Why Learn the Penn State Story?

As the keynote speaker for this year’s Willow Gathering, Penn State Lunar Lion mission director Michael Paul talked about how, for Penn State, being the only university among a field of private competitors striving to reach the Moon is opening up incredible opportunities for the institution and her students. Hands-on learning and connections with the global aerospace community are invaluable byproducts of what is, in itself, ground-breaking work. By identifying new innovations and cost efficiencies in lunar exploration, Penn State could make significant, tangible impact on how humanity reaches for the final frontier in the 21st century. I commented that, in their quest to land a lunar module, his team represents a modern extension of Evan Pugh’s vision for a college where practical pursuits could be afforded the same serious study as the humanities in classical universities. Perhaps more than any other single undertaking at Penn State, the Lunar Lion captures the pioneering spirit with which the school was founded.

It is easy to forget now, when the STEM fields are in such high demand and, as a result, the darlings of politicians and academics, that conventional thinkers once scoffed at the notion of teaching agriculture and engineering in the same hallowed halls as art, literature, and philosophy. The sentiment animating the land-grant movement of the late 1800’s, which recalled self-made renaissance man Evan Pugh from Oxford to his native Pennsylvania, once seemed hopelessly provincial. Farmers and thinkers belong in different rooms, and never the twain shall meet. Pugh’s vision for teaching the advanced study of agriculture and the mechanic arts in the “splendid isolation” of the Nittany Valley was, in its time, a radical experiment in democratizing higher education. Yet history teaches us that the rise of the public research universities laid the groundwork for the American Century, and as they grew, these schools became places that both reflected our society and challenged it to change and grow.

Penn State was the first institution of higher education in the Commonwealth to admit female students; football star Wally Tripplett came to Happy Valley on an academic scholarship at a time when many black Americans were denied entry to universities on any grounds. There is a lot to learn, not all of it is pretty, although there is plenty in which Penn Staters should take pride

How our “Second Founder” George Atherton revived a failing college by believing in the “university that was to be,” how Milton Eisenhower sought the favor of his brother, the President of the United States, to build it up, or how Joe Paterno used the occasion of a football national championship, not to demand a higher salary or better facilities for his team, but challenge the University’s trustees to raise the money needed to elevate Penn State academics.

As we continue to add new chapters—perhaps one day making the “Nittany Nation” the fourth nation to land on the Moon—Penn State’s new undergraduate “History of Penn State” course will help ensure we don’t forget our story or its valuable lessons.

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