George Washington’s Vision for a National University

Until this week I had not known that George Washington (the President, not the institution) had considered the foundation of a national university to be of the utmost importance. In fact, he had meant to give it a starring role in his Farewell Address, and complained at length when Hamilton excised it from the work. Here’s Washington to Hamilton on why the university merited mention in the address:

Since then, revolving on the paper that was inclosed therein, on the various matters it contained, and on the first expression of the advice or recommendation which was given in it, I have regretted that another subject (which in my estimation is of interesting concern to the well-being of this country) was not touched upon also;—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.

Lots to think about in this, which may form the basis of a future post. But just wanted to get it out there. If nothing else, it gives the lie to those conservatives who talk as though the expansion of the federal government into higher education is a modern trend not in line with the Founders’ conception of federal power. But more than that I think there is a insight here about what education means to a society that deserves comment. Hint: it’s more than a set of skills and accreditations.

More on this later, perhaps.

7 thoughts on “George Washington’s Vision for a National University

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