When Ethan Visser heard the noon bell ring from the top of a two-story bunk house he was building, he put down his hammer and nails, took off his hat, and bowed his head to pray the Angelus. Looking out over the pastures and garden dotted with boys working, he saw a wave of heads bowing with him.
“The Angel of the Lord Declared Unto Mary, and she Conceived by the Holy Spirit…”
Visser, ’20, knew he had chosen a good place: St. Martin’s Academy, a Catholic boys boarding school in Fort Scott, Kansas.
Visser and his friend Jack Duffy, a former Hillsdale student, are both house fathers at St. Martin’s, or, as Duffy calls it, “ glorified babysitters.”
St. Martin’s is a classical liberal arts school that incorporates farming and sustainable living into education — or more accurately, incorporates education into farming.
Former headmaster Patrick Whalen and current headmaster Dan Kerr founded St. Martin’s in 2018. Whalen, current operations assistant to the president at Hillsdale College, had gotten off active duty in the Marines and was finishing his Ph.D. in English from Washington University in St. Louis, when Kerr, an old family friend, gave him a call. He had a business proposition to start a classical liberal arts school on his family land that incorporated farming into education.
Initially, Whalen turned down Kerr’s offer.
“I said, ‘It’s a great idea, but now I’m going to be doing some other things.’ So he said, ‘Okay cool. But when you come around just let me know. I’ll be waiting.’”
Kerr’s confidence paid off when only a year later, Whalen agreed to come on board as co-founder and headmaster.
St. Martin’s follows the pedagogy of John Senior, a Catholic professor of English, literature, and classics who sparked intellectual revolutions and hundreds of Christian and Catholic conversions with his open lectures at the University of Kansas in the 70s.
His goal was to cultivate wonder in students souls.
The Pedagogy: A Poetic Education
“Education can’t simply be an intellectual proposition. That doesn’t work. It’s not very interesting. We have these bodies, and I think for all people, but maybe especially for adolescent boys, if you try to go straight to the intellect, you won’t get there,” Whalen said. “You can only get there through the body, through the affections, and through the emotions.”
John Senior called this the poetic mode of education.
Etymologically, Whalen explained, the Greek root of the word ‘poem’ means to do or to make — it is a thing fashioned as if by hand.
To teach with this pedagogy means not to just read a book, but to experience it, Whalen said. “If we’re reading “Robin Hood,” I’m going to take them out to the creek and we’re going to fight with sticks. And if you lose you’re going in the water.”
This means, too, that the boys do little sitting. Often professors lead them on marches through the pastures and woods during which they read out loud.
They also take the boys on trips. The junior class began this year on a pathfinding journey, in which they spent three weeks camping, learning survival skills, and learning to map their location from the stars. More contemplative trips involve retreats at a monastery in Clear Creek, Oklahoma.
All these pedagogical excursions are carefully selected to cultivate wonder, authentic masculinity, imagination, and attentiveness.
To accomplish their vision, Kerr and Whalen decided to open the school piecemeal, beginning with a freshman and sophomore class that totaled 17 boys in 2017. This year, with a total of 45 students, St. Martin’s will graduate its first senior class. Kerr and Whalen plan to cap the student body at around 60 students in order to maintain the integrity of the education. They have had to turn down a waitlist of applicants every year.
Parents, Whalen said, are realizing that the typical classical Christian school simply is not working for their sons because it doesn’t address the deepest and most enduring parts of them — and is not even approaching the intellect.
“We are different because we engage them with a real teacher and teach them a love of literature and poetry,” Duffy said. “It’s not like the technical skills that most universities proffer as literature courses — like analysis and that sort of thing. Senior recognized that before you’re ready for analysis, you have to love the thing you’re engaging with.”
The Pastures: Encountering the Real
Early every Wednesday morning Visser and Duffy don their work boots, jackets, hats, and gloves and head out to the pastures to slaughter hogs or sheep — which constitutes the bulk of the boys’ meals for the week. For the past three Wednesdays, they’ve been slaughtering and butchering hogs.
“They’re very smart,” Visser said. “We used to lure them into this wagon with food and kill them in there. But once they saw one go in and not come out, they won’t go in anymore, even for food.”
These and other duties — like milking, collecting eggs, herding sheep, tending the gardens, building fences and bunkhouses, and mucking out stalls — comprise the second half of St. Martin’s boys’ poetic education.
“All these things are soil for the life of the mind,” Duffy explained.
If learning is always sequestered to a classroom, the student’s intellect, too, is corralled into that artificial space. When the time comes to pick up a hammer, or a briefcase, or a calculator and do an “adult” job, there’s nothing to do but leave the soul and intellect behind.
St. Martin’s teaches boys to hold onto their souls while scraping the dung off their feet. Out in the fields, students work alongside their professors, priest, and house fathers. Conversation, questions, and insights flow naturally.
“The fact that they engage in some of their first experiences with animals, like getting up close and personal with a pig — it causes this sort of wonder to just light up in their eyes,” Duffy said. “It has an effect on the spirit.”
The pedagogy of experiential learning extends naturally to farmwork.
“Right now we live in a vacuum, but then once you go out and you smell a pig, see it rolling around in the dirt and the mud, then the description of “Animal Farm,” for example, suddenly comes alive,” Duffy said. “That is the basic thrust of our push for encountering the real, as far as literature is concerned. You just understand so much more literature, when you do the sort of things that people have been doing for thousands of years: farming, keeping livestock, cultivating deep knowledge of the celestial heavens.”
Farm work not only feeds their minds and spirits — it also feeds their bellies. As of last year, the farm produced all the protein students and faculty consumed, between chickens, eggs, hogs, and dairy products. In the dairy, they use fresh milk to make cheddar, gouda, mozzarella, and alpine cheeses.
Their hoop houses and tunnel frame hold seasonal crops. The current fall plot has squash, pumpkin, kale, arugula, corn, lettuce, radishes, etc. They plan to put the boys to work to build a permanent greenhouse soon, Whalen said.
The farm cannot sustain all of St. Martin’s staple needs. They still purchase things like rice, sugar, salt, flour, beans, etc.
The Faith: The Word Incarnate
St. Martin of Tours, born in Tours in 316 A.D., was at various times in his life a soldier in the Roman army, an elite guard for the emperor, a monk, hermit, and a bishop. All his life he was a devout Catholic. Kerr and Whalen chose him as the patron of their school because any kind of boy, from a jock to a nerd, can look to St. Martin as an example of how to be a Catholic man.
St. Martin represents and models the very heart of the school, and that for which all else is aimed: the Catholic faith.
“It provided us a common end toward which all faculty, staff, and parents strove for the sake of the students — that of ever more perfect union with God,” Whalen said. “Our pedagogical approach, our curriculum, the farm, the layout of campus, everything was designed to cultivate greater virtue in the boys and dispose them to a deeper spiritual life.”
Prayer punctuates each day. Theybeginning with Latin Mass every morning, followed by prayer before every class, the Angelus at noon, a rosary in the afternoon, and they end with compline every evening.
The idea, Visser said, is that the rhythms of the Liturgy and the liturgical year become ingrained in the boys and shape their souls for the rest of their lives, even though “we may not be able to see it right now because they are still boys.”
“I don’t think I was like these kids when I was a senior,” Visser said. “They’re not exactly more mature, but they do a really good job of taking responsibility for the younger guys. They lead all the prayers, they serve during Mass, and all learn the traditional Latin Mass.”
Visser and Duffy, both converts to Catholicism, have experienced personal growth in the rich faith environment at St. Martin’s. As house fathers, Visser and Duffy are encouraged to spend regular retreats at Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Abbey, where they practice Ora et Labora — the Benedictine practice of prayer and work —after which St. Martin’s is modeled.
They also agreed on daily mortifications for themselves, so that they can continue to be spiritual role models for the boys. These include saying the rosary and going to Mass and adoration every day, abstaining between meals, fasting on Fridays, and abstaining from alcohol except on Sundays. Every day they write down five things they are thankful for, they don’t complain, and they live chaste and pure lives.
“I can’t say I am always very good at it, but the mortifications are really helpful. The monk at the abbey told us any meal taken without a mortification is a meal taken as a pagan. We should always give up something little that other people don’t really notice, like a few less dashes of salt,” Visser said. “It’s like sending warning shots over the demons’ heads. Making sure those guys keep their heads down.”
Pedagogically, the Catholic faith is inseparable from St. Martin’s poetic edutation.
“For the faith who’s central feature is the Word becoming flesh, you can see the importance of a pedagogy that does not simply leave education at the word,” Whalen said. “Sheer intellectualism, the repetition of words, is never enough. It must become incarnate. We must live the education in the flesh.”
A Day in the Life of a St. Martin’s Boy
7:00 a.m. Wake up. Morning chores on the farm.
8:00 a.m. Change into jackets and ties for Latin Mass.
9:00 a.m. Breakfast.
9:30 – 12:00 p.m. Class.
12:00 p.m. Angelus and lunch.
1:00 – 3:30 p.m. Class.
3:30 – 5:00 p.m. Athletics (led by Visser ).
5:30 p.m. Rosary.
6:00 p.m. Dinner.
7:00 – 8:30 Study hall.
8:30 — 9:30 Free time.
9:30 p.m. Pray compline.
10: 00 p.m. Lights out.
Wednesdays the boys are exempt from classes. They spend the whole day out in the fields working after a big farm-table breakfast at 9:00 a.m.
“Wednesdays are great,” Visser said. “Theotokos Hall is up on a hill so if you are in there and you look out over the pasture, you just see boys scattered herding animals and working.”
Though the school, the land, and the vision of St. Martin’s are all idyllic, Whalen said it’s important to remember that the school was created by fallen humans with flaws — and populated by smelly, loud, impulsive teenage boys who don’t always appreciate the beauty surrounding them.
“We always fought this battle in the dorms trying not to be too dictatorial and forbid all junk food, but given the opportunity they would eat just Skittles forever instead of the tomatoes that they harvested…” Whalen paused to consider the truth of his statement for a moment. “Yeah, no they would just eat Skittles. You know, and if we could plant Skittle trees they would do it.”
DuffDad, as the boys affectionately dubbed him, knows something of the pugnacity of these teenage boys, and is skilled in the practice of “tough love.”
“The boys love him. He is good and kind and he listens well, but the boys know that he could rip their head off at any time,” Visser said. “He has wrestled every one of the boys, and one time all 40 kids tried to take him and they couldn’t do it.”
According to Visser, Kerr offered $500 to any boy who could beat Duffy in a wrestling match.
Though he must weather and temper the blows of several bunkhouses full of boys, Duffy says this ceaseless vigilance has been a source of growth.
“Constantly being bombarded by petty complaints and small annoyances is the most fruitful part and the most difficult,” Duffy said, “because it is truly in the little things that sanctity grows. And you are given many, many opportunities to grow in charity when you’re living with 40 teenagers.”
Duffy, in turn, takes his responsibility as role model and teacher seriously.
“I’m trying to inculcate virtue in the students,” Duffy said. “ So I helped with steering the boys toward sort of more basic roles of duty, like waking up on time and getting the class on time. Every aspect of a school is oriented toward growing virtue.”
And the boys?
“For the most part, they love it,” Whalen said. “We are in the environment of real life. We’re immersed in the real world. Yes, you know, cleaning that dung off your boots is about as real as it gets.”