Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Creating an Idyllic Space: Nature, Technology, and Campus Planning at the Michigan Agricultural College, 1850 to 1975

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Creating an Idyllic Space: Nature, Technology, and Campus Planning at the Michigan Agricultural College, 1850 to 1975

Article excerpt

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, American industrialization, rapid population growth, and urbanization seemed to threaten opportunities for both economic prosperity and political democracy. Many in the middle class became alarmed as decisions about natural resources and the means of production seemed to fall increasingly under the control of big business. These forces also seemed to be manipulating the political process for their own benefit. Although a growing professional class enjoyed the material benefits of the era's market revolution, the two primary pillars of American culture-economic opportunity and democracy--still seemed to be under attack. As a result, leaders in academe, science, and politics set out to convince the public that technology and science could be used to restore opportunity to a broader segment of the American population. (1) Paradoxically, these leaders believed that this could be achieved by simultaneously conserving and exploiting the nation's natural resources. In this approach, interaction with nature was a key ingredient of a moral society, and the efficient use of the nation's natural resources would create long-term material abundance. (2)

Nature preservation and the open spaces that reformers tried to protect became the symbolic manifestations of American prosperity and superiority. The ability to create and preserve natural spaces denoted the "good life," a life of comfort and abundance, and it also illustrated the moral superiority of America's economic and political institutions. What other nation made people wealthy enough that they did not need to exhaust the primary source of that abundance? At the same time, the preservation of open space also signified that America was a moral society whose willingness to place the common good over self-interest would allow future generations to interact with those natural settings that had been preserved. (3) These values also influenced the physical structure of many American communities.

University campuses, as particular forms of self-contained American communities, often served as microcosms of broader national trends and attitudes regarding nature preservation and technological advancement, especially land-grant institutions. Reformers' efforts to democratize the economy, educational opportunities, and physical space mirrored and sometimes foreshadowed national patterns. In fact, campuses were often conceptualized as being like "mini-cities" or as experiments in urban planning. The history of Michigan Agricultural College's campus is an apt case study of reformers' attempts to create greater opportunities for material prosperity for more people while preserving the elements, including open spaces, necessary for a democratic citizenry.

Michigan Agricultural College (MAC), which became Michigan State University of Agriculture and Applied Science in 1955 and simply Michigan State University (MSU) in 1964, has sought to research, teach, and exemplify how the direct application of science can help create a more livable and prosperous community. Central to this mission has been the discovery and implementation of technological advances that have made use of natural resources more fully and efficiently. A major focus of this research has been to make agriculture and technology more efficient and less labor intensive. The campus includes extensive acreage with barns, meadows for grazing livestock, and fields planted with various crops. The knowledge gleaned from scientific agricultural experimentation has been shared not only with the state's farmers but also with farmers around the world. Similarly, the campus devotes a large amount of space to engineering-research labs, and the university has its own power plant (one of the largest such plants in the nation).

At the same time that efforts have been made to promote science and technology through campus facilities, much of the physical space retains a pastoral air. …

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