by Allan Carlson, Ph.D.
My purpose this morning is to tell you about a remarkable band of thinkers and writers who cut against the grain of the 20th Century: the New Agrarians. I will underscore their broad themes, and then focus specifically on their views regarding education.
Who were the New Agrarians? They were more diverse than usually supposed. Best known are The Southern Agrarians, a group of twelve authors centered at Vanderbilt University during the late 1920's and 1930's and architects of the book, I'll Take My Stand. Yet others came from the Northeast and the Middle East. While the majority were Protestant, a large minority were Roman Catholic; still others were Jewish and there were committed atheists in the group as well. Their work has been called, at different times, the "country life campaign," "agrarianism," "traditionalism," "distributism," "de-centralism," "anti-urban," and "anti-industrial." In my analysis, I label them "The New Agrarians," borrowing that phrase from one of their number, Herbart Agar. I do this to set them apart from the simpler Jeffersonianism found in the 19th Century and to emphasize their deliberate confrontation with modernism or modernity.
Their platform was, at once, socially conservative and economically radical. Broadly put, they were advocates for a unique brand of "radical conservatism." What might this curious phrase mean?
One answer comes from a 1934 essay called "The Task for Conservatism." Written by the popular historian Herbert Agar, it appeared in the remarkable, albeit short-lived journal, The American Review. This article stands as a model of "activist" or "radical" conservatism.
Agar wrote, let us remember, at the very worst point of the Great Depression: one-third of American workers unemployed; the nation littered with failed banks; stock certificates issued during the exuberant 1920's rendered worthless. In seeking to save the label, "conservative," Agar argued that it had been twisted by what he called the "apostles of plutocracy" into the defense of economic "gamblers and promoters." As Agar wrote: "According to this [strange] view, Mark Hanna was a conservative." The author sought to save the term by appealing to "another, and an older, America," a time when there was virtue in and a moral plan for the nation.
Central to this plan, Agar said, was "[t]he widest possible distribution of [productive] property." All of the American founders, Agar maintained, had held that (quote) "a wide diffusion of property…made for enterprise, for family responsibility, and in general for institutions that fit man's nature and that gave a chance for a desirable life." Physical property, in short, was so important to the full and rich human life, that everybody should have some.
But America had lost its way, Agar continued. Under current economic conditions, the ownership of property fell into ever fewer hands. "The normal human temptation to sacrifice ideals for money" had grown, lifting "the rewards for a successful raid on society to dangerous heights." A culture of widely distributed property fell under attack by "the barbarism based on monopoly." Agar charged that the great banking houses and financial institutions had destroyed "an entrenched landed interest" in the South during the Civil War. In 1914, the same group determined that America no longer needed an agricultural surplus for export, and so set out to destroy the independent farmer as well.
Agar called for an effort--at once "radical" and "conservative"--to restore the Property State. This "redistribution" of ownership, he said, must become "the root of a real conservative policy for the United States." As he explained, the ownership of land, machine shop, small store, or a share of "some necessarily huge machine" needed to become the normal thing, in order to set the necessary moral tone for society. Agar stressed the radical and political nature of this attempt, for it was not in line with existing economic developments. As he wrote: "It must be produced artificially and then guarded by favorable legislation."
Following the priority given by the Agrarians to widely dispersed property, the second common New Agrarian theme was love of the planet: an ecological sensitivity. Liberty Hyde Bailey, named Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University nearly 100 years ago, crafted most of the themes that would characterize 20th Century agrarian thought, and this environmental passion was at the core of his vision. His most provocative book appeared in 1916. Entitled The Holy Earth, it emphasized "the oneness of nature and the unity in living things," a process guided by The Great Patriarch, God the Father. As Bailey explained:
Verily, then, the earth is divine, because man did not make it. We are here, part in the creation. We cannot escape. We are under obligation to take part and do our best living with each other and with all creatures. We may not know the full plan, but that does not alter the relation.
Every man, Bailey said, should know "in his heart…that there is goodness and wholeness in the rain, in the wind, the soil, the sea, the glory of sunrise in the trees, and in the sustenance that we derive from the planet."
The third New Agrarian theme was the positive value of human fertility. Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman, a Missouri boy and founder of the discipline of "rural sociology" in the 1920's, was the New Agrarian writer most committed to dismissing the gloom of Malthusian ideas. Instead of fretting about "overpopulation," Zimmerman celebrated high human fertility and an abundance of large families as signs of social health. In his massive tome, Family and Civilization, he stressed that hope for the future rested on "the making of familism and childbearing the primary social duties of the citizen." Zimmerman's celebration of small family farms rested on their very biological vitality. As he wrote: "These local family institutions feed the larger culture as the uplands feed the streams and the streams in turn the broader rivers of family life."
The fourth New Agrarian theme was the virtue of self-sufficiency; recognition that liberty rests on a family's ability to meet its own basic needs. All true families, economist Ralph Borsodi said, should produce two-thirds of their needed goods and services within their own homes, workshops, and gardens. He showed how new technological innovations--especially electricity and the internal combustion engine--allowed for an efficient decentralization of most productive acts. The truly "free person" was not "merely the man who has the infinitesimal fraction of the political power represented by a vote." Rather, the free man was one "so independent" that he could "deal with all men and all institutions, even the state, on terms of equality." Only the self-sufficient household could support this level of independence.
The fifth New Agrarian theme was the bond of the living with ancestors and posterity. The Ohio-based agrarian writer, Louis Bromfield, emphasized the linkage of generations in his great novel, The Farm. Drawing on his own family history, Bromfield described the apogee of his family farm under the tutelage of his grandparents, here fictionalized as Maria and Old Jamie. During this time, the Farm was a cornucopia. Maria would preside over Sunday family meals as "a kind of priestess," watching happily as all her children and grandchildren consumed what she had grown and prepared.
Later, when Bromfield himself resolved to return to the land and to build the Farm again, he saw this as a way to restore the bond of generations: those who went before, those now living, and those to come. As he wrote in the fine agrarian book, Pleasant Valley: "[I sought] a piece of land which I could love passionately, which I could spend the rest of my life in cultivating, cherishing and improving, which I might leave together, perhaps, with my own feeling for it, to my children who might in time leave it to their children."
The sixth New Agrarian theme, taught with special energy by the 'Southern--or Vanderbilt--Agrarians', was suspicion of the industrial mindset, where the true conservative would serve as watchdog over industrialism's mindless sprawl. In their book, I'll Take My Stand, the twelve Southerners accepted industrialism when it assured "the laborer of his perfect economic security" and protected labor as "one of the happy functions of human life." Yet in the early decades of the 20th Century, they said, the assumption behind machines had been that "labor is an evil"; the new technological devices did not so much "emancipate" workers, as "evict" them. They criticized modern advertising and modern salesmanship as "the great effort of a false economy of life to approve itself." The industrial mindset, they added, damaged art, manners, learning, and even romantic love. In an insightful turn of phrase, poet John Crowe Ransom emphasized that industrialism was a force "of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence." It had to be controlled, he said, "or it will destroy the economy of the household."
A seventh theme of the New Agrarians was the importance of local attachment and regional identity. In his splendid essay, "Still Rebels, Still Yankees," Donald Davidson showed how differences in key aspects of life--from way of thinking to daily behavior--continued to give a marvelous variety to America. In his volume, Land of the Free, Herbert Agar lashed out at so-called "world cities" such as Chicago and New York. With their cosmopolitanism, their skepticism, their falling birthrate, their lack of morals, and their imitative and decadent art, such cities were the sure signs of the end of a civilization, one marked by "a hospitality to death."
Fortunately, Agar continued, America still had a healthy "native" culture, born--as in ages past--out of farming settlements. As he explained:
[T]here are signs of the conversion of the intellectual class in the Mississippi Valley to the idea that if America is to have a culture of her own the intellectuals had better stay at home and take part in that culture instead of streaming to New York and becoming good little copies of an alien civilization.
Agar had special praise for the regional cities of Nashville (home of the Southern Agrarians) and Indianapolis (then home to novelist Booth Tarkington). He might have added Cedar Rapids, Iowa (home to artist Grant Wood, novelist Ruth Suckow and poets Paul Engle and Jay Sigmund), and other cities of the great regionalist revival of the 1930's.
The eighth New Agrarian theme was the necessary role of religious faith as the source and protector of community. The Iowa-based Roman Catholic Priest Luigi Ligutti was the most effective New Agrarian advocate in the 1940's and '50's, as leader of The National Catholic Rural Life Conference. He emphasized how the ownership of land and other productive property and the control of technology for human ends were mandates from God. "This thesis is true," Ligutti concluded, because it "fulfills God's intention in man's creation, because it exhibits Christ's love for mankind, and because it furnishes all of us with the assurance of a good life here on earth and a good life for eternity."
In 1946, Monsignor Ligutii joined with 75 other religious leaders--Catholic, Protestant and Jewish--in a statement declaring "God's intention in creation" to allow man to live in dignity and "to establish and maintain a family." Land was "God's greatest material gift to mankind" and "The farm is the native habitat of the family."
The ninth New Agrarian theme was the unique power of marriage, a point made with special effect by the contemporary agrarian writer, Wendell Berry. Proper marriage, the Kentuckian once wrote, is a sexual and economic union; the sexual function without the economic function is ruinous, with "degenerate housewifery" and "degenerate husbandry" the result. When brought together, though, the consequence was beauty. As Berry explained in his wonderful poem, "The Country of Marriage":
Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange of my love and work for yours, so much for so much of an expandable fund. We don't know what its limits are; that puts it into the dark. We are more together than we know, how else could we keep on discovering we are more together than we thought!
Marriage stood, in fact, as a "great power" able to transform not only individuals, but the world. Held in the grip of marriage, Berry wrote, time flowed over husband and wife "like swift water over stones," smoothing and shaping them to "fit together in the only way that [human] fragments can be rejoined."
And so: Property ownership, love of the planet, human fertility, self-sufficiency, the bond of the generations, suspicion of the industrial mindset, the importance of local attachment and regional identity, the role of religion in the creation of community, and the power of marriage: these were the defining themes of the New Agrarian Mind.
Regarding education, though, the New Agrarians were conflicted: of two minds. Several of them were enthusiastic about the necessity and value of public schooling. Herbert Agar, for example, veered close to European-style democratic socialism. He argued that true democracy required "immense sacrifice" and "immense self-discipline." A system of free public schools must lay at democracy's core, he said, in order to give democracy "a fair chance to justify itself." Rural sociologist Carle Zimmerman shared this belief in the necessity of the common school, downplaying the importance of family-centered education.
For his part, Liberty Hyde Bailey--Dean of Cornell's College of Agriculture--believed in a Federally-guided redirection of public education, one that would strengthen distinctive gender roles and families. In the 1909 Report of the National Commission on Rural Life, Dean Bailey called for a new kind of rural education, one "freed from the conventionalisms of mere educational traditions." He continued: "It is perfectly apparent that the fundamental need is to place effectively educated men and women into the open country. All else depends on this." To achieve this end, he called--back in 1909--for creation of a cabinet level U.S. Department of Education.
What form would "effective education" take? Agriculture, Bailey insisted, was not "a technical profession or merely an industry, but a civilization." He saw the farm house as the very pivot of this civilization. Accordingly, "the homemaking phase of country life" was just as important as "the field farming phase." Bailey called for the creation of an Extension Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This Service would train young men in agricultural techniques and young women in homemaking skills. Indeed, the Smith-Lever Act, approved by Congress several years later, embodied this very approach. The Smith-Hughes Vocational Training Act followed in 1917. For the first time, Federal dollars would go to support public schools, but in a novel way. The law provided funds for the training and hiring of homemaking, agriculture, and industrial arts teachers. Through these measures, Bailey believed that the schools could shape husbandmen, homemakers, and new families capable of building a true and strong Rural Civilization.
Other Agrarian voices, though, focused on very different models of education. The Southern Agrarians at Vanderbilt, for example, indicted the public schools for undermining rural vitality. As Andrew Lytle explained, in his wonderful essay "The Hind Tit," the public schools taught the farmer's children "to despise the life he has led" and, now against hope, would like them to lead as well.
Wendell Berry, writing sixty years later in the book What Are People For?, was more blunt. He rejected the "powerful superstition of modern life" that people "are improved inevitably by education." In fact, he argued that the real purpose of state education had long been to teach country folk to leave the country and to "take their place" in industrial society. Public schools, in Berry's view, were no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance to be passed on to the next generation. Rather, the schools focused on the career, or the "future" of the child. Such schools, said Berry, innovated "as compulsively and as eagerly as factories." Under such circumstances, educators logically saw parents as "a bad influence" on the children. And many parents, in turn, had no useful work for their children to do, and so--in Berry's words--were eager to turn these encumbrances "over to the state for the use of the future." As Berry summed up the situation: "The local schools no longer serve the local community; they serve the government's economy and the economy's government."
Berry was less than certain about where to go for an alternative, though. In contrast, several other of the New Agrarians had a fairly clear sense of what to do. The Southern Agrarians, for example, affirmed Goethe's maxim, "that everything that frees man's soul, but does not give him command over himself, is evil." They held that the purpose of education was to produce "balanced" persons, at home in the greater world yet also with strong spritual and local roots. Accordingly, they praised the old, private Southern academies, dominate in the region before the Civil War, and using classical curricula focused on Greek, Latin, rhetoric, and logic. Where the modern public high school was "nothing more than a mass-production factory," the Academy model produced complete, moral human beings.
The Catholic Agrarian, Father Ligutti, urged the redirection of rural parochial or church schools toward a practical agrarianism. In his parish at Granger, Iowa, Fr. Ligutti reorganized the curriculum of Assumption High School in the early 1930's to prepare its pupils for home in the country. While the specifics resembled Liberty Hyde Bailey's focus on skilled husbandmen and housewives, Fr. Ligutti fused Christian spirituality to this practical training. As he wrote in his book, Rural Roads to Security: "This school strives to imprint deeply in the hearts and minds of children the philosophy of agrarianism." For the boys, the curriculum held up "farming-for-a- [subsistence] living" or "homemaking agriculture" as the ideal. Courses included animal husbandry, vegetable production, landscaping, fruit growing, bee culture, woodworking, metal working, soldering and forging, plumbing, the care of ignition systems, wiring, and leatherwork: the skills necessary to operate a small farm. The girls, for their part, learned that "a home on the land means children and a working husband." Their curriculum focused on "how to conduct a home in the country" and "the arts and crafts," with courses on clothing construction, care, and repair, weaving, rug making, planning and preparing food, home care of the sick, and home management. Ligutti reported that the boys made looms in the farm shop, while the girls used them to produce rugs and patterned pieces, some of which "have won prizes at the Iowa State Fair." Where most public high school education aimed theoretically at "the white collar job and the swivel-chair position," Assumption High School at Granger sought "the economic, social, and spiritual enrichment of rural life."
Another Agrarian author, Ralph Borsodi, advanced several important educational innovations. As noted earlier, he believed that true liberty rested on household self-sufficiency. But he was also aware that under the regime of centralized industry, the continuity of persons educated to this kind of liberty had been broken. Whole American generations had been reared without training in the ways to live in independence and family-centered security. Borsodi observed that modern city dwellers, even if provided "with all the tools and implements which the Swiss Family Robinson providentially found," would in fact "die of exposure, of sickness, and of hunger" before they could use them, so "pathetic" was their dependence on factory-made necessities. Borsodi concluded that men and women would have to be retrained to live in a sustainable free society.
Accordingly, he created in the early 1930's The School of Living in New York's Ramapo Mountains. This school sought to save civilization from its over-specialization, providing adult re-education for life on the land. The School of Living had five divisions:
The Homemaking Division focused on teaching the skills of cooking, food preservation, and laundering;
The Agriculture Division taught the cultivation of home gardens and the care of poultry and dairy animals;
The Craft Division held classes in woodworking, furniture production, and spinning and weaving for family use;
The Building Division taught students how to construct their own home;
And the Division of Applied Exchange focused on the challenges facing small home businesses, urging steps to decentralize "wasteful central industries."
Over five thousand Americans passed through the School of Living during its decade of operation. They shared in Borsodi's vision of the good life: "A comfortable home in which to labor and to play, with trees and grass and flowers and skies and stars; a small garden; a few fruit trees; some [chickens and ducks]; some [goats and a cow]; some bees; and three big dogs to keep the salesman out--and I, at least, have time for love, for children, for a few friends, and for the work I like to do."
Borsodi pioneered in another area of education, an event recounted in his 1933 book, Flight from the City. After leaving his job as a consulting economist in Manhattan and moving to a rural New York county, Borsodi found the local rural school "impossible" for his two sons. Searching for an alternative, he finally looked to his own wife and, "[w]hen I compared Mrs. Borsodi to the average school-teacher in the public schools, I saw no reason why she could not teach the children just as well, if not better." Working out an arrangement with the county school superintendent, the Borsodis simply brought their children home. This so-called "experiment in domestic production" quickly proved its superiority to schooling organized on a factory model. It turned out that only two hours a day of course work were necessary for the Borsodi boys to keep pace with their public school counterparts; this underscored the inefficiencies and great waste of time found in mass education. The Borsodis also discovered that the remaining hours could be filled with reading and creative activities in the garden, the kitchen, and the workshop. Moreover, this family-centered form of education taught the Borsodis that true education "was really reciprocal; in the very effort to educate the boys, we educated ourselves." In short, Ralph Borsodi invented--or perhaps better put, discovered--modern home schooling.
Of course, the campaign mounted by The New Agrarians to build a vital Rural Civilization, to encourage new subsistence homesteads across the land, and to decentralize economic, social and cultural life, could claim little success when the 20th Century came to an end. Policy victories in 1914, 1917, and again during the 1930's may have slowed the pace of social change, but could not reverse it. The decay of regional and rural cultures, the emptying of the land, the ongoing crisis of small-scale agriculture, the sprawl of the cities, and the industrialization of human life and culture were the 20th Century's dominant forces.
All the same, the New Agrarian campaign left some important lessons, particularly in the field of education. For example, the model of the Southern Academies, celebrated by the Southern Agrarians, shows new life in those institutions making up the Association of Classical and Christian Schools and in their attention to the Trivium of rhetoric, dialectic, and grammar.
The curriculum shaped by Father Ligutti at Assumption High School in Granger, Iowa, stands as a once-successful model for alternative education: It guided young men and women toward skills that would sustain both marriages and rural living. Perhaps it may become relevant again in this new and uncertain Century.
Finally, the Agrarian credo also contributed to the near-miraculous emergence of home schooling as a major movement in American education after 1975. A half-century earlier, Ralph Borsodi had crafted the basic principles and recognized the special gifts of this radically decentralized form of learning: it is more efficient, more child-centered, and more flexible; both children and parents become learners; and the process strengthens the family. Contemporary home-schooling circles, moreover, are disproportionately "agrarian" in their behavior: they are more likely to live in rural places, villages, or intentional communities; they are more likely to maintain a "family garden" and simple animal husbandry; and their families are larger and more stable: another Agrarian trait. It seems that once having tasted household freedom in the act of home education, the family looks for other ways to grow into autonomy.
In short, it is in private academies, in religiously inspired communities, and in home schools that the dreams and values of the New Agrarians survive and grow in the early 21st Century.
The Howard Center