 1890, Congress passed a second Morrill Act (the octogenarian Vermonter, now serving in the Senate, knew nothing of term limits). It provided money to col­leges and universities, the first federal aid for education.

"As a result of Morrill's act, western American states in the closing years of the nineteenth century blossomed with agricultural and tech­nical colleges. They were past due. Prior to 1862, there were just six schools of engineering in the United States -- including those at the military academy at West Point, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Havard, Yale, and MIT. By 1872, there were seventy, most in land-grant colleges, opening opportunities for people like Thomas MacDonald who likely would not have ever considered attending a traditional college or university. Armed with a practical degree, many went on to careers
in American industry, producing petroleum, steel, and of course auto­mobiles. Still others built modern America's great civil engineering works -- its bridges, skyscrapers, subways, tunnels, and roads.

Justin Smith Morrill

"The Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts at Ames, established in 1868, testified to Justin Smith Morrill's vision. While the col­lege stressed the mechanic arts, it also took care to include the 'other scien­tific and classical studies,' as stipulated by the Land Grant Act. In addition to physics, chemistry, mathematics, and civil engineering, (twenty-nine courses), the curriculum also demanded four terms of English and two each of Latin, military science, and library. MacDonald's grades hovered about 3.85 on a 4-point scale, more than enough to qualify him for honors.

"At Iowa State, MacDonald fell under the tutelage of the school's dean, Anson Marston, who taught courses in road building and was an early and important advocate of the 'good roads' movement.

"Thomas Harris MacDonald regarded road building as something more than a mere livelihood; it was a calling of higher moral purpose. 'Next to the education of the child,' he wrote, road building ranked as 'the greatest public responsibility.' It contributed to the common good and did more to increase the 'possibilities of enjoyment and happiness of life than any other public undertaking.'



Tom Lewis


Divided Highways


Copyright 2013 by Tom Lewis


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