A History of Higher Education in America: The Promise of Self-Improvement


This week commemorates two important dates in United States history. Obviously, Independence Day, but it’s also the anniversary of the Morrill Act of 1862—the statute that established land-grant universities in the U.S. and ensured that every American could have access to a college education. In celebration, we’re exploring the history of higher education in America through an unexpected lens. In this first installment, we look at the influential role education played in both the life of an explorer and in the establishment of our country.

I’ve just finished writing a biography of Zebulon Pike (Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike, Oxford University Press, 2014). Pike is best known for leading a U.S. military expedition to Colorado and the southwestern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase during the era of Lewis and Clark.  In 1806, he sighted and unsuccessfully attempted to climb the mountain now named for him, Pikes Peak. Surprisingly, one thing I learned in the course of my research was just how important education was not only to his formation but also to the solidification of the early United States.

Born during the American Revolution, the son of a Continental Army soldier, Pike came from a modest background. During his childhood and young adult years, the United States was a young and fragile nation; a big experiment in republican government, which many believed would not succeed. Some openly rebelled against it, for example, the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion and the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. Others actively tried to woo citizens’ loyalties away from the nation, for example the Spanish conspiracies of the 1790s and the Aaron Burr conspiracy of 1805-1807.

In this context, it was critical to the nation’s survival that Pike and many others gave their loyalties to the republic.

His nationalism sprang from the alignment he perceived between his own self-interests and the interests of his nation. As a young man, he came to believe that the nation provided him a genuine opportunity for personal advancement and that the way to achieve that was by self-improvement through education.

Zebulon Pike history of higher education in america
Zebulon Pike

There was no formal public education system in the United States at the time, so Pike sought his knowledge through the informal tutoring of a neighbor as a young boy and later through whatever training could be acquired at the army camps at which his father was stationed. As a young adult, he pursued it entirely on his own.

By candlelight deep into the night, he studied mathematics, languages, literature, manners, and military tactics.  By the time he received his first officer’s commission in 1799, Pike had taught himself French and basic mathematics, and had become, according to one of his military buddies, “a tolerable good [E]nglish scholar.”

He also exhorted his military subordinates and younger siblings to improve themselves in mind and body. “Let me intreat your attention,” he wrote to his thirteen-year-old sister Maria in 1803, “to the cultivation of your mind—for…a long life, is all to[o] little; to acquire the art of living virtuous and happy.” Regarding his brother George, he observed, “unless he makes rapid advances in learning…I am afraid he will not make that figure in Society nature has calculated him for.”

Most important to his formation were his readings in the popular advice literature of the day. William Shenstone’s Essays on Men and Manners, inspired him to pursue the “studious and rational retirement” of his candlelight lessons. From Robert Dodlsey’s Economy of Human Life, he learned that the “fortitude of a man shall stain him through all perils.” To live out Dodsley’s call for virtuous sacrifice, Pike joined the United States Army the month before his sixteenth birthday.

Here was the bargain he believed he had struck with his nation. Individual self-improvement in mind and body coupled with virtuous living would be rewarded with opportunity for personal advancement by a grateful nation. This is what made citizens different from subjects.

One day in the margins of Dodsley, next to the entry titled “Sincerity,” Pike scribbled, “Should my country call for the sacrifice of that life which has been devoted to her service from early youth, most willingly shall she receive it.”

And Pike was not alone. Concerned about the social, regional, religious, and other divisions within the American republic—divisions that had nearly defeated the American Revolution and that continued to threaten to fragment the republic thereafter—an array of writers, statesmen, educators, ministers, and others sought to unify the American public through moralizing texts. Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, Mercy Otis Warren, and others wrote biographies, histories, grammars, and novels all with the goal of imparting the values of citizenship to young Americans.

Thus in the generation after the American Revolution, the promise of self-improvement through education helped the young and fragile United States win the loyalties of its citizens like Zebulon Pike.

A population of people who equated their own interests with those of the nation, ensured that the rebellions and conspiracies never gained sufficient numbers of followers to threaten the United States.

Although few would have predicted it when the Revolution ended in 1783, by the time Pike died in the War of 1812, a compelling nationalism founded on self-improvement through education persuaded many white Americans to cast their lot with the nation.

The nation’s early survival enabled more systematic educational systems to emerge later in the nineteenth-century, first at the elementary and secondary levels and later, with the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, at the collegiate level. These eventually extended opportunities for self-advancement beyond the initially narrow slice of the population that Pike represented to women, the descendants of slaves, immigrants, people with disabilities, and others.

The unfinished mission to ensure that education produces opportunity for all continues today, but the gains that have already been realized rest on the chance at advancement that self-education gave to a few like Pike in the first post-revolutionary generation.

Read more about the history of higher education in America and how it fostered democracy. Also, be sure to share this article with others who love to learn, and visit citizenexplorer.org to learn more about Zebulon Pike and life in the early American republic.

zebulon pike history of higher education in america

3 thoughts on “A History of Higher Education in America: The Promise of Self-Improvement”

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  3. Sir,
    I happened to read this article and I am mesmerized by the way Pike struggled to get education. No doubt it is the booster for advancement.I am most benefited and got lot of opportunities to progress in life. I in turn tell my people about the value of education and concentrate only on educating the citizens.
    Director, Geological Survey Of India, Bangalore.

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