Taking Learning to the People

By: Wayne Flynt

In Shanghai, China, this year, a group of very bright people will crunch lots of numbers to determine the top 20 universities in the world. Except for Oxford and Cambridge, nearly all will be American institutions. Auburn University will not be among them. In fact, few southern state universities make the list.

That never bothered me during my 28 year Auburn teaching career for two reasons. You can obtain most any result you want by crunching different sets of numbers. Secondly, the crunched numbers for the Shanghai group reflect the values of western elite universities for the past five centuries: the reputation of science, math, philosophy, languages, history and other "hard" core faculties; the number of faculty who win major awards; amount of external funding and grants; size of endowments; quality of entering students measured by standardized tests; general university reputation among scholarly peers.

I focus on different criteria with different results. How many first generation college students graduate? How does research conducted by faculty penetrate and improve the lives of ordinary citizens who pay taxes to support the university? How effective is the faculty at carrying new discoveries, insights, and perspectives off campus to non–academic audiences?

Take agricultural colleges for instance. I personally believe that most American universities determined to be great by the Shanghai group look pretty much like their European ancestors five centuries ago in formation, organization, structure, and goals. What little our nation has contributed that is unique to learning came mainly from the free public library and the land grant university. Although I celebrate July 4, 1776, as the beginning of our national independence from English kings, I celebrate July 2, 1862, as the birthday of our independence from English universities. On that day, the Morrill Act became law. It granted 30,000 acres of Federal land for each congressman to "loyal" states in order to endow at least one agricultural college. Under its terms, 69 land grant colleges have been established (many in the South after the Civil War ended, including Auburn). Augmented by the 1887 Hatch Act, which funded experiment stations to conduct original research, and the 1914 Smith–Lever Act that created the agricultural extension service, the Morrill Act entirely changed the thrust of higher education in America. Henceforth, it would be partly directed toward the common man and woman, welcoming them as students, maintaining reasonable costs to assure accessibility, and taking learning off campus to non-traditional groups such as farmers and their families.

On many land grant campuses, insightful teachers such as Auburn's Classicist/historian George Petrie caught this new vision and adapted it to new disciplines, functions, and media. Using Alabama's first radio station, WAPI, Petrie taught a current events course over the airwaves that brought audiences throughout central Alabama historical insights about the new and dangerous world emerging after the First World War.

I had the good fortune to arrive at Auburn in the late 1970s, just as a group of remarkable faculty in the humanities—Dean of Arts and Sciences, Edward H. Hobbs; John Kuykendall, head of the Religion Department, and his wife, Missy, who worked in continuing education; journalism professor Jerry Brown; English Department chair, Bert Hitchcock—charted a course to enlarge the agricultural extension idea. Our vision was to organize and export weekend programs to small towns and cities across Alabama, to educate audiences about the religious, historical, and literary traditions of their communities, to find humanistic ways of bringing races together to accomplish common goals and celebrate common pasts, to help young people value the places where they grew up and not to leave at first opportunity.

It was clearly an idea whose time had come. Under the wonderful administrative leadership of Leah Rawls Atkins and Jay Lamar of the Auburn Humanities Center (later renamed the Draughon Center), history and culture festivals, Read Alabama literary programs, and other outreach efforts flourished.

In time, I helped direct a two–pronged effort by President Bill Muse and outreach vice-president David Wilson to reward all university outreach as a central function of the university, as valuable in its own way as teaching or research/publishing. In some almost mystical way, I felt by the time I retired, that Auburn had come full circle. Born a Methodist liberal arts college after the Medieval English model, the university had become a beloved land grant university because it became something better. Honoring its classical roots in the old world, it fully integrated them into the extension mission of the new world. And in that transformation, it afforded higher education something enormously important and unique.

Wayne Flynt

J. Wayne Flynt, Ph.D., is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Auburn University, and a longtime faculty member of the Department of History. A widely recognized and award-winning scholar, Dr. Flynt is the author of numerous books on Southern culture, Alabama politics, Southern religion, education reform, and poverty. His memoir, Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives, which chronicles many events at Auburn during his academic career, was published in 2011. A champion of the Land-Grant mission of outreach and faculty engagement, Dr. Flynt chaired Auburn's Committee on Assessment of Outreach which contributed to the definition and criteria for outreach scholarship in use today in the University Faculty Handbook.

Last Updated: October 24, 2018

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