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Growing Roots: Peter Maurin and the Agronomic University

Peter Maurin

Peter Maurin

“The time for the agronomic university,” Catholic Worker theologian Michael Baxter declared, “has finally arrived.” We were a group of twenty adults, mostly Catholic Workers, gathered at New Hope Catholic Worker Farm in Iowa for a week of learning through manual labor, prayer, lecture, and discussion on our 28-acre parcel of land that is home to four families, several dairy cows, flocks of chickens and turkeys, bees, and a half acre of organic gardens and fruit trees.  We called our week together Growing Roots, for it was our attempt to dig deeper into the intellectual, spiritual, and agrarian core of the Catholic Worker – and explore its meaning today.

Peter Maurin

Each day we awoke at 6:30am to milk the cow, feed the chickens, take a walk, or pick berries, then came together at 8am to pray the Daily Office and eat breakfast. The next three hours were devoted to the “intellectual,” during which Michael Baxter and Sheila McCarthy, both from the Catholic Worker in South Bend, Indiana, led us in discussions on various topics, including “The Intellectual Foundations of the Catholic Worker,” “Alisdair MacIntyre and Permaculture,” “Peter Maurin, Tradition, and Herbal Medicine,” and “The Integrating Visions of Hildegard of Bingen and Ade Bethune.”

After lunch and a leisurely rest, we devoted another three hours to engaging creation and our bodies. The work was varied, ranging from splitting wood and weaving baskets to harvesting vegetables and identifying wild edibles in the woods. The close of the day found us around the bonfire, playing music and singing.

In our daily schedule we found a rhythm together, a kind of symmetry between our head and our hands that encompassed the genuine experience of being human. Peter Maurin’s dream of an agronomic university, we felt, was being brought to life.

Peter Maurin on Education

Peter Maurin was once invited to speak at a meeting where he was introduced as Dr. Maurin. His hearers, impressed, asked from which university he had graduated.  “Union Square,” Peter responded with a grin on his face, indicating the spot in New York City where he had gone for years to rankle communists and debate economics, politics, and religion with anyone who walked by.

This story – one of many amusing anecdotes in the Maurin canon – illustrates Peter’s delight in being an intellectual, but not an academic. Largely self-educated, Peter, while engaged in itinerant, manual labor across the United States, pursued a life of learning, reading voraciously in a wide variety of disciplines that included philosophy, politics, history, theology, economics, and agriculture.  It was during those years of exploration that he distilled his ideas on thought, action, and education into his catchy and deceptively simple Easy Essays.

In his attempt to foment a “Green Revolution” (as opposed to the communists’ “Red” revolution), Peter naturally sought out professors who might help him shed some light on the societal ills of the day. However, it was in his discussions with such professors that Peter became disillusioned with the limits of the university:

A few years ago, I asked a college professor to give me the formulation of those universal concepts embodied in the universal message of universal universities that will enable the common man to create a universal economy. And I was told by the college professor: “That is not my subject.” Colleges and universities give to the students plenty of facts but very little understanding. They turn out specialists knowing more and more about less and less.

When visiting colleges, Peter tried to make what he called “a rumpus on the campus,” but found, much to his chagrin, that there was less interest in changing history than in teaching it.

In pursuing “clarification of thought” with professors, it became readily apparent to Peter that the university was mired in “specialization,” in mastering subjects instead of situations, and that it was futile to pursue there the necessary unity of disciplines that could provide a theoretical foundation for a new society. No one in the university was creating what Peter called a “correlative knowledge” – a combination not only of serious thought, discussion and study, but also prayer, cultivation of the soil, community, and hospitality.

Peter soon considered the university system synonymous with officialdom, fragmentation, the disembodied mind, competitive learning, exclu-sivity, bank accounts, wages, debt, and insurance policies. The university promulgated the vast gulfs between thought and action, academia and Union Square, scholars and workers.  So, in his own existential explorations, Peter set out to bridge those gaps and become a dynamic “worker-scholar.”

In the early days of the Worker, Peter paid considerable attention to the intellectual life, a life that he sought to decentralize via study clubs, speakers’ series, numerous roundtable discussions (planned or otherwise) and, of course, a newspaper.  But these were merely steps on the road to the integrative approach on the land that was the agronomic university.  He saw education not simply as engaging the intellect; it was, more fundamentally, an engagement with our whole being.  Peter could never have been accused of being in the “ivory tower.”

Observers frequently recounted how he could just as easily have been found traveling the country talking to professors as he could have been seen breaking rock, hoeing the garden, praying before the Blessed Sacrament, or giving his coat to someone poorer than himself in the slums of New York City. The agronomic university would be a place not only to study but also to work and build practical skills.  “In the Catholic Worker,” Peter wrote, “people learn to use their hands, as well as their heads.”

To Peter, the agronomic university, a phrase he himself coined, would be the antidote to the confusions of the entire complex of educational institutions. Like all of his ideas, however, Peter never systematized his thoughts regarding such a university, allowing his hearers the opportunity to discern how they could flesh out the ideas. What is clear, though, is that he thought that the agronomic university—which, at times, he also called the Parish Subsistence Camp, the Outdoor University, the Catholic Workers’ School, a Folk School and, most frequently, the farming commune – would be the path forward.

Influences and Models

Peter Maurin was hardly original in viewing a more radical approach to education and learning as the key to creating a new society.  The list of those who have sought, not to reform the system, but to create alternatives to it, reads virtually like a “who’s who” of 20th century radicalism: Paul Goodman, Leo Tolstoy, Emma Goldman, Jacques Ellul, Gustav Landauer, Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry, and Derrick Jensen, among others.  What was particular about Peter’s vision, however, were the eclectic influences – which ranged across the centuries and included his contemporaries, Catholic or otherwise – and the attention he gave so emphatically to all dimensions of the human person: body, mind and spirit.

While Peter could not find light in modern schooling, he did find it, ironically, in the Dark Ages, with the Irish monks of the seventh century. He might say that these monks, devoted to the study and transcription of the classics and creating livelihoods on the land through manual labor, emboldened by a firm dedication to prayer and ascetical practices, founded the first agronomic universities.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Irish had created pockets of an integrated way of life that blended spirituality, scholarship and manual labor. Always one to synthesize ideas into memorable phrases, Peter began emphasizing “cult, culture, and cultivation,” as his theoretical heart, which he translated as prayer, study and agriculture.  This synthesis served as the keystone of his agronomic university.

Peter’s companion in the movement, Dorothy Day, recalled that upon their meeting she noticed that Peter had the books of St. Francis in one pocket and Peter Kropotkin in the other. The latter, a Russian biologist, printer, gardener, writer and anarchist, played a large role in Peter’s idea of the agronomic university.  It was in Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops , detailing his ideas on building an anarchist society, that Peter found crucial insights into an “integral education.”  In the preface, Kropotkin wrote, ” …the sum total of well-being can be obtained when a variety of agricultural, industrial, and intellectual pursuits are combined in each community.”  Later, in his chapter titled “Brain Work and Manual Work,” he states, “Through the eyes and the hand to the brain’—this is the true principle of economy of time in teaching.”

The tradition of folk schools in Denmark antedated Peter’s notion of the agronomic university by over 100 years, and was a valuable catalyst in inspiring Peter’s enthusiasm for the agronomic university.  Longing for a restoration of folk traditions within the Catholic Worker movement and beyond, Peter saw folk schools as superior to the American way of learning.  Their pedagogy was a blend of craft, theory, and work that were available to both children and adults.  Indicating the high degree to which Folk Schools played in his thoughts on education at the Catholic Worker farm, he wrote an Easy Essay:

The Catholic Worker intends to transform the Farming Commune near Easton, Pennsylvania into a Folk School. In that Folk School, people will learn: Farming, Canning, Biodynamics, Building, Furniture making, Knitting, Weaving, Dancing, Singing, Public speaking

Ade Bethune was a Catholic Worker artist whose work and life Peter and Dorothy deeply admired.  In the 1930’s she moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where she created a small lay community of craftswomen that she called Lions College. They lived very simply, raising their own food, while honing skills in drawing, wood engraving, and repairing furniture.  Ade was devoted to the intellectual life as well, frequently writing for the Catholic Art Quarterly and corresponding with the leading Catholic intellectuals of her day. Peter was impressed, jokingly calling her school “The Regressive School of Backward Studies.”  (Notably, Dorothy’s daughter, Tamar, spent time at her school.)

A monastery outside of Washington, DC, also caught the attention of Peter who, inspired by its example, wrote an Easy Essay about its members:

…the Missionaries of the Holy Trinity combine manual labor with intellectual pursuits. They go to the Catholic University in the morning, build their own campus or cultivate their land in the afternoon and do their homework in the evening. While they do manual labor their mind is taken off their studies, which is to the benefit both of their health and their studies. [In this monastery] scholars try to be workers and workers try to be scholars.

Though he witnessed other examples of alternative education – such as his friend Ralph Borsodi’s School of Living in New York and Eric Gill’s lay monastic craft village in England called Ditchling – Peter felt that the full embodiment of cult, culture, and cultivation frequently eluded them. “f too much attention is paid to one to the detriment of the other,” Peter cautioned, “things go wrong. There must be a balance.”

The Agronomic University Then

Finally, in 1940, four years after the founding of the Catholic Worker Farm in Easton, Pennsylvania, they began to fill in the broad brush strokes of Peter’s vision to an unprecedented degree. The agronomic university was no longer simply an idea.  That summer, about 10 adults from all over the country descended onto their Catholic Worker school in search of a balanced learning environment.  The pedagogy, one participant noted, was “very different than the American system.” One person would read from a text [e.g. Christopher Dawson’s Making of Europe ] and then would stop as people commented, leading to discussion. During the day the participants would also help with the workings of the farm, such as pitching hay or picking cherries.

As the summer developed, Peter set out to formalize a schedule, which he posted and began to adhere to. It read as follows:

5 to 7am, work in the fields;

7 to 9am, Mass;

9 to 10am, breakfast;

10 to 11am, lecture or discussion;

11am to 2pm, rest or study;

2 to 3pm, lecture or discussion;

4 to 5pm, lesson in handicrafts;

5 to 8pm, work in the fields;

8 to 9pm, dinner;

9pm to 5am, sleep.

The summer school session was a success.  Enthralled with the realization of his dream, the next summer Peter again pursued the agronomic university, this time on Catholic Worker farms outside of Cleveland, Ohio, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The summer school in Ohio explicitly drew on the folk school tradition discussed above. One of the members of the community, Dorothy Gauchat, reminisced: “[W]e’d have liturgy, we’d have breakfast, we’d have work sessions, and then we would have Peter, and then a period with Ade Bethune and her artists…The evenings were always for recreation and for folk dancing.”  The folk school lasted for only two summers, however, before the breakout of World War II.

As a result of the war, after the initial bursts of energy in pursuit of the agronomic university, life on the Catholic Worker farms began to ebb. Not long after, Peter suffered a stroke, and in 1949, he died on the feast of St. Isidore the Farmer.  Shortly after Peter’s death, at the commencing of the new Peter Maurin Catholic Worker farm on Staten Island, Dorothy Day wrote an essay entitled, “Idea of an Agronomic University.”  In it she lamented, “We have had study weeks, as well as retreats, but there has not been enough emphasis on the agronomic university ideal of Peter.”  In the conclusion of her essay, however, Dorothy strikes a more optimistic note: “The idea of work, the land, man’s needs. The study of what others are doing, the lives of great Christians – a sharing in other words with each other, in love and work, thought and worship, all this will be part of the life here on our beginnings of an agronomic university.” Regret-tably, the agronomic university failed to live up to her hopes, and even with its fits and starts throughout her life, Dorothy did not live to see the flourishing of her mentor’s full vision.

The Agronomic University Today

Slowly, but perceptibly, more than sixty years after the loss of Peter, agronomic universities are once again being taken seriously, both within and outside of the Catholic Worker movement. And not simply as communities or family farms on the land—as the vast majority of Catholic Worker Farms have been—but as the more holistic training centers that Peter sought.

Most recently, New Hope Catholic Worker Farm hosted a Craft Gathering, one of six that have occurred in the last three years in Iowa.  We shared a variety of crafts, from basket weaving and shoemaking to candle making and window quilting – as well as prayer, meals, dancing, live music, and a discussion of “craft as resistance.”  One participant commented, “The craft retreat had a profound impact on me because it is truly humanizing to be doing creative work in the company of friends. It felt so sane to me, so wonderfully human to be doing crafts together.”

In addition to the Growing Roots school session discussed above, New Hope has also hosted numerous shorter workshops such as Families in the Catholic Worker, Gandhian Integral Nonviolence, a retreat on Thomas Merton, and a writing workshop, among others.  This summer we will host another week of Growing Roots, focused on Peter Maurin and Economics.

Further south, the Possibility Alliance in Missouri is beginning a serious push towards the agronomic university, hosting over 40 short workshops throughout the growing season. This community, based largely on Lanza del Vasto’s Community of the Ark (a community, one could argue, that has more successfully lived the agronomic university than the Catholic Worker), is attempting to create a village independent of fossil fuels and electricity, while training for nonviolent resistance and doing service. The community also teaches more extensive workshops on natural building and permaculture, and each year trains several apprentices and hosts countless visitors.

Peter Maurin at the New York Catholic Worker

Peter believed that before we could experience a revolution, we needed a theory of revolution. As history is dynamic and changing, we need to constantly update our understanding of how to live, and ask ourselves who Peter might be reading today. Perhaps he would read Wendell Berry, who writes, “Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink or clothing and shelter.”  He and other such agrarian intellectuals would agree that if we are to build a new society in today’s world, where so many are dependent on Empire to meet our basic needs, it is imperative that we learn how to grow our own food, build our own homes, think critically, treat one another com-passionately, and deepen our commitments to a spiritual tradition – in short, to experience the fullness of what it means to be human.

Conclusion—A New St. Benedict?

During our Growing Roots school session discussed above, Michael Baxter read the last pages of Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue :

“A crucial turning point in [the decline of the Roman empire] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.  What they set themselves to achieve instead…was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness…[W]e too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us…We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Peter already saw, more than forty years before MacIntyre, that we are in fact living in a new Dark Age. His agronomic universities, inspired in large part by the Irish in that other, earlier Dark Age, prefigured those “local forms of community within which…the intellectual and moral life [could] be sustained” of which MacIntyre speaks. Perhaps Peterwas that new St. Benedict, and our failure to create healthy, sustainable agronomic uni-versities has contributed to the mess in which we now find ourselves. Like the Benedictines who followed after St. Benedict laid the foundations for a new society; it is now up to us to renew the vision of Peter Maurin. Let us hope that the time of the agronomic university has indeed finally arrived.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, March-April 2011.