With all the recent attacks on higher education in the United States, perhaps most noticeably in funding cuts to public universities, one has to wonder how Americans created and supported our great universities in the first place. How was it that settlers in a state like Texas, who were profoundly skeptical of government and intellectual elitism, committed their land and treasure to creating a “university of the first class”? How was it that a generation of Americans who generally did not have a college education decided to give unprecedented funding to public and private universities after the Second World War? Why did high-quality research and teaching universities appeal to veterans of the frontier, the Great Depression and the Second World War?
We can eliminate one possible answer. The founders and supporters of our great universities did not want trade schools. That was the purpose of the public high school – another innovation of American reformers after the Civil War. Public high schools were designed, particularly in growing cities, to provide young citizens with the skills and the discipline to work in factories, farms, stores and offices. They emphasized basic math, literacy and work with one’s hands. They took kids off the streets and trained them to be punctual, orderly and patriotic. The public high school created a large and reliable industrial American working class that also won two world wars.
Universities were always about something different. The settlers in Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan and other states who created these institutions on the frontier wanted to better themselves and later generations. They aspired for freedom, for profit and for “civilization.” The early public universities taught Shakespeare to farmers who wanted to speak and write as well as the most sophisticated thinkers of their time. And they did just that. You can see it in their correspondence and their laws. The early public universities also taught history to immigrant workers who wanted to understand the origins of their new society and devote themselves to its future growth and prosperity. And they did just that. You can see it in the ways they named their new towns and streets after presidents and how they revered inherited documents, especially the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The purpose of the university was always to make citizens much more than workers. It was to help them become leaders, creators and full participants in a vibrant democracy. That is why during the two most difficult wars in American history, the Civil War and the Second World War, the United States passed legislation (the Morrill Act and the GI Bill) to give returning veterans more college opportunities. Those who served in war had jobs waiting for them, but they had fought for something beyond a good wage. They fought to make a new future for themselves — something repressive governments would never allow. A free society encouraged loyal and talented people to define meaning beyond a job.
Democracy is about the pursuit of happiness, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, and the deep learning at universities offered veterans, farmers, laborers, immigrants and former slaves the opportunity to define their own voices and find their own passions. The voices and passions formed in universities inspired the ideas, the discoveries and the technologies – from civil rights to antibiotics to social media – that contributed so much to American greatness. The humanists and scientists who pioneered these innovations pursued much more than just a job. If a job was all they wanted, and all that American universities allowed, they would have simply collected their paychecks and left the world as it is. America has been different because our scholars and students have consistently changed the world through our universities. The pursuit of deep learning, original research and personal discovery has made us a society of innovators like none other the world has ever seen. There have always been less free and less prosperous places with lots of jobs. With less ambitious universities we can become just like everyone else.
Of course, we do not want to be like everyone else. We want to continue our unique history of leadership and innovation. And that requires universities that emphasize those qualities above all else. If we devalue deeper inquiry and convert our universities into vocational high schools, then we will have jobs that contribute to a stagnant society, not a growing democracy.
Beyond the support universities need from the public, they require their students and faculty to keep faith with their larger purpose. We are fortunate to have access to the incredible knowledge available on our campus, and we jeopardize that legacy if we do not further its continued growth and expansion. Everything we do at the University must prioritize research to create new knowledge and teaching to transfer that knowledge to new generations. That is why we are here. We are indeed the repository of the best in American civilization. We must make sure we live up to that legacy, otherwise no one else will.
Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.