The Intellectual Agrarian and the Educated HomemakerTim Kinnard
If I could take a book of my shelf and step into one of the fictional worlds created out of the imagination of one of my favorite writers, and had the chance to visit one of the enchanting places in that fictional world, I think it would be fun to visit J.R.R.’s Tolkien’s “The Shire of Middle-Earth.”
If you’ve ever read the classic series “The Lord of the Rings” or it’s beloved prequel “The Hobbit,” you’ll know the scene I’m talking about. The Shire is best known for its simple agrarian lifestyle and slower pace of life. The rural Hobbit folk Tolkien imagines value their old-fashioned traditions and have a passion for life’s simple pleasures. They appreciate good home cookin’ and find satisfaction in an honest day’s work tilling the soil and watching things grow.
I guess the only thing that bothers me about the way the little Hobbits are depicted is the stereotype that an apparent trade-off of living in the country must be the absence of progress and the absence of a good education. Tolkien picks up on a common opinion that I think a lot of people share that farmers must be barefooted, overall-wearing, pipe-smoking, straw-chewing backwoods Hillbillies who don’t own that many books and who are woefully oblivious to what’s happening in the world.
If there’s one Hobbit who seems to be the exception to the rule it’s the main character, Bilbo, who has made quite the study for himself at his home of Bag End where he keeps all his maps, journals, and elven histories. I think it’s unfortunate that Bilbo has to be the exception to the rule, because I would prefer to see the “Bag End” kind of farmer as the norm and the model for the rural community. It’s the whole “Intellectual Agrarian Standard” that has unfortunately been lost by many who work in the field.
When I think of homesteading, farming, and rural life, it’s not all watching the world pass by from one’s isolated porch in Mayberry. Rather, what I envision is the George Washington of Mount Vernon kind of farmer.
You know, Washington was the kind of farmer who had a love for his garden and orchards and, as a surveyor, developed amazing landscapes and garden designs. He enjoyed the routine of getting up early and planning out his day’s work and then, after breakfast, riding out on horseback to inspect his farm. As he made his morning inspection, he would hand out assignments and visit with his workers. Later in the day, he would return back home to his wife Martha to host whatever guests they had planned to host that evening. Then, after he had finished entertaining, he would retire to his home office to read a little from the newspapers he was subscribed to and from the shelves of books that he had collected.
Washington didn’t just read for the pleasure of it, but he put his learning to work as an officer in the French and Indian War, later as an elected official in the Virginia legislature, and eventually as commander-in-chief in the Continental Army and in the War for Independence before becoming the first president of the United States. Then after serving his country in those capacities, he retired back to the peace and quiet of his beloved farm.
When I think of farming, I also like to think of men like Thomas Jefferson of Monticello, who not only gave attention to advancements in agriculture, including better ways of rotating his crops and better seed varieties to try in those crops, but as a bit of an architectural enthusiast, he spent much of his adult life designing and redesigning his homestead estate of Monticello. He looked for the best ways to position his gardens, his fencing, and his outbuildings in relation to the landscape, creating what I think, having visited Monticello, is a delightful place to be.
It’s interesting how Jefferson was sure to include in all his farm designs a dedicated home office which he would refer to as his “cabinet” where he would answer thousands of letters and do most of his reading and writing. It was in his office, Jefferson mapped out his master plans for Monticello.
Like Washington, though, Jefferson was careful to balance all that private life with a life of public service. He practiced as a lawyer and served as a Virginian delegate in the Continental Congress. He penned our Declaration of Independence. He served as our third President of the United States. Even in his retirement years, he continued to balance both a commitment to his farm and political career.
The point is, men like Washington and Jefferson kept a foot in both worlds. They kept their hands dirty in the soil of their gardens but then, after the planting was done, they washed their hands, read another book from their library, and went to work on some bigger cause for the good of mankind.
It’s the Bilbo Baggins of Bag-end kind of farmer who, enjoyed his well-stocked pantry of home-grown goods and enjoyed reclining in his favorite armchair in front of the fire to read a good book. But then, who also shared in the Middle Earth adventure, fighting against the threats of evil and injustice in the world. Again, if you’ve ever read or watched the Tolkien series, you know all about the greater global fight Bilbo got involved in.
The kind of farm-life I’m talking about compels a man to be content in the field, disciplined in the study, and available to serve a greater cause.
I like what Joel Salatin has to say on this topic in his book “Letters to a Young Farmer.” Writing to farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders who, perhaps might start to conform to the whole uneducated, backwoods stereotype, he writes:
“Read liberal and conservative news sources; business, history, religion. All of this creates a renaissance persona that can stand toe-to-toe with any Fortune 500 executive. Get a nice suit and wear it; don’t see yourself as a blown-in hayseed. View yourself as a modern Jeffersonian intellectual agrarian. What’s on your bookshelf? How many hours a week do you read? Readers are leaders…”
I love where Salatin is going with that. With an objective of engaging on equal footing with the world around you—whether that’s in business, or politics, or spiritual interests—educate yourself. Build a wealth of knowledge in order to make yourself effective in the lives of those around you. Hang up the overalls and wear a suit when appropriate, and begin viewing yourself as a respected contributor and influencer in society.
What I’m arguing here for are more intellectual agrarian farmers who are equipped not only to work in the field and produce good food, but who are equipped to work among neighbors and communities to help produce a much different kind of harvest. If you truly believe in the old-fashioned traditions and values common to farm life, I’ll tell you, you have something worth sharing that our modern secular society desperately needs.
Honestly, what I’m talking about not only applies to men in the field but to their wives at home as well. In addition to “Intellectual Agrarians,” I’m convinced we need more “Educated Homemakers.”(2x) That may sound like a contradiction and insult to a lot of feminist progressives out there who might say, “Why would any woman want to waste her education as a homemaker?”
Personally, I think that the most noble career a woman can pursue is as a mother to her children and a wife to her husband. Amy and I both have a lot more we can say on that topic biblically appealing to God’s good design for women. Without making a full argument here, I believe the home, as Titus 2 says, is certainly a worthy and honorable path to be pursued among our ladies. As such, I think it is a worthy area to invest more education and learning in. It’s what used to be called the study of home economics.
I don’t know if they still teach Home-Ec in schools anymore. My guess is they probably don’t. But I like what a lady named Sarah Hale once taught young women in her book titled “The Good Housekeeper” in 1841. She writes:
“The more intelligent a woman becomes, other things being equal, the more judiciously she will manage her domestic concerns. And we may add, that the more real knowledge she possesses of the great principles of morals, philosophy and human happiness, the more importance she will attach to her station and the name of a “good housekeeper.” It is only the frivolous, and those who are superficially taught, or only instructed in showing showy accomplishments, who despise and neglect the ordinary duties of life as beneath their notice. Such persons have not sufficient clearness of reason to see that “Domestic Economy” includes everything which is calculated to make people love home and feel happy there.”
I love that quote. Unfortunately, I think way too many women in the world have come to view the home and their part in improving, developing, and managing the state of affairs at home as beneath their notice. Instead, they seek to escape what they see to be the prison of home and seek to pursue a higher and more prestigious position in the world.
Truth be known, as instituted by God, the home is one of the highest and most honorable places we can ever give our attention to. Why? Because it’s in the home where we mold the next generate on. It’s in the home where true companionship is found in marriage, and true partnership is forged in accomplishing God’s will for the family. It’s in the home where efforts of hospitality are practiced, and true community is built with neighbors around the dinner table. It’s in the home! Why wouldn’t a wife and mother want to build her library with books that equip her to one of the greatest and most influential God-commissioning tasks?
I love learning about women like Abigail Adams who it’s told, though she personally had no formal education, she much availed herself to her family’s library to master subjects most women never considered and in so doing not only managed her own home well but was able to serve and influence the less fortunate in teaching them how to better manage their homes. To be fair, Abagail Adam’s also found ways to get involved in public affairs too, ironically enough in her advocacy for improved women’s rights. Much of that was done behind the scenes through the unique influence she had of her husband, John Adams, who was the second president of the United States and, much like Washington and Jefferson balanced his public service with the management of his farm of Peacefield.
The point is, like her husband, Abigail sought to keep a good balance. She sought to do her part serving public interest’s while still keeping her attention primarily on the home, devoting some deal of study to improving and mastering her management of the home.
Ladies, I’m not sure what your family libraries look like, but consider the example of Abigail Adams who made use of her husband’s books and no doubt had a collection of her own covering a variety of subjects. It wasn’t all fiction novels, but I’m sure included books on marriage, parenting, cooking, agriculture, medicinal remedies, stewardship, even theology…
I believe we need more homemakers who are well read and equipped to best serve the interests of their homes—to best educate their children, to be their husband’s best advisors, to know the best ways to budget and shop and garden and cook and everything else a wife is privileged to oversee. The wife who excels in all those areas will have give sufficient time to reading.
If there’s one takeaway I’m trying to get across to all my fellow homesteaders out there, it would be this — yes, keep cultivating the soil beneath your feet, but don’t neglect to cultivate the soil between your ears. Build your library. Read good books. Never stop learning. And then put that learning to use and find creative ways to make a difference, first to your family, and second to your church and community.