George Washington’s Broken Dream of a National University

The founders believed a federal institution focused on civic education could help unite a fractured country.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

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 leaders had 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?

The answer may be rooted in what the national university would have looked like and why the calls for a institution fizzled out in the first place. The initial plans for the institution were diverse, but united by the notion that the chief goal of the university would be civic education: teaching young men how to do democracy. But how to achieve that goal varied, says George Thomas, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, whose book The Founders and the Idea of a National University examines the intellectual history of the concept.

Maybe the national university, some early proponents argued, should be a a finishing school of sorts for future leaders, where every state would send its best students to be educated, regardless of family wealth. Or maybe, as Joel Barlow, an early U.S. ambassador to France, suggested, the national university could serve as the flagship of a larger system that would oversee state universities and grammar schools—and would even produce the textbooks used by students. A handful of the plans even included structures for how leadership would be selected: a university president would be appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the Senate.

Easily lost in all of this is the idea that a top-down system so closely tied to the federal government could quickly devolve into a propaganda machine if left in the wrong hands. “It can be problematic if politicians and government entities are interfering in academic matters where they don’t have the expertise,” Sorber says. “We want knowledge to be driven by the best ideas, not political calculation.”

The War of 1812 saw a renewed push for a national university—and West Point, which was founded a decade earlier, emerged as the elite training ground for military leaders. Then there was the Civil War, and the three presidents immediately following the war advocated for a national university. In fact, legislation was proposed in Congress, while the National Education Association commissioned a report, led by Harvard President Charles Eliot, to examine the idea. (Eliot suggested there was already a national university in waiting: Harvard.)

But there was something else going on in the background: President Abraham Lincoln, in 1862, signed the Morrill Act, which granted land to each state that could be sold to fund a university. The act, which created the so-called land-grant institutions, such as West Virginia University, Texas A&M University, and Cornell University, remains one of the largest federal grant programs in history and paved the way for what we understand higher education to be today. And direction of the curriculum for these institutions was up to the states—several of which, wary of federal control after the Civil War, wanted no part of a federal university system. The land grants were enough.

The last time a national university was seriously considered was in 1914, right at the beginning of World War I, Thomas told me. But the idea never gained any serious traction. “By the time you hit the 20th century,” Thomas told me, “both state universities and private universities are actually doing much more of the work that defenders of the national-university vision hoped education would do.” While they weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, they were providing a liberal-arts education and creating an educated class that could lead.

So, as decades passed, and national tensions crested and fell, there was little conversation about creating a national university—the existing colleges and universities were already entrenched. Higher education is still searching for answers to questions of access and affordability. The nation is searching for answers on how to create a more engaged, public-minded citizenry. The answer is not likely a national university. But it is not for want of trying.