Why Learn the Penn State Story?

The creation of a Penn State undergraduate course on the university’s history is a source of great excitement and pride for many who dwell in body and in spirit in Mount Nittany’s gentle shadow.

In early 2013, Sean Clark and Zach Zimbler suggested that Penn State ought to offer a class on the history of the University itself. This prompted discussions with faculty in Penn State’s History department that eventually sparked development of a full course curriculum. Although final approvals will take some time, the near future will see the availability of a three-credit course on Penn State history, History 148 (appropriate, as it corresponds to the number of Centre County’s Civil War regiment, which was led by future Penn State President James Beaver). We were happy to have helped catalyze what we believed to be a worthy endeavor, but we wanted to do more.

Steve Garguilo stepped up to make an extraordinary financial commitment to establish the Stephen D. Garguilo Nittany Valley Society University History Endowment in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts. This endowment will provide sustaining financial support year-in and year-out for the course—funds are intended to defray expenses associated with the academic examination and teaching of the institution’s history, including, but not limited to, enrichment and support for the course.

This will be the first such class ever offered at Penn State and only the second of its kind to be found in the Big Ten. I expect the course, while suitably rigorous, will also be a lot of fun and instantly rank among the most popular options come scheduling time. Penn State has never suffered from a shortage of school spirit, so the subject matter should certainly help keep students engaged. The key is what happens after you have their attention. A studied examination of Penn State’s past has a lot of practical utility here in the present.

In a 2015 talk, Penn State Lunar Lion mission director Michael Paul spoke about how striving to reach the Moon is opening up incredible opportunities for the institution and its 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.

After Michael’s talk, I commented that, in their quest to land a lunar module, his team represents a modern extension of founding president Evan Pugh’s vision for a college where practical pursuits would be afforded the same serious study as the humanities were in classical universities. Perhaps more than any other single undertaking at Penn State, the Lunar Lion captures the pioneering spirit upon 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 1800s, which recalled self-made Renaissance man Pugh from Oxford to his native Pennsylvania, once seemed hopelessly provincial. “Farmers and thinkers belong in different rooms, and never the twain shall meet.” So went the conventional wisdom.

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.

As we struggled to reconcile our national identity, college campuses often led the charge in breaking boundaries and incubating new ideas. We see this play out in microcosm throughout the University’s life cycle, sometimes with a progressive sensibility and sometimes not. There is a lot to learn, not all of it pretty, but there is plenty in which Penn Staters should take pride. 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.

In learning these stories, which are grounded in the people and places that surround them during one of life’s most exciting times, students will gain perspective on national history in a way that tethers abstract concepts to something closer to home, something more real. There is more.

We hope that becoming more familiar with the details of the University’s history will help strengthen students’ sense of themselves as Penn Staters, as inheritors of a distinct narrative that is unique to this community they have chosen to join. It is an incredible saga full of remarkable stories:

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 championship, not to demand a higher salary or better facilities for his team, but to challenge the University’s trustees to raise the money needed to elevate Penn State’s academic standing.

The endowment’s legacy statement explains that we seek “to provide future generations of Penn Staters with a stronger sense of themselves and our world through studied consideration of their University’s story.” Thanks to the leadership of administrators and faculty in the College of the Liberal Arts, particularly in the History department, this new and exciting learning opportunity will soon become reality.

As we continue to add new chapters—perhaps even one day making the “Nittany Nation” the fourth nation to land on the Moon—the Stephen D. Garguilo Nittany Valley Society University History Endowment will provide the sustaining financial support that ensures we never forget our story or its valuable lessons.