TRUE FACT: South Dakota State University will close its 150-head dairy farm in June because it lacks the funding needed to upgrade the facility (The Brookings Register, February 5th online).
Coincidentally, June 2024 will mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of one of the most ambitious farm-based projects in the history of higher education: Nativitas, the Humanities Breeding Center at Cornell University.
Occupying 75 pastoral acres on the school’s Ithaca campus, Nativitas was a bold attempt to produce babies who would grow up to be college professors in the fields of philosophy, history, literature, and foreign languages. Nativitas fully embodied the spirit of the eugenics movement, which was hugely popular in the United States in the 1920s.
Announcing the birth of Nativitas on March 12, 1924, Cornell President Livingston Farrand proclaimed that “every summer, Nativitas will welcome scores of unmarried male and female graduate students in the humanities from around the country for three months of learning, socializing, and mating. A course in how conception takes place will be offered to anyone who needs it. When these young people return to their institutions in the fall, our hope is that many of the women will be pregnant and bear the future generations of humanities professors that are so desperately needed by our colleges and universities. We will provide financial support to these mothers until their Nativitas offspring reach the age of 18.”
For the next nine decades, locals could look over the fence at Nativitas in the summer and see couples strolling hand-in-hand across its gentle, rolling hills of lush green pasture, carrying picnic baskets and blankets. More than 4500 Nativitas “graduates” gave birth to babies conceived there, with nearly two-thirds of those children pursuing careers in the humanities.
Nativitas was closed in 2012; by then the demand for professors in the humanities had declined precipitously, and “eugenics” had become a dirty, fatally stigmatized word in polite society.
As Cornell historian Hosmer Frell — himself a Nativitas baby, born in 1961 — observes in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Disciplinary Husbandry: Bringing Eden to Ithaca (2019), “there is no doubt that Nativitas contributed to a Golden Era of humanities scholarship that has never been equaled in the academy. And for that we should be eternally grateful.”
If you think you might be a Nativitas child, grandchild, or great-grandchild, please send a swab of your saliva to the Cornell Discovery Project at Ancestry.com.