Bill Sharp © April 1, 2020
Ralph Borsodi was an outstanding leader of what has been called the New Agrarian movement – the precursor to our current sustainability movement. He was a practical innovator and, as you will see in the next few pages, his list of accomplishments is long and impressive. He wrote fourteen books and innumerable articles. He had great ideas and he also walked his talk.
Borsodi’s time was one of dramatic changes and recurrent crises. While essentially capitalist, he found fault with the then emerging industrial system and its economic, social, and psychological effects. We could do better, he believed. There was the Great War followed by a deadly viral epidemic, a succession of economic downturns culminating in the Great Depression, and a transition from traditional values and the resulting loss of community and rise of alienation. A new political party emerged briefly that highlighted this shift and raised the cry for a more ordered way of life. Borsodi’s career, his calling, was to make sense of sweeping change and offer an alternative – the good life.
From what we know, Ralph Borsodi was an extraordinary personality. He was of average height, slightly built and balding. He had presence, a steady gaze, a resonate and commanding voice with a slight eastern European accent. He was born in Vienna and came to the US with his father at about age five. He was brilliant, well-informed, and articulate. He was a voracious reader with a retentive mind, absorbed details and summarized vast bodies of work. His attention to detail could be exhausting. He was passionate; you might say driven. He was a man of integrity and principles – he clearly believed in what he offered, and was morally driven. He was a humanitarian. He was polite, thoughtful and compassionate, but he could be direct and candid. He was a man of action and prone to act decisively. He could be devasting in debate. He had enduring friendships and was respected by many distinguished persons. He was an indominable experimenter and innovator and he faced disappointment and frustration with firm resolve. Many times he shrugged off setbacks and went on to the next project.
Flight From the City
In 1920, with a serious economic recession and flu pandemic following World War I, Ralph Borsodi relocated his family from New York City to a small farm near Suffern, New York, where they established what became a model homestead. They called it Dogwoods. Borsodi pioneered appropriate technology which he developed to take the drudgery out of routine work. He made a careful economic study of homesteading and demonstrated that a family could produce its own food organically and fabricate other products in less time than it would take them to earn the money to buy them. The family raised their food organically, and the quality of everything they produced was far higher than factory products. Their homestead was both secure and healthful.
Borsodi chose Suffern because it was a short commute from his business in New York City where he worked as a consulting economist with expertise in retail trade and with major clients on Wall Street. He was also an accountant, and his first book was a practical guide to accounting to help small businesses achieve greater fiscal resiliency.
Borsodi became a pioneering consumer advocate and wrote two books in this field during the 1920s. In 1929 he published a more generalized critique of modern industrialization in This Ugly Civilization. In that book he included a report about his family homestead and wrote about the need for an educational program to help people achieve a higher standard of quality in their lives; not just material quality but also an elevated philosophical state – something more along the line that Emerson had called self-reliance.
This Ugly Civilization was published on the eve of the Great Depression. Borsodi said he saw it coming. The book was serialized in a popular national magazine. As the Depression deepened, Borsodi’s publisher asked him for a handbook on homesteading. This was published in 1933 as Flight From The City.
In 1933 Borsodi was invited to consult with the Dayton, Ohio subsistence homesteading program. Dayton was one of the leaders in a movement across the country to help displaced workers and their families achieve greater self-sufficiency by moving back to the land and starting small family homesteads. Borsodi worked to develop a program for a network of homesteading communities around Dayton. Eventually, the US Congress appropriated money, the Roosevelt Administration created a Subsistence Homestead Division, and the local homesteading programs across the country were taken over by the Federal bureaucracy. Unfortunately, that program was one of the New Deal’s failures.
Borsodi returned to Suffern in July 1934 disappointed but not discouraged. In September 1934 he launched an organization to support his work, the School of Living, formally incorporated in New York.
Some ten years earlier, once the Borsodi’s had established their homestead, they invited friends to visit them on weekends to learn to start their own homesteads. Borsodi knew that city dwellers needed knowledge and skills to get started. He also understood they needed to adjust their values for a rural and self-sufficient, resilient life; they needed a philosophy to live by. Borsodi had called this “quality mindedness” in This Ugly Civilization.
Borsodi understood that land was a key factor in homesteading. As a student of Henry George and a leader in the Georgist movement, he had long believed that in order for land to become available for common people, it would need to be taken out of speculation and put into public trust. Given the limited progress in land reform and the ill-starred record of the Roosevelt administration in this regard, Borsodi developed a private land trust. This was another of his pioneering and innovative accomplishments. This model has inspired many others across the country down to the present day.
Borsodi formed a foundation to acquire funds for land trusts. He purchased 40 acres on Bayard Lane near Suffern and established 16 homesteads. The homesteaders acquired their land under lease. The buildings remained the property of the homesteaders.
At the center of the Bayard Lane community, Borsodi reserved four acres and in 1936 erected a headquarters building for his School of Living. Over the course of the next few years, until US entry into World War II, Borsodi and his supporters developed a remarkable enterprise. They organized another homestead community, assisted others, provided an extensive education program, developed several craft enterprises, produced a stack of publications about homesteading and promoted the program, its values and ideals, across the country.
If there was a core principle to Borsodi’s program, it was what he called decentralism. In This Ugly Civilization, Borsodi addressed the problem of centralization. Business, the economy, government, education, etc., had become increasingly large-scaled and centrally managed by impersonal bureaucracies. Centralization had accelerated during World War I, to an even greater degree during the Roosevelt New Deal, and dramatically with World War II. There was a small but vocal movement in the US and abroad that opposed centralization; then and to this day. It is in no small part based on Jefferson’s ideal of an agrarian democracy governed by a well-educated citizenry. Personal liberty and centralization are not compatible.
In 1937 Borsodi, Herbert Agar and Chauncey Stillman started a decentralist journal Free America, which had a mail list of 4,000. All three served as editors until Agar and Stillman, both US Navy Reserve officers, were called into service with America’s entry into the War. Borsodi became a recognized leader of the decentralist movement. During the war years he also titled the School of Living newsletter The Decentralist.
Borsodi was not a primitivist. Indeed, as noted, he was a pioneer in appropriate technology. He believed that a family could produce 2/3 of its needs with a part-time homestead and do so more efficiently and economically than the factory system. Borsodi considered the remaining one-third of the industrial establishment to be necessary for the good of society at large. Home production gave the family security, self-reliance, pride and cohesion. It made the family the foundation of human society as Borsodi believed it was intended to be. The productive family was the building block of localized, self-governing, communities. Decentralization of the economy and associated government machinery would restore greater individual liberty.
Borsodi developed a systematic economy for the family-centered enterprise, as a national standard, in his Prosperity and Security (1939).
Education and Living
In 1942 Borsodi submitted a paper to St. John’s College, whose president supported Borsodi’s School of Living, in which he proposed a model for a self-sufficient college. St. John’s had been hard hit by the war. Borsodi proposed they form an agrarian community and detailed how it would be organized to provide the institution with most of its own needs. St. John’s awarded Borsodi a master’s degree for the effort. Borsodi also drafted a peace plan during the war years that anticipated the United Nations; except it was a decentralized model and not a world government.
During World War II, Borsodi continued to develop a comprehensive and effective educational program. His seminars were well attended.
In This Ugly Civilization, Borsodi listed a number of barriers to achieving the good life. These were the key topics of his emerging educational program. He was troubled, however, by the subject-centered structure of education. He did not believe that narrow specialization could adequately resolve problems at either the social or individual level.
The alternative slowly evolved. People naturally came to Borsodi to consult with him about problems. He had the habit of carrying 4 x 6-inch note cards in his pocket and made notes about his conversations. He also made notes about issues he found in his reading. About the time he had 1,000 of his note cards, being analytical by nature, he sorted them into a set of categories. It took several years, but he eventually settled on a list of problem statements – problems he found to be universal to all people in all times and places.
Borsodi’s credo came to be expressed simply in two short statements (1940):
Believing that the full development of each human being is the supreme value, the School of Living has as its primary purpose to assist adults in their study and use of the accumulated wisdom of mankind.
Believing that such study and use of wisdom is best facilitated by being related to the universal and perpetual living experience of human beings, the School of Living aims to assist adults in becoming aware of and the defining the major problems of living common to all people.
With this credo Borsodi accomplished two important objectives. First, he established the universality of human concerns. Second, he provided for a continuation of human experience through the generations with his approach to accessing the accumulated wisdom of the human race – all of it, East and West, classical and modern.
In 1948 Borsodi published his seminal Education and Living. With it he formally introduced his problem-centered educational system. There were then thirteen universal problems. He used this structure to organize his seminars and the School of Living library into a life-long adult learning program.
No small part of the book was his analysis of the problems of modern education. It was centralized, standardized, designed to support urban industrial society, and inadequate in other ways. Borsodi’s was by no means a lone voice in critiquing a then emerging progressive educational system.
Borsodi was also not alone in advocating a return to traditional, agrarian and family-centered values and practices. But he proposed something new with his problem-centered framework and related programs. He believed there was an optimal level of life for all people. He called it “normal” living. By that he didn’t mean average. He meant a life free of the restrains of urban and industrial culture. He meant life as an optimal human being. He went into considerable detail about the good life for individuals, families and communities. The argument is built on the decentralist theme: smaller is better.
In 1949 Borsodi’s beloved wife Myrtle Mae died after a long battle with cancer.
About that time three old friends from Dayton acquired land in trust for a community near Melbourne, Florida. They invited him to form a new School of Living there. And there he met Clare Kittridge, also recently widowed. In 1950 they were married, he had sold Dogwoods and they built a house at Melbourne Village. Borsodi continued to offer his seminars there.
In 1952 Ralph and Clare embarked on a cruise around the world. They visited one of his sons in Spain. Borsodi then spent a number of months touring Asia and talking to leaders there about the impact of western industrialization. Subsequently he published The Challenge of Asia.
Returning to Melbourne, Borsodi and friends worked to create a university based on his problem-centered method. He also started a new journal, the Journal of Praxiology. The Journal printed two university catalogs. Borsodi provided a detailed description of the University of Melbourne program in chapters appended to The Challenge of Asiawhich was published by the University Press.
A campus was acquired and a building constructed, and the university was officially opened in September 1957. It had some 30–40 part-time and one full-time student. Borsodi served as Chancellor for about a year and then turned the reins over to Dr. Willis Nutting who had taken a leave from Notre Dame University to work with Borsodi developing the University. Nutting, later returning to Notre Dame, considered the program a success and continued to teach it.
In 1958 Borsodi was invited to India for a short tour but he remained for three years. He was encouraged to continue his work by a university established by Gandhian educators and set up much like what he had proposed for St. John’s.
Gandhi, like Borsodi, was also an outspoken advocate of decentralization. Borsodi’s Indian friends asked him to prepare a statement of his view on decentralism. This was published in 1958 as the “Pan-Humanist (later Decentralist) Manifesto.” In it Borsodi proposed a robust program to develop educational leaders for a global, revolutionary movement.
Borsodi requested his research files be sent to him in India and settled in to compile a text for his problem-centered educational system. It was eventually published in India in 1963 as The Education of the Whole Man. The Forward was written by the then President of India. This book represented an important advancement of his system built on the developments at Melbourne and the enthusiastic support of his Indian friends.
The Education of the Whole Man fully develops each universal problem (then 14 in number) but of greater importance integrated the system. It established Borsodi as a pioneer in general systems thinking and integral education.
The post-World War II years put the School of Living on two tracks. In 1945 Borsodi moved the School of Living headquarters, library and programs to Mildred Loomis’s homestead, Lane’s End, near Dayton, Ohio. Borsodi and Loomis had formed a natural and highly productive partnership that lasted to the end of their respective lives.
Mildred was a graduate student at Columbia in 1932 when a professor gave her a copy of Borsodi’s This Ugly Civilization. She considered it a bombshell and went to visit him at Dogwoods. Returning to Dayton after graduation she was likely instrumental in introducing Dayton leaders to the book; resulting in Borsodi’s invitation to organize homesteading communities. Mildred participated in that program.
In 1939 Mildred joined Borsodi at the School in Suffern for one year. She then married John Loomis and they settled at Lane’s End and established a model homestead along Borsodi’s lines that throughout their lives produced the majority of their food needs. Mildred became a trustee of the School. In 1945 she assumed the role of Director of Education. That year she started a new bi-weekly newsletter, The Interpreter. With Borsodi’s increasing involvement with his wife’s health, writing Education and Living, later move to Melbourne, and then to India, Mildred became the de facto director of the School of Living, a job she would continue for the next 40 years until her death.
Mildred focused on publications and programing. This allowed Borsodi to focus on refining his educational program. She was also the lead advocate of his problem-centered system. The Interpreter was organized according to this system. Mildred organized seminars and study programs on the universal problems. She was also an outspoken advocate of decentralism.
Mildred’s mission became a “Green Revolution,” a new agrarian revolution, and that meant homesteading. Half the members of the School at that time were homesteaders. The idea for a Green Revolution had been around since the founding of the School of Living. In 1963 Mildred changed the name of the School’s newsletter to Green Revolution. The articles were about living on the land and included Borsodi’s education for living. In 1965 she published her own basic homesteading manual Go Ahead and Live.
From about that time Mildred, in her mid-sixties, knew that she would need to turn over the reins of the School of Living to a new generation and begin the work to establish yet another School of Living headquarters community. She accomplished that in 1967 with the founding of the Heathcote Center in Maryland. John Loomis died the following year and she began to shut down Lane’s End.
Borsodi became seriously ill in India and was twice hospitalized. While he was in India, Clare had purchased a house in Exeter, New Hampshire which was close to her children. In 1961 Borsodi returned and settled at Exeter. He was 72. Exeter proved an ideal environment for him. The town culture was dominated by the Phillip Exeter Academy, and it was only a few minutes from the University of New Hampshire. Recovering from his illness he became engaged in a variety of activities and made many new friends.
With his return from India, Mildred and Borsodi renewed a close collaboration. As his health recovered, she assisted him in sorting his research notes from India. It was after his return that she renamed the newsletter Green Revolution. They increasingly collaborated on the idea of the need for a revolutionary change; not violent, not red, but green – natural, communal and peaceful. There was a sense of change in the air; not only the restlessness of the young but of a transformative epoch in history. A new literature on human potentiality was appearing, and it was very consistent with Borsodi’s mission.
It is perhaps more than coincidental that the first volume of Green Revolution and The Education of the Whole Man were published the same year. The Education of the Whole Man served as an important new text for dealing with the dramatic changes of the day; with protests and turmoil, and political and economic instability. It was an acutely problematic time. Both Borsodi and Mildred went into high gear and the coming year they produced some of their most important work.
There were several major new organizational projects. The first of these was the land trust. Borsodi had been a pioneer in land trust. He picked up that work again at Exeter and in 1967 he and friends incorporated the International Independence Institute (III) which had an office and staff in Exeter. Borsodi traveled and worked with supporters in Europe and India.
Also, in 1967, Borsodi published a small book, The Definition of Definition, in which he addressed the problem of a lack of common definition of the words we use. This was a text intended to support his major work in progress. In 1968 Borsodi completed his Seventeen Problems of Man and Society. This book settled the number of universal problems at 17 and provided a master index of ideas and ideologies, references to the accumulated knowledge of humankind, that could be consulted to develop solutions. With this book Borsodi completed a three-part framework he had proposed in 1948. And yet it was but the introduction to what he hoped would be a separate volume for each of the seventeen problems.
Borsodi and Loomis again accelerated their work giving seminars and conferences on the Seventeen Problems and a variety of social issues. Several conference publications and a variety of training materials were developed including Toward an Adequate Human Future (1971) and Moving Into the Front Ranks of Change (1974), both edited by Mildred. There was also an update of Borsodi’s Inflation is Coming to address the runaway inflation of that time. It was about this time that the University of New Hampshire awarded Borsodi an honorary doctorate.
Borsodi launched another project to address the problem of inflation; he established a pioneering local currency at Exeter. He and friends then developed the International Foundation for Independence (IFI), incorporated in Luxemburg in 1973, to support the new currency.
Borsodi continued to speak, hold seminars and consult to the end of his life. After a brief hospitalization, he died October 29, 1977, just short of his 90th birthday.
Into the Sunset
From about 1963 until she closed Lane’s End in 1968, Mildred worked diligently to insure the Borsodi legacy. Moving to Heathcote, she worked to turn over the school to a new generation. For the next several years she also traveled, spent time with Borsodi in Exeter and with her family in Iowa. There was no retirement for Mildred.
The youth counterculture was a mixed blessing. The Hippies, by and large, were not interested in hard study, or for that matter, hard work. They were “doing their own thing.” With the frustratingly high turnover rate, building community was a daunting challenge.
In 1975 Mildred moved to Deep Run Farm near York, Pennsylvania to start yet another new School of Living. Indeed, she worked to create a network of new Schools across the country and hoped for a West Coast center. She simultaneously managed the affairs of the School of Living and she worked to organize a community at Deep Run and established the Borsodi Memorial Library at Deep Run in 1982. She continued to edit the Green Revolution and she wrote. In 1980 she published Decentralism: Where It Came From, Where is it Going? In 1982 came Alternative Americas. In 1986 she collected and edited the stories for Borsodi as I Knew Him. She completed the manuscript for the biography Ralph Borsodi: Reshaping Modern Culture, which was published in 1992.
Mildred suffered a stroke in 1984 and her health declined. She died September 18, 1986; she was 86 years old. With her death, Deep Run was sold and the library and records were dispersed. Although she was surrounded by loving and stalwart friends, no successor appeared, and over the years the legacy she had tried to preserve went into neglect.
Restoring the Legacy
In 2010, Bob Flatley, then editor of the Green Revolution and cofounder of Transition Centre, and I begin to restore the Borsodi’s legacy. I had met Bob a year or so before as I started work on the Transition Towns model. He was a homesteader in Mildred’s sense of the term, living on a School of Living land trust property. He introduced me to Borsodi’s work, and I found it intriguing for a number of reasons. It certainly seemed to warrant restoration. I began researching Borsodi and Loomis and published articles in Green Revolution. I also gave a number of presentations and workshops on the material and especially the link between the Borsodi/Loomis legacy and the Transition Towns model. Transition Center grew out of this blend of ideas. We located and acquired long out-of-print books which Bob digitalized and placed online for ready access at no cost. I explored the Borsodi archives at the University of New Hampshire. A fortuitus gift of old issues of Green Revolution from the Mary and Lloyd Danzeisen estate, former friends of Mildred’s in Ohio and trustees of the School of Living, filled in a lot of gaps, particularly about her life and work.
As this work reached fruition, I was delighted to be contacted by a growing list of people interested in the Borsodi legacy. With the 100th anniversary of the Borsodis settling on their homestead in 2020, it seems appropriate and opportune to celebrate the Borsodi/Loomis legacy.
We believe that this legacy is of great importance. Borsodi’s star rose during a period of crises, and we are experiencing an unprecedented crisis on this anniversary date. Perhaps this work can be of benefit to those seeking an alternative to the way things seem to be going. Certainly, there are tools of considerable value to those who wish to take the time and trouble to learn to use them.
The Borsodi legacy, as suggested, is a cornerstone of the Transition Centre program. We have added three new components to the basic framework. The first is Resilient Communities. This is a community-scale model, starting with existing communities that have either lost or wish to insure a more secure, localized, and adaptable economic system. Resiliency is the capacity to adapt. The second is Foodshed Strategy which seeks to expand the scope of resiliency to a naturally defined regional level appropriate for climate, geography and water supplies.
We also recognize the vital importance of effective training and educational programs, particularly for community leadership and economic development. Community development requires a businesslike approach in terms of planning, organizing. It must pay its own way.
These are increasingly complex, verging on chaotic, times. It is clear that we need a form of education appropriate to address emerging conditions. Borsodi’s problem centered and integral approach to learning, for the purpose of action, has considerable merit. It is a major component of our approach. But so too, I must add, are the works of Alfred Korzybski, founder of General Semantics, Buckminster Fuller and others. As Borsodi intended, we draw on an accumulation of wisdom, leadership and inspiration to produce an integral model for moving into this evolving era in human history.