Most Green Revolution (this is the fifth article in a series about Ralph Borsodi and his School of Living) readers are aware that I have taken a strong interest in the model of the School of Living as Ralph Borsodi originally conceived it. I only became familiar with him in 2010 but I found his ideas inspiring. He spent decades working on the idea of rebuilding agrarian community around a learning institute that provides it with knowledge, skills and the psychological foundation to achieve a high level of economic security.
I need to point out that I am not a Borsodi disciple. Borsodi is one part of my vision, a significant part. But Borsodi himself was a collage of ideas. Prior to encountering Borsodi, I spent much of my adult life exploring the human potential movement, particularly the role of education in human social “evolution.” I was fortunate to have experienced some important experiments in this “higher” education and meet some of the pioneers in this field (see post "Twenty-Two Years of Integral Transformative Practice – A Tribute to Esalen and George Leonard" at this site).
My other major interest was community. I grew up in a community, one that died as I reached adulthood. One of my mentors had a similar experience growing up in an urban Irish neighborhood, an experience of community that died during the seven years he spent in seminary. The death of community, as I have frequently pointed out, is the most serious crisis in our time. The experience of community is now slipping from living memory.
For decades I’ve known that we need educational institutions that go against the grain. Common sense tells us that what passes as education – early, secondary and post-secondary – is anything but a process to bring out (“educari” means “to bring out”) the best of that which we call the human essence. It is mostly about success, making money, in a global economy.
In contrast, what passes as “alternative” education is mostly “edutainment:” light, easy, quickly forgotten. As Jeremy Rifkin pointed out, culture has become a commodity: cheap, easy, and disposable. Teachers are telling me the attention span of their students is that of a text message and that they are trying to learn to adapt to that reality. Not universally true, I hope, but indicative of a trend away from the tradition of the “well-read,” the “well-informed,” citizen that characterized American culture prior to the global, digital, age.
What attracts me to Ralph Borsodi is that he developed a comprehensive model of a learning institute at the heart of a community. He did that not as a professional educator or academician but as a man working to build viable community.
That principle, people creating their own institutions, we need to think deeply about. Today we expect experts to make things happen for us; either as a public service or for a fee. Borsodi expected people to be self-reliant, self-sufficient. That just happens to be the American Dream, the dream of what was once an agrarian culture. The leaders in traditional communities were teachers, elders, men and women who possessed an elemental wisdom about life. The institutional pillars of that culture were the school, the church and the meetinghouse: sometimes all rolled into one. It sees a fundamental certainty in life, that reflection of human essence that we so vitally need to restore. Borsodi gave us a comprehensive model for doing that, not perfect but suggestive. I bring a lot of other work to the model of a new School of Living. It is up to us today, in our own communities, to take what he and a number of other now mostly passed “elders” left us and to complete the job of restoring our life as human beings.
Two Instances of Human Evolution
Let me address the question of human “evolution.” I think we need to be clear on the nature of our times and how we respond to the challenges of this day. There have been two and only two instances of evolution in the story of our species, the human species. The first was the emergence of consciousness, the appearance of people very much like ourselves: self-conscious, language using, aware of past, present and future. The second was the founding of settled, agrarian societies, the very stuff of a way of life we call civilization.
There are thus two models of life that seem to be encoded in our DNA. The first is the one we share with other social animals: the nomadic, hunter-gather band. As a result of language we took the hunting band to new levels of social organization. An iconic model can be seen in the American Plains Indian tribal culture; perhaps one of the highest levels of development of this lifestyle at the very time it was brought to an end by industrial culture.
The second embedded pattern is agrarian, settled life. That is a form of life that blends with, likely comes out of, the highly sophisticated tribal groups. An iconic example of this style can be found in groups like the Six Nations in the US Northeast. Such groups have defined human life around the planet for thousands of years down to only a generation or so ago.
We are a very special social animal. We have that unique capacity of self-awareness, awareness of past, present and future. We have a unique capacity for language. Our brains are hardwired around these capacities. They are what make us human beings. We also have a unique capacity for humor. These qualities are important because they make us a species as distinct from other animals as life itself is from matter.
Settled, agrarian existence enabled us to develop these uniquely human capacities. Agriculture produces surpluses of food that allows populations to grow and certain parts of that population to take on other work. Until recently, 90% of the people of the great traditional societies worked the land. Those other ten percent settled in villages, towns and cities and formed a nucleus of a new way of life. Mostly they made things, invented things, conducted trade and provided useful services. They were intimately connected to their agrarian neighbors. They lived close to the earth, shared the cycle of the seasons, celebrated events that highlighted the values they held dear, lived their lives and left an esteemed heritage to following generations.
Somewhere along the line ideas like writing came along. Writing was a vital step for us. It’s hard to attribute cause and effect. What came first: Writing or more complex social organization? There was a snowball effect: Writing and arithmetic, then geometry, astronomy, architecture, robust sailing ships, philosophy and inevitably history. Writing became the glue that held complex societies together. All of these arts seem an expression of something in our DNA. They just make sense.
Social organizations became more complex: from village to city-state to kingdoms and vast empires. History comes about because we developed a sense of direction, of change and development in the course of the unfolding generations. And yes, that story is one of rise and fall, of building great societies and seeing them go to ruin.
Which brings us to the dawn of the modern age with printing, world exploration, science, technology and power-driven industry and transportation: “The whole catastrophe,” as Zorba the Greek put it. The jury is still out on the modern, industrial age as a step in human evolution. We are not entirely sure we will survive it. The invention that stands out, however, is printing. It gave us unparalleled power to record human experience and to share it across time and space. The book has become the symbol of knowledge, or learning and of creativity. There is just something "natural" about a book.
During Borsodi’s life, and at the beginning of mine, just as the idea of community, the civis, was fading to a mere shadow, the life of the mind was considered the highest state of existence for human beings. Learning was a public enterprise. It wasn’t about filling one’s head, or a room, with book knowledge. It was about learning how to live, how to contribute to one’s society, how to participate in civic life. It was about developing character, culture, and civility. These are the qualities that make human community work. Not surprisingly they were closely linked with our ideas of spirituality.
A community is not just a collection of people. It is people who live for each other, for the common good. That takes a common way of seeing the world. It requires us to see ourselves as human beings not in terms of the isolated, alienated, individual that defines our dark century but as members of a collective, a body of people, a place; of life lived day by day. I could use the term “tribal” which seems to be fairly well understood as a tightly knit group of people who work for the common good. A village is much the same idea only for a group of people who have settled on a spot of land.
I write for people who see a basic failure in industrial society. Borsodi describe the malaise well. So did Emerson and Thoreau a century earlier. In between a battle was waged between agrarian and industrial interest in the US. When our nation was first formed, Jefferson and friends were the champions of the agrarian civilization. Hamilton and the Federalists were champions of industry and wealth. The agrarian movement a century latter had names like Populism and Progressivism. It had champions like President Teddy Roosevelt. Our agrarian way of life, sad to say, sank beneath the rising tide of industrialization and now lies lost like the fabled continent of Atlantis.
Industrial society has always been unstable. Industrial economies grow and then they crash. It has happened many times. The big crash in modern times came with the Great Depression. That epoch event is something worth the time to study. It was an economic catastrophe but it had its roots in political ideology, in a national and global-scaled context. Then as now there were two contending parties, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. When conservative-driven big business failed, Franklin Roosevelt, a liberal, a Democrat, championed vast social expenditures to restore an economy destroyed by pro-business polity. Today, in the twenty-first century, conservatives still consider him as the great enemy of their cause.
What I see as the enemy is that we lost our sense of place, of local community. Before that great crash we had already lost our agrarian way of life. Our sense of community was already disappearing. There was a temporary return to farming and community building during the Great Depression. It was on that stage that Borsodi first made his appearance. But that epic event passed, industrialism resurged and has dominated the history of the planet but now seems have run its course. Continued economic growth is simply no longer sustainable.
History does repeat itself. The economy has again been seriously damaged by polity. Same two ideologies locking horns, now in a global context. The US Congress is deadlocked. Politics has become little more than a distracting sideshow; unfortunately more a tragedy than a comedy. Neither side has a definitive solution to our economic crisis. What indeed can government do when money has run out and debt is running a trillion something each year?
What have we learned in 230 odd years of our national experience? If nothing else that we have created a social muddle that simply doesn’t work. We have taken the wrong path. We have got to get back to basics and, as Borsodi clearly saw, that means getting back to life on the land and in small community.
Agrarian Reengagement, call it back-to-the-land if you will, is about working at the one level where we have any real understanding and control of our lives: the local level. Agrarian Reengagement, unlike back-to-the-land, is a communitarian movement. We have to live in community. Contrary to popular belief, Darwin wasn’t about conflict and competition. He was about collaborated. For him survival of the fittest was survival of the species with the best cooperation. Communities are about cooperation.
Individuals living in self-sufficient isolation are in a state of denial of their very humanity. The New School of Living is about rebuilding human community at the founding level, the agrarian level, close to the Earth and the cycle of seasons; living in a place, by the blessing, not the curse, of the sweat of our brow, in harmony with the world and intimately engaged with those others with whom they share a collective life. It is about building the institutions that support community life, for developing the capacities and the character of members of that community, and for promoting the values of the common good.
Idealistic, utopian? No. We don’t need to turn human society into some type of giant beehive of mindless drones living the fixed and invariable theme of some intellectual fantasy. That’s what utopian visionaries write about. Real life is messy. It is messy but it is also very human. We need well-formed human beings living and working together to make a life worth living, who live their lives well and when the end comes to die without despair. That was Borsodi’s vision. That is my vision. I’m going to tell you how I see that coming about.
Welcome to The New School of Living
You have come down a road into the countryside to a small farm, 120 acres. At the gate you parked your car in a small lot. You see a spread of fields and then a house or two, barn and an array of outbuildings running along a slight rise, a ledge, at the base of the hill at the back of the property. You can see a windmill and solar collectors on the buildings. A creek runs through the property. There are wooded hills beyond the buildings. A curl of smoke rises from the main house.
You are expected; met at the gate. “Hello. I’m Sally. Welcome to the New School of Living. Lets get your things in.”
We walk a hundred or so yards to the house. Its fall, the leaves are glorious. Coming down the hill behind the house is a wagon with a load of wood; four young people wave a greeting. We go to a building behind and to one side of the main house.
“This is the dormitory. You see to the right there, the cottages for married couples. Singles live here. Right now there are only some two dozen people living on the property.”
You are shown a small neat room, bed, chair, small writing table, cupboard, on the second floor. The building has a solid feel, stone walls, lots of heavy timber. The window faces the fields.
“I’ll leave you to refresh yourself. Bathrooms and showers at both ends of the hall. When you are ready come into the door at the back of the house,” pointing out the window to the deck. “Dinner at seven. No hurry. Take a walk around if you like.”
A short walk along the ledge between field and hillside reveals a number of finely crafted buildings. A barn, what must be a shop by the sound of a saw and someone working at an anvil, a number of other buildings, a large greenhouse, a row of cottages, a large building at the other end of the line, built low, surrounded by windows and a wide, partially covered deck.
Dinner is in a large dinning room off a large kitchen, four tables, room for 40 or more people. Folks are gathering; they introduce themselves. You are shown a place at the table. They are piled with bowls of vegetarian food. “We live with our animals,” the woman next to me explained. “They share, we share. All that we need comes from plants and dairy. Some of us are vegan.” The food and conversation are wonderful.
After dinner we washed and tidied the dining room then retired to a large “parlor” at the other end of the house. Folks shared conversation about their day over tea and cake. The chat goes on until a woman picked up and starts tuning a banjo from a corner stacked with musical instruments. Others get instruments and the chairs are pulled into a large circle. For maybe an hour or more there is song, stories, jokes, poetry, a short reading or two. By nine people are drifting away.
“Bedtime,” I’m told.
“Do you have wi-fi?” I ask. “I need to catch up on some e-mails.
“All buildings and decks have it. Password is ‘real.’ Chores at six, if you want to join in, on just wander about. Breakfast at 7. Have a pleasant night.”
I got up at six and went to the kitchen to help with breakfast. After cleanup John introduced himself as my guide for the morning.
“You know the basic story of the School of Living, I’m sure. Founded in the mid-30s by Ralph Borsodi. He set up several homesteading communities and a small university, worked in India with Gandhian educators and wrote three books, four volumes, on education, among others. Sadly he became a forgotten man. Now we are restoring him to his rightful place in the remaking of our culture.”
New School of Living started with a small group studying his works, getting his books back in print. As the Great Recession returned and settled into a slow, global, economic decline, money was found to buy and develop this property.
We took a tour, walking down to the barn. Beyond the barn was a large orchard. Around the barnyard were milk cows, a lot of horses, for working and riding, a few goats and lots of chickens. Below the barn was a large pasture. Behind the barn was a food processing setup and a storage shed full of foods.
Coming back towards the main house we toured a large and well-equipped shop: wood, metal, ceramics, a blacksmithy. Six or eight people were busy working, mostly on a wagon and wheels. “Our goal,” John said, “ is to learn to make most of the durable goods we need, to develop, or should I say re-learn, the methods for doing so. We call this zone of our model ‘The Mill.’ We incorporate Arts and Crafts ideals. We make quality goods and sell a lot of what we make.”
Behind the shop was a large greenhouse, filled with growing food, several people at work there.
Next came the main house and dorm, behind which were several small buildings, a store, toolshed and storage buildings. The wind turbine was set among these, turning in soothing sweeps. I noticed that there were both passive and photovoltaic solar collectors on most roofs.
On the other side of the main house was the road that ran up to the woodlot. On both sides of it were small cottages, bungalows, four built, one under construction. We toured one of these, John’s and his wife’s. It had a wide porch, sitting room and dinning room in front, small kitchen, bath and bedroom in back. “Loft,” he said, pointing upwards, “for when a couple of children arrive. There were no children here yet, but coming soon,” he smiled knowingly. Wood and stonework were exquisite. An elegant, rustic fireplace dominated the sitting room. “Just over 600 square feel of very livable space. We value privacy. Everyone has a personal space. We also place high value on family. Our life, however, is about the community so we spend most of our time together, eat together, work together, learn together, relax together.”
We then approached the large, low building at the end of the ledge. “Wright inspired,” John said. “Prairie style, low to the earth, natural materials, lots of windows to let in the light and view. This is the school.”
We walked up a short flight of stone steps to the deck. It ran around the entire building, mostly open to let light into the windows but some sections covered by wide, cantilevered roofs. There were chairs and tables and a lot of planters. To the right, on the deck facing the fields and valley beyond, was a small pool with a fountain in the middle of it. The building itself was mostly local stone and timber. There was a lot of glass.
We went inside to a large open room with tables running along each wall. Several people were at the tables working quietly with books, paper and computers. Books lined the walls below the windows. “This is the main study area. Study is self-paced; not lectures. There are lots of practical exercises. This is also the main area for individual work.”
“The New School of Living was founded largely as a research institute to develop both the learning and community model,” John explained. “Funding was acquired to set up a research staff to develop the program. The farm is part of the institute, both a means to support the enterprise and to develop and pilot models for self-sufficiency.”
“Everyone works to support our small community,” John added. “But we are also salaried, a stipend really. Room and board comes with the job. We raise most of our own food and make a lot of our own durable goods. We all work in fields and shops. That’s part of the lifestyle. Most of us are professionals, doing research, planning and developing projects, four to six hours per day. At the moment we are all on the property but often we go on the road. We are all here at planting and harvest time. Now, harvest mostly done, we are putting the finishing touches on three projects to found new and independent Schools of Living. That is our mission; to get this model up and running and more communities adopting it. The three projects we have are two homesteading communities and a small city, one of our Forgotten and Distressed Cities clients. We started with eight people and have tripled that number in just a few years. Interest in this model is picking up really fast. More people are coming on board.”
The middle section, with a wing extending towards the hillside, was the library. “Ten Thousand books. That’s our goal for a paper collection. We are trying to create a library of just about everything we need to know to live as human beings small enough to fit into a single room, a town library. We also have a digital library, Polymath we call it, that gives us full Boolean search access to pretty much the full scope of world knowledge. Borsodi, among others, like Korzybski, believed that we should avail ourselves of the great collective knowledge of human experience. This is in every sense a school. It is about learning, solving problems and building viable social organizations to fit the needs of the people who belong to them. We have to learn things to be able to do that. Its clear that we don’t know how to solve the problems of this rapidly changing world we live in. We have to learn.”
He touched a key and a large screen lit up with graphic displays. “We may use horses to plow on the farm but we also use cutting edge technology. For us this is appropriate. We have a team that is working to produce a computer and operating system that will not require frequent upgrades, which can be built in local shops. That is a long-term project. We use what the world uses for now and we are good at it.”
Next came a laboratory. “Any science you like, any technology,” John said. “There is a level below this one as well, much larger, extended out under the decks. Our approach is very practical. People are here to learn to do things. Most of our work is just that: experimental, learning how to make things work. That applies to science and technology and to community and economic development. Everyone here is, or is becoming, capable of working in every area, from doing a chemical analysis to forging a horseshoe, to planning and organizing a project. We are, and this is an important principle, generalists, comprehensivists Fuller call it, systems thinkers and systems workers. And we are all, first and foremost, agrarians. We believe we are part of nature, a working part of it.”
The next room, angling off to the left, following the contour of the hillside, was fan-shaped with a stage and screen at the small end. “Auditorium, meetings and conferences,” John said. “We also hold concerts and performances here. There are breakout rooms below.” We took the stairs down. One room was a large research space, a room with a table around which five people were working interactively with computer displays, in energetic dialog about their project. “This is one of the project teams,” John said softly.
We walked out of the building, the terrain being ground level for this floor, and back towards the main house along the path below the school. The sky was a brilliant blue and the color of the leaves stunning. Back at the main house John give me a long, searching look and said, “I’ll leave you to think. Lunch in an hour.”
How the New School of Living was Formed?
No, we are not there yet so lets come back to the present. The New School of Living is now evolving as a vision. There is no one way to create a School of Living. The scene described above, however, is highly consistent with Borsodi’s vision. It is my vision.
The farm institute described could be just a few years away. Creating it is obviously a complex undertaking. It is what Borsodi described as an “enterprise” level of activity in Seventeen Problems. It will take a good deal of money to make it happen. It will take a lot of organization. Most importantly it will take a group of people dedicated to achieving the vision. Like I said, there are other visions. They all simple need people to make them a reality.
At the School of Living quarterly meeting in July 2012 I gave the first of a series of workshop designed specifically to begin to clarify the vision of a New School of Living. I made it clear that people must choose carefully which model to develop or join. There is already a School of Living. This is a New School of Living. The current School of Living, which Borsodi created going on 80 years ago is a land trust. The New School of Living seeks to restore much of Borsodi's visions, yes updated with decades of important new understandings. It seeks to create a learning institute and a learning community which seeks not only economic self-sufficiency but to develop the highest potential of each of its members. My team and I will work to develop the model we envision. We will also support other efforts. Nature, after all, loves diversity.
When we return to the topic of creating a New School of Living, in a future post, we will meet on the broad front porch of the main house. We will sit with steaming tea and a platter of just baked cookies and have a long chat. See you then.