What Can We Learn from the History of the Struggle for a National University in the United States? Some Preliminary Notes and Questions

“The idea of a national university has one marked characteristic; it persists.” This was the observation of Edward Wesley, author of the 1936 Proposal: The University of the United States.[1] Few are aware that the first national educational effort in the United States began even before the United States constitution was ratified. In 1787 Benjamin Rush argued for a “federal university” as a means for furthering the “American Revolution,” which he saw as only just beginning with the end of the revolutionary war. And as Rush was writing while under the Articles of Confederation, the idea of a “national” or “federal” university (the former being the most common moniker) fit well into ideas that federal power should be strengthened, and state autonomy limited.

Proponents of a national university included Presidents Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Monroe, and Grant as well as Alexander Hamilton. Agitation for a national university spanned the time of Rush up through the middle of the twentieth century. The University of Virginia, George Washington University, the National Observatory, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Research Council can all be traced back to efforts to form a national university, and many of the general features of higher education in the United States were first outlined in early proposals for the national university, well before the birth of large public research universities. Even Carnegie was a supporter of the idea of a national university, although he chose instead to form the Carnegie Institution in 1901.

While Rush’s proposal and all subsequent efforts focused solely on higher education, I believe that its history might be useful in thinking politically about the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI; see the project of which this is a part) and its aim of tightly linking k12 schooling to both work and post-secondary education. It, too, is a national effort of sorts. And as a national university was championed by the leading framers of the Constitution, the CCSSI is supported by some of the most influential figures of our time: The President of the United States, some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals, and a host of commercial interests and private associations. And, like the national university, the CCSSI raises key questions about federalism and “state’s rights”. Possibly even more significant is that the “national university” never came to be, while the CCSSI is well underway, although by no means certain to develop as its architects hope.

Purpose and Scope of the “National University” Versus the CCSSI

There were five ideas that underpinned the support of a national university:

(1) There exists a strong belief in the general benefits of the wide “diffusion of knowledge”;

(2) Republican government would not succeed unless the people and their officials were properly educated;

(3) The growth of the new nation required raising the overall level of education;

(4) A national university would promote patriotism;

(5) A national university would be a powerful unifying force.

The curriculum of the national university focused on preparing attendees for civil and public life; while “commerce” was mentioned, the social and political aims of the university were dominant. Yet, its curriculum was “modern” and not “classical”, for example, eschewing Latin and Greek for French and German.

Thus there is an obvious contrast with the current emphasis on “career and college readiness” and the absence of concerns for social unity or civil and political life. And while the framers of the constitution feared the “tyranny of the majority,” the national university was geared towards the elite. The CCSSI focuses on the lower classes, and for them, a career-type college education, and little more.

Interestingly, the original idea positioned the national university as a means for selecting government officials (including presidents). By the twentieth century this political function of the university disappeared from proposals.[2]

But possibly most striking to me is the general framework used to support the national university and the role it gave to education in forming public opinion.

The general theory is captured by Washington, who in his farewell address wrote: “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened” (p. 285). What struck me is that, from the point of this theory, the reverse may also be true: in proportion as the governing structures deny the force of public opinion (govern beyond the reach of the public), public opinion does not need to be enlightened. Recent trends — including the CCSSI — certainly evidence a privatized from of governance over education and the concomitant loss of rights.

Even with the critiques that framers notions of “enlightened public opinion” were in fact forms of indoctrination, the idea that people should take up a doctrine and act as its agent still contrasts with the CCSSI tendency to render students as things. Things do not need a doctrine (an ideology or philosophy) to guide their action, hence, I believe, a reason for the elimination of everything not deemed “factual” by CCSSI architects.

The Role of Congress (Or Lack Thereof)

From the very earliest discussions of a national university, concerns were raised both about the wisdom and constitutionality of the project. Would such a project really build national unity, or in fact undermine it, as factions might seek to control the university? The “economy bloc” in Congress in the early nineteenth century was opposed to such projects because they did not want to expend the funds. But lack of action on the university plan despite its prominent supporters mostly rested with concerns about the appropriate role of central government in “national works” type programs, mixed with “parochial” and “anti-intellectual” biases. Did such efforts overstep the bounds of the federal government? Was it necessary? While railroads, bridges, and other eminently practical efforts flourished, serving the growing commercial and industrial interests, there was never to be a national university.

Reading the history, one cannot miss, from the perspective of the present, the central role and authority of Congress (it appears legislatures even read proposed legislation in the past!). The establishment of such a university rested with the authority of Congress, and that authority was recognized whether or not a constitutional amendment was required (a point of disagreement even among the Constitution’s framers).

Congressional power is ever present throughout the history of the national university in the nineteenth century. It was within and through debates in Congress that the university was blocked; and while advocates were sometime quite dejected (as were Washingon and Adams), the authority of Congress was accepted (no executive orders were used to create the institution). In the present, the CCSSI comes out of the entire Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative, absent any substantive role for Congress. Executive waivers of No Child Left Behind requirements upon state adoption of the CCSSI and other favored reforms, serve as legislative actions outside of Congress. Take together, this means legislation is enacted by an executive branch, an obvious concern from the traditional American notion of tyranny.

What is most interesting to me, however, is the way the first debates of the proposal in the legislature foreshadowed how the present initiatives is organized. “[M]many of the delegates believed that ‘this power [to establish a national university] should be exercised by the states in there separate capacity,’ i.e., that the states should join together on their own to enact a national university” (p. 282). Critics of the CCSSI are, it should be noted, skeptical that “the states” initiated the project.[3] But there is another, and to my mind, more central question. If the states should associate among themselves to pursue some common (“national”?) educational objective, would this association not stand in competition with the very foundation of the political arrangement in the first place — that is, the “United States”? Why meet as delegates to form a federal government and simultaneously propose that states join together in their “separate capacity”? Is this separate capacity at the level of the legislative, executive or judicial branch of each state? As a state, why propose an arrangement where you have to contend with two centers of power — the federal, and the one formed by states in their “separate capacity”?

Would this not increase political tensions and work against the stated aim of unification under a federal system? Does it suggest a competing federal model? I believe these questions, and the history of organizations like the National Governors Association, the CCSSO and Achieve, Inc., are worth serious attention.

Lessons of the “National University”?

In not adopting the original model of the national university, an institution for rule by an intellectual elite was rejected, although of course the notion of “natural aristocracy” would continue to guide much of American political thought. And as for national unity, would a national university have prevented the Civil War? “Certainly West Point made Robert E. Lee no less a Virginian,” argues Castel, “or Jefferson Davis no less a Southerner; and that very incarnation of Southern sectionalism, John C. Calhoun, received his college education in New England” (p. 298). The sense of early legislatures that such a project was more likely to simply concentrate power than it was to serve the other functions (e.g., raise the level of education, increase patriotism and unity) may have been correct within the general American framework.[4]

But possibly most striking is the observation that a strong Congress mitigated such a national or federal effort (the difference remains unclear in the rhetoric of advocates and in the literature on the subject). Had the current Congress been stronger, would the CCSSI have come about without congressional oversight? I don’t think so. The Congress has in many respects abdicated its responsibility and authority to the executive branch. And, taking Washington’s notion of the role of educated public opinion in governance, it is significant that Congress was a key place for establishing public opinion through debate: its absence signals far less of a role for public opinion in governance.

So, might the CCSSI in fact represent an alternative form of federalism, a privatized form, a union of state executives and their “public/private partnerships” with “business partners” in private associations, where cross-state (extra-state?) interests can be secured?


  1. Information for these notes, unless otherwise noted, is drawn from: Albert Castel, “The Founding Fathers and the Vision of a National University,” History of Education Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1964).
  2. Some proponents of a national university during the 20th century had very broad-minded notions of education, not only as applied research but in terms of contributing to the stores of knowledge through accessing the enormous resources of the federal government, its offices and data and infrastructure. The general notion presented was broad and framed as serving the public good. See: Charles Richard VanHise, “A National University, a National Asset; an Instrumentality for Advanced Research,” Science 36, no. 920 (1912).
  3. Notable here is Susan Ohanian, who places “[sic]” between State and Standards every chance she has when speaking about the CCSSI. The concern is real: there was no real state-level input (especially in assemblies), with states adopting the standards before they were even finalized; and there’s the role of Race to the Top in bribing states to comply, along with lots of cash from Gates, etc.
  4. By this I simply meant to indicate that I do not believe national-level institutions necessarily centralize power in a “bad” or “undemocratic” way, only that they likely would in this context.

2 Comments What Can We Learn from the History of the Struggle for a National University in the United States? Some Preliminary Notes and Questions

  1. dino February 14, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Interesting food for thought re arrangments. On another vein, recall that the “diffusion of knowledge” was a common theme amongst mechanics inststitutes, which existed in both US and UK. Not everyone was into the “diffusion of knowledge”. These were enlightenment based and often worker organized [of course, arrangments for decision making were not clear in my research] and studied materials coming out of bourgeois democratic revolutions. (Note that Carnegie was involved as a young man in Scotland.) They were considered a threat enough in UK, that, in my view, parliamnet hastened the establishment of normal schools, lest the workingn class educate itself. This was opposed to the conservative view that any education would lead to revolution–the liberals were smarter on this–they’d better control the education through normal schools to avoid revolution. So in UK, getting back to your gist, I think the normal schools may have functioned more along the lines of “national” education–don’t have enough details, and there are of course big differences in many other areas compared to US.
    There really are a lot of questions that come up regarding the states’ control for example with the university systems which I presume concern themselves with the state’s needs, but also more broadly with the national class needs–in terms of access cost and enrollment numbers, links to business, positioning wrt to research funding–eg _National_ Science Foundation etc. What are the contradictions there?
    So it sure seems like there is alot to get out of this line of investigation…
    Also, its not just “knowledge is power” oversimplification, as you point out, but actual organized institutions which are fought over in terms of who they serve. You can see the fiefdoms that would spring up. How about the military higher ed institutions–do they each develop their own outlook/ideology–why would they need to be separate if there is a national intersest?

    Also I would think that the Ivy League would be pretty much be against a national university since they are supposed to be the moulders and makers of the leaders and their outlook, right?
    Sorry to jump around, I’m obviously thinking aloud here…

  2. Mark Garrison February 14, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Well, certainly “diffusion of knowledge” was progressive for its time, even if, as it was, wrapped up in securing new class relations. But I think that is the point, really…that is, to grasp the logic of those relations, and discern how it affects thinking in the present, and how such thinking blocks or opens up potentials for positive change that favors the public good. It is pretty straightforward to call the reformers out on what they are doing — but is our role only to interpret and bark? And is such work effective, by itself? It is, however, much harder to discern and describe what is actually going on without the imposition of past (or any other) understanding on the present, and here, the reformers are not terribly conscious either. They maybe making history, but they are most certainly its product.

    In the U.S., by the end of the Civil War, “diffusion of knowledge” became “democratic” or “popular education” — the theory that underpinned what many now call “traditional public schools.” It is where ideas regarding education as the great equalizer emerge and get developed (“diffusion of knowledge” was not so interested in equality that way, although it presumed a certain minimum ability to benefit from education, that being a basic outcome of the thesis that all are equal before god and the development of labor markets, where the commodity form had to be assumed to be at least in principle, the same from laborer to laborer — I believe this is changing too, but another day). And these ideas regarding education and equality still dominate and block thinking (in my view).

    And in this change, too, you find roots of the charge that public schooling is a monopoly (although monopoly is the wrong word, there’s truth to that). The fact is, what emerged with the likes of Horace Mann and following the Civil War was in many ways against what at least Jeffersonians would have supported — i.e., that “government” (as the public) should “run” schools was not quite what they had in mind. That a system would be developed for sorting youth, and that it would be publicly funded, yes, but what emerged later I do not believe was entirely consistent with some framers views. School Boards (LEAs) became agents of the state and secured certain police powers as a result. Prior, the distinction between public and private was blurry — entrepreneurs would receive some public funds to teach students of “lessor means.” Can you say, “Charter”?

    So you see, there appears, in a sense, a digression — this earlier arrangement (made up of “Academies’ and “pauper schools” for example) was rejected as not meeting the needs of the new nation. Now, these old arrangements are re-appearing, albeit in different forms. The nation-building public school system is now being rejected, yet we see something, for the first time, that at least appears like “national standards” — the CCSSI.

    So the piece is an effort to begin to re-render the “debate” about the “federal role” in education; it documents one key point: there was no “golden time” when all the issues of federalism for the U.S. were sorted out (the right wing academics like to single out the “progressive era”). But the problem was born prior to 1789 and still remains. Thus, I believe, it misses a great deal about the present to simply assert that CCSSI and all that it is a part of is “a federal power grab.” In fact, I even question whether the United States ever truly formed into a single nation? Sure, there are quintessential psychological and social characteristics of Americans, but the power sharing arrangement, in its effort to thwart tyranny, while maintaining a certain unity — has it ever really been taken hold? It seems threats of civil war, disunity, etc., have never been eliminated, and now grow even more intense. So, here, as I ramble in kind, I ask: does the CCSSI strengthen national unity, or create yet another forum for disunity to be sorted out, privately?

    Likewise, even my premise that the CCSSI is the least “American” of current reforms, while useful in pointing to its significance, might also misdirect us: it is not that national standards are “unAmerican”; it is that up to this point a contradiction blocked such a development despite the fact that such national efforts are obvious, that is, in a generic sense, desirable. Roads, bridges, space exploration, banking, war machinery, these all received national attention and have definite federal-level effects; but with education, that work has been far more circumscribed (although certainly present). And, as I”ll argue out more, it becomes more tricky, because the CCSSI is, I think, neither national nor federal, in the normal sense of those words. That is why that quote from Congress was so striking. Again, why would founders leave education to the states, but actively seek a federal university? The thinking behind this needs exploration to grasp what the CCSSI really represents.

    As a quick note, the Department of Defense schools have adopted the CCSSI (it will be interesting to see if they are in PARCC or SmarterBalanced).

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.