Citizenship, Higher Education and Inequality

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

John Hannah

John Hannah

If educators are agreed on anything, it is that the fundamental purpose of education is to prepare young people to be good citizens.

These words from John Hannah are etched on his statue that stands in front of the MSU Administration Building, that bears his name.

Hannah was the longest serving president of MSU serving in that capacity from 1941-1969. He saw it move from a respectable Midwest college to a major research university. He also served as the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and later head of the US Agency for International Development.

I traced down the origin of that speech in his collected papers preserved in the University Archives and Historical Collections. From what I can saw the quote is indeed accurate, having been given at a National Conference on General Education in 1961. The speech was reprinted in the May 1962 University College Quarterly, under the title “Responsibilities in International Education“. In examining the context of these etched words, we see a proponent for international education making the case for what he calls “six categories of responsibility in international education”, the sixth category being the one etched on his statue and cited above which he also mentions later as “the responsibility for the preparation of American students to play their roles in the years ahead.”

The sentences following the quote we began this blog with are equally insightful.

Adequate preparation for citizenship means learning many things. It means learning, among others, how to be a productive member of society economically. It means learning how to find one’s proper place in society in agreeable relationship with others. It means learning how the political system works. It means learning enough of the world and of the universe to lend a proper perspective to the judgments a citizen must make.

Hannah goes on and finishes with the following affirmation of this central point of his address:

There are many ways to raise the level of understanding of the American people of the world situation, and develop their capacity to make the wise decisions required of them. Most of these methods are in the hands of our educational institutions. This is as it should be, for formal education has been assigned the primary role of preparing young people for effective citizenship.
We may train selected specialists for specific assignments over seas. We may embark on worthy projects of many kinds in distant lands to improve the lot of underprivileged people. We may continue to welcome foreign students to our campus. We may do all of the other things we have considered.
But none of them bears as directly upon the central interest of the American people as does the responsibility of preparing young Americans through higher education to be effective citizens in a troubled and rapidly shrinking world. To be an effective citizen in today’s world makes extraordinary demands upon educated individuals. Fitting our students for this role is a primary responsibility of United States universities.

Earlier that year, Hannah gave another talk that I came across in his papers entitled “The Challenges of Equal Opportunity to the Colleges and Universities” at a Washington, D.C. Conference on Equality of Opportunity in Higher Education. Here Hannah lays out another responsibility of higher education, especially of land-grant universities.

All persons become more valuable by education, more useful to themselves and to the community.

It is abundantly clear, then, that the land-grant colleges were established to correct an existing inequality in educational opportunity. That inequality was first expressed in terms of vocations and professions –[Jonathan Baldwin] Turner and others pointed out that agricultural and mechanical workers were not getting a fair shake when compared to the professions. This, they said, was unfair — the American people, with their love of fair play and sympathy for the underdog, gave overwhelming approval to their proposals.

More than fifty years have passed since Hannah spoke these words and the data clearly shows we have more inequality. How higher education and institutions like Michigan State University, the original land-grant institution, address these issues is crucial for our collective future and the public good.

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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