President's Blog

Washington and higher education

I’ve been spending some time reading about how the Founding Fathers of the United States thought about higher education   (one interesting perspective on this matter is Susan Dunn’s “Dominion of Memories”).  As it turns out, Washington, who didn’t go to college, dreamed of a national university that would bring Americans together and contribute to a shared sense of national unity.  The following excerpt is by Washington himself.  And it’s priceless.

I mean education generally, as one of the surest means of enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our citizens, but particularly the establishment of a university; where the youth from all parts of the United States might receive the polish of erudition in the arts, sciences, and belles-lettres; and where those who were disposed to run a political course might not only be instructed in the theory and principles, but (this seminary being at the seat of the general government) where the legislature would be in session half the year, and the interests and politics of the nation of course would be discussed, they would lay the surest foundation for the practical part also.

But that which would render it of the highest importance, in my opinion, is, that the juvenal period of life, when friendships are formed, and habits established, that will stick by one; the youth or young men from different parts of the United States would be assembled together, and would by degrees discover that there was not that cause for those jealousies and prejudices which one part of the Union had imbibed against another part:—of course, sentiments of more liberality in the general policy of the country would result from it. What but the mixing of people from different parts of the United States during the war rubbed off these impressions? A century, in the ordinary intercourse, would not have accomplished what the seven years’ association in arms did; but that ceasing, prejudices are beginning to revive again, and never will be eradicated so effectually by any other means as the intimate intercourse of characters in early life,—who, in all probability, will be at the head of the counsels of this country in a more advanced stage of it.

It’s fair to say that Washington’s dream was for the most part accomplished, not by means of one national institution, but many.  Some of the ideas could be used today in thinking about a “global” university .