Agriculture was a major catalyst for Cornell University's creation in 1865.
As the Civil War was raging in 1862, the federal Morrill Act set aside federal land to either be used or sold by states in order to endow public universities that would provide education to the working classes in both liberal arts and practical subjects such as agriculture, the mechanic arts - now known as engineering - and military tactics. These universities would become known as "Land-Grant" universities.
The idea, noted Morrill years later, was to "offer an opportunity in every state for a liberal and larger education to larger numbers, not merely those destined to sedentary profession, but to those much needing higher instruction for the world's business, for the industrial pursuits and professions of life."
It was a revolutionary idea for a time when a university education, much less a secondary education, was reserved for those of means who could read Latin and Greek. It was a time when farmers made up more than 50% of American workers. Simply put, the act democratized American higher education, providing unprecedented academic access and economic opportunity for generations to come.
But the Morrill Act went beyond just opening the classroom to the community. It required Land-Grant institutions to perform research and engage in outreach, or extension, so that surrounding communities could inform research as much as research could inform the communities. This so-called Land-Grant College Act created a contract between university and society: that discovery would be purposeful and serve the public good.
In 1865, Cornell and his friend Andrew Dickson White persuaded the New York state legislature to locate the state's new Land-Grant university in Ithaca, using Cornell's farm as the campus. The university fully embraced the three-part mission of a land-grant university: education, research and outreach, creating academic programs that would address real-world issues while building on a traditional liberal arts foundation.
The very definition of the self-made man, Ezra Cornell was taken with this idea of creating an institution of higher learning that combined classical education with instruction in practical skills. It was, after all, the development of such practical skills that had allowed Cornell to go from struggling carpenter to traveling salesman to the founder of Western Union Company, the world's largest telegraph service.
Yet, Cornell and White took the idea of democratizing higher education one step further, founding a coeducational and non-religious institution with a broad curriculum and diverse student body. An institution of higher learning where "any person can find instruction in any study." To this day, Cornell University has kept its promise.