This past summer, my family and I made our annual trip to Lake Powell—one of the most majestic and beautiful spots on earth. But instead of using our usual means of air travel to convey us west from the Bluegrass state, we opted to drive from our home in Richmond, Kentucky, to Page, Arizona. Our goal was to see America. Nearly 4,000 miles later, we scratched that off the family bucket list.
One of our extended stops was in Bluff, Utah, where my wife’s ancestors settled in the 1880s. Her relatives were among 80 or so pioneer families who journeyed 260 miles over six months through incredibly arduous winter conditions via the famed “Hole-in-the-Rock” passage in Glen Canyon in south central Utah.
To this day, historians consider this expedition as one of the most extraordinary wagon trips ever undertaken in North America. Many sections of the trail were nearly impassable. To allow wagon passage, the intrepid pioneers spent six weeks blasting and chiseling a path through a narrow, 1,200-foot drop in the sandstone cliffs to the Colorado River below. The path is still visible at presentday Lake Powell. After settling Bluff, the local families adopted this motto for the town and its inhabitants: “We Can Do Hard Things.”
When it comes to the important work of educating the rising generation, too often we hear from well-meaning elected officials and others that given the encumbrances on government budgets, we “just can’t afford to invest in higher education” or “times are just too tough right now.”
One only needs to consider two of the most far-reaching public policies of the 19th and 20th centuries—the Morrill Act of 1862 and the G.I. Bill of 1944—as examples of America doing “hard things” during two of the most difficult periods in the nation’s history.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law on July 2, 1862, creating state colleges and universities throughout America roughly 75 days before the single bloodiest 24-hour period in our nation’s history: the Battle of Antietam. On that day in Maryland, 22,717 Americans were killed, wounded, or went missing.
Fast forward to June 1944 when, in the throes of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act—known colloquially as the G.I. Bill— just 16 days after the invasion of Normandy by the Allied Troops.
Certainly, public officials facing the Civil War and World War II had every excuse to say times were too hard or they could not afford to invest in higher education. Instead, they acted boldly, knowing of the positive influences of post-secondary education and all its collateral benefits to the nation and its citizens. These legislative measures helped expand educational opportunities and access to a new cohort of college-going Americans who matriculated and earned their degrees. And, more often than not, a new level of expectation among their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren was established. A college degree today is the portal to a better life. Education has helped to usher in unprecedented prosperity and innovation.
At some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history, two prescient presidents helped enact two of the greatest social policies ever passed. Both addressed post-secondaryeducation. There is much to learn from the foresight of these two remarkable public servants and their belief in the power of education to change one’s life and transform a nation.
My hope is that the nation will take note of the examples of Lincoln and Roosevelt as we continue to see many state legislatures diminishing their investment in higher education. As Benjamin Franklin asserted, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”
It falls to us, particularly those at public higher education institutions where the large majority of American students study, to secure two absolutely essential elements of post-secondary education as envisioned by the Morrill Act and the G.I. Bill: access and affordability. It won’t always be easy. But, then again, we can do hard things.