Emily B. Cyr
To the thrill of college students at Georgetown University this Thursday, 2016 presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders came to campus to explain his philosophy of Democratic-Socialism. At a school like Georgetown where the average cost of attendance for an undergraduate is $67, 420 annually, it is not hard to guess that Sanders might find a few fans for his tuition free college plan. But while people might think Sanders’ plan is radical, he is certainly not the first Senator from Vermont to propose drastic changes to higher education.
Before Sanders held his seat in the Senate, many, many years before, it was held by Justin Morrill. Born in 1810, Morrill grew up in Vermont with the aspirations of obtaining a college education, but the inability to do so. He got as much schooling as he could while working different jobs throughout New England. Fortunately, he became politically active and was elected to the House of Representatives as a Whig in 1854. It was during his time in Congress where he made history, by proposing the groundbreaking Land Grant Acts of 1862 and of 1890.
These acts are responsible for the vast network of schools now known as Land Grant schools. (Penn State, Cornell, MIT, Tennessee State, Texas A&M and the University of Kentucky are a few to name). Morrill had both personal and political reasons for expanding higher education; one namely being that this was a time of rapid industrialization in the United States. Farming techniques were lagging and Morrill saw a need for improving the sciences of agriculture and engineering. Morrill also wanted to expand education opportunities so that people like him, the son of a blacksmith, had access to an education that included practical studies as well as the liberal arts. The schools were funded through the sales of public lands, making this a huge increase in the federal government’s involvement with higher education. The bill passed in 1890 extended these benefits to African Americans, and created the 1890 schools, better known as the historically black colleges and universities.
While Morrill provided the schools, now Sanders wants to make them free. The two senators have more in common than just the higher education. Both Sanders and Morrill use Europe as an example of what they are hoping to implement. In his website platform Sanders references how Germany has made college tuition free, similar to Morrill referencing how Europe already had agriculture schools which were making them industrially superior to the United States.
Bringing a little irony to the table—the fact that Sanders does not look so radical next to Morrill, who literally transformed education from an elite privilege to a public good. The Republican making the Demo cart look conservative…who would have thought?