George Washington’s Broken Dream of a National University

tags: George Washington, National University

Adam Harris is a staff writer at The Atlantic covering education.

It had not yet been two decades since the revolution when George Washington stood before Congress on January 8, 1790, to deliver what was, effectively, the inaugural State of the Union address in the provisional U.S. capital of New York City. “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness,” Washington told those gathered. He believed that people—at the time, white men—should be taught to know and value what it means to be an American citizen.

Perhaps this civic education, Washington suggested, could be promoted through the schools that had already been established: Harvard, the College of William and Mary, Yale University, and so on. But maybe the answer was to create something new: a national university. He implored Congress to deliberate.

By the time Washington delivered the address, the concept of a national university was already popular: Several of the fledgling country’s top leadershad argued for it. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the idea’s earliest proponents, thought a national university could “convert men into republican machines.” The founders were grappling with how to craft a unified national identity as states were entrenched in their own views and customs. As Nathan Sorber, a professor at West Virginia University, told me, an ideal path forward, they thought, could be to craft an educational institution that brought people together with a “common national mind-set.” Rush even envisioned that a national university could serve as the feeder school for future members of Congress and other federal positions.

The idea of a national university—a legitimate institution of higher education where students are provided with a nonsecular liberal-arts education and taught how to be engaged citizens—has cropped up time and again during U.S. history, often in moments of deep division and social unrest. One of those moments is now. Survey after survey has shown that the political and social rifts in the country are growing—to a point where Democrats and Republicans no longer agree on the basic facts. Couple that rift with the widespread dissatisfaction with higher education—rising college costs and ballooning student debt (nearly $30,000 for the average student, according to a new report from the Institute for College Access and Success)—and the type of environment that breeds arguments for a national university begins to take shape. The question is: Why haven’t they? ...

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