The idea of a national university – a legitimate institution of higher education in which students receive a non-secular education in liberal arts and have taught how to be citizens committed – has emerged again and again during the history of the United States, often in times of deep division and social upheaval. One of those moments is now. Survey after survey has shown that political and social differences in the country are growing, to the point where Democrats and Republicans no longer agree on the basic facts Falling couple with widespread dissatisfaction with higher education: rising college costs and bulging student debt (almost $ 30,000 for the average student, according to a new report from the Institute for College Access and Success) -and the kind of environment that generates arguments for a national university begins to take shape. The question is, why not?
The answer may be rooted in what the national university would look like and why institution failed in the first place. The initial plans for the institution were diverse, but united by the notion that the main objective of the university would be civic education: to teach young men how to make democracy. But how to achieve that goal varied, says George Thomas, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, whose book The Founders and the Idea of a National University, examines the intellectual history of the concept.
Perhaps the national university, argued some of the early advocates, should be a sort of completion school for future leaders, where each state would send its best students to be educated, regardless of family wealth. Or maybe as suggested by Joel Barlow, one of the first US ambassadors in France, the national university could serve as the flagship of a larger system that would oversee state universities and grammar schools, and it would even produce the textbooks used by the students. Some of the plans even included structures on how leadership would be designated: a university president appointed by the president of the United States who would be confirmed by the Senate.
The idea that a downward system so closely linked to the federal government could quickly become a propaganda machine if left in the wrong hands is easily lost in all this. "It can be problematic if politicians and government entities are interfering in academic matters where they do not have the experience," says Sorber. "We want knowledge to be driven by the best ideas, not by political calculation."
The War of 1812 saw a renewed boost for a national university, and West Point, which was founded a decade earlier, emerged as the elite training ground for military leaders. Then there was the Civil War, and the three presidents immediately after the war advocated a national university. In fact, there was legislation proposed in Congress, while the National Education Association commissioned a report led by Harvard president Charles Eliot to examine the idea. (Eliot suggested that there was already a national university waiting: Harvard)