Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/October 1873/A National University

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I TURN next to my third topic, the true policy of our government as regards university instruction. In almost all the writings about a nation's university, and of course in the two Senate bills now under discussion, there will be found the implication, if not the express assertion, that it is somehow the duty of our government to maintain a magnificent university. This assumption is the foundation upon which rest the ambitious projects before us, and many similar schemes. Let me try to demonstrate that the foundation is itself unsound.

The general notion that a beneficent government should provide and control an elaborate organization for teaching, just as it maintains an army, a navy, or a post office, is of European origin, being a legitimate corollary to the theory of government by divine right. It is said that the state is a person having a conscience and a moral responsibility; that the government is the visible representative of a people's civilization, and the guardian of its honor and its morals, and should be the embodiment of all that is high and good in the people's character and aspirations. This moral person, this corporate representative of a Christian nation, has high duties and functions commensurate with its great powers, and none more imperative than that of diffusing knowledge and advancing science.

I desire to state this argument for the conduct of high educational institutions by government, as a matter of abstract duty, with all the force which belongs to it; for, under an endless variety of thin disguises, and with all sorts of amplifications and dilutions, it is a staple commodity with writers upon the relation of government to education. The conception of government upon which this argument is based is obsolescent everywhere. In a free community the government does not hold this parental, or patriarchal—I should better say godlike––position. Our government is a group of servants appointed to do certain difficult and important work. It is not the guardian of the nation's morals; it does not necessarily represent the best virtue of the republic, and is not responsible for the national character, being itself one of the products of that character. The doctrine of state personality and conscience, and the whole argument of the dignity and moral elevation of a Christian nation's government as the basis of government duties, are natural enough under grace-of-God governments, but they find no ground of practical application to modern republican confederations; they have no bearing on governments considered as purely human agencies with defined powers and limited responsibilities. Moreover, for most Americans these arguments prove a great deal too much; for, if they have the least tendency to persuade us that government should direct any part of secular education, with how much greater force do they apply to the conduct by government of the religious education of the people! These propositions are, indeed, the main arguments for an established church. Religion is the supreme human interest, government is the supreme human organization; therefore, government ought to take care for religion, and a Christian government should maintain distinctively Christian religious institutions. This is not theory alone; it is the practice of all Christendom, except in America and Switzerland. Now, we do not admit it to be our duty to establish a national church. We believe not only that our people are more religious than many nations which have established churches, but also that they are far more religious under their own voluntary system than they would be under any government establishment of religion. We do not admit for a moment that establishment or no establishment is synonymous with national piety or impiety. Now, if a beneficent Christian government may rightly leave the people to provide themselves with religious institutions, surely it may leave them to provide suitable universities for the education of their youth. And here again the question of national university or no national university is by no means synonymous with the question, Shall the country have good university education or not? The only question is, Shall we have a university supported and controlled by government, or shall we continue to rely upon universities supported and controlled by other agencies?

There is, then, no foundation whatever for the assumption that it is the duty of our government to establish a national university. I venture to state one broad reason why our government should not establish and maintain a university. If the people of the United States have any special destiny, any peculiar function in the world, it is to try to work out under extraordinarily favorable circumstances the problem of free institutions for a heterogeneous, rich, multitudinous population, spread over a vast territory. We, indeed, want to breed scholars, artists, poets, historians, novelists, engineers, physicians, jurists, theologians, and orators; but, first of all, we want to breed a race of independent, self-reliant freemen, capable of helping, guiding, and governing themselves. Now, the habit of being helped by the government, even if it be to things good in themselves—to churches, universities, and railroads—is a most insidious and irresistible enemy of republicanism; for the very essence of republicanism is self-reliance. With the Continental nations of Europe it is an axiom that the government is to do every thing, and is responsible for every thing. The French have no word for "public spirit," for the reason that the sentiment is unknown to them. This abject dependence on the government is an accursed inheritance from the days of the divine right of kings. Americans, on the contrary, maintain precisely the opposite theory—namely, that government is to do nothing not expressly assigned it to do, that it is to perform no function which any private agency can perform as well, and that it is not to do a public good even, unless that good be otherwise unattainable. It is hardly too much to say that this doctrine is the foundation of our public liberty. So long as the people are really free they will maintain it in theory and in practice. During the war of the rebellion we got accustomed to seeing the government spend vast sums of money and put forth vast efforts, and we asked ourselves, Why should not some of these great resources and powers be applied to works of peace, to creation as well as to destruction? So we subsidized railroads and steamship companies, and agricultural colleges, and now it is proposed to subsidize a university. The fatal objection to this subsidizing process is that it saps the foundations of public liberty. The only adequate securities of public liberty are the national habits, traditions, and character, acquired and accumulated in the practice of liberty and selfcontrol. Interrupt these traditions, break up these habits or cultivate the opposite ones, or poison that national character, and public liberty will suddenly be found defenceless. We deceive ourselves dangerously when we think or speak as if education, whether primary or university, could guarantee republican institutions. Education can do no such thing. A republican people should, indeed, be educated and intelligent; but it by no means follows that an educated and intelligent people will be republican. Do I seem to conjure up imaginary evils to follow from this beneficent establishment of a superb national university? We teachers should be the last people to forget the sound advice—obsta principiis. A drop of water will put out a spark which otherwise would have kindled a conflagration that rivers could not quench.

Let us cling fast to the genuine American method—the old Massachusetts method—in the matter of public instruction. The essential features of that system are local taxes for universal elementary education voted by the citizens themselves, local elective boards to spend the money raised by taxation and control the schools, and for the higher grades of instruction permanent endowments administered by incorporated bodies of trustees. This is the American voluntary system, in sharp contrast with the military, despotic organization of public instruction which prevails in Prussia and most other states of Continental Europe. Both systems have peculiar advantages, the crowning advantage of the American method being that it breeds freemen. Our ancestors well understood the principle that, to make a people free and self-reliant, it is necessary to let them take care of themselves, even if they do not take quite as good care of themselves as some superior power might.

And now, finally, let us ask what should make a university at the capital of the United States, established and supported by the General Government, more national than any other American university. It might be larger and richer than any other, and it might not be; but certainly it could not have a monopoly of patriotism or of catholicity, or of literary or scientific enthusiasm. There are an attractive comprehensiveness and a suggestion of public spirit and love of country in the term "national;" but, after all, the adjective only narrows and belittles the noble conception contained in the word "university." Letters, science, art, philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, are larger and more enduring than nations. There is something childish in this uneasy hankering for a big university in America, as there is also in that impatient longing for a distinctive American literature which we so often hear expressed. As American life grows more various and richer in sentiment, passion, thought, and accumulated experience, American literature will become richer and more abounding, and in that better day let us hope that there will be found several universities in America, though by no means one in each State, as free, liberal, rich, national, and glorious, as the warmest advocate of a single crowning university at the national capital could imagine his desired institution to become.

  1. Closing argument of a report by President Eliot to the National Educational Association at its recent session in Elmira. The first part of the report gives an account of what had been done by the Association about the project of a national university since 1869; and the second part examines the two bills on the subject which were brought before Congress in 1872.