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What kind of life is most desirable? And what is the best preparation for it?
The story of Black Mountain College begins in 1933 and comprises a fascinating chapter in the history of education and the arts. Conceived by John A. Rice, a brilliant and mercurial scholar who left Rollins College in a storm of controversy, Black Mountain College was born out of a desire to create a new type of college based on John Dewey’s principles of progressive education.
Operating in a relatively isolated rural location with little budget, Black Mountain College inculcated an informal and collaborative spirit and over its lifetime attracted a venerable roster of instructors. Some of the innovations, relationships, and unexpected connections formed at Black Mountain would prove to have a lasting influence on the postwar American art scene, high culture, and eventually pop culture.
The events that precipitated the college’s founding occurred simultaneously with the closing of the the Bauhaus school in Germany, and the beginning of the persecution of artists and intellectuals in Europe. Some of these refugees found their way to Black Mountain, either as students or faculty. Meanwhile, the United States was mired in the Great Depression.
Buckminster Fuller met student Kenneth Snelson at Black Mountain, and the result was their first geodesic dome (improvised out of Venetian blind slats in the school’s back yard); Merce Cunningham formed his dance company; and John Cage staged his first happening (the term itself is traceable to Cage’s student Allan Kaprow, who applied it later to such events).
The founders of the college believed that the study and practice of art were indispensable aspects of a student’s general liberal arts education, and they hired Josef Albers to be the first art teacher. Speaking not a word of English, he and his wife Anni left the turmoil in Hitler’s Germany and crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat to teach art at this small, rebellious college in the mountains of North Carolina.
Black Mountain College was fundamentally different from other colleges and universities of the time. It was owned and operated by the faculty and was committed to democratic governance and to the idea that the arts are central to the experience of learning.
Not a haphazardly conceived venture, Black Mountain College was a consciously directed liberal arts school that grew out of the progressive education movement. In its day it was a unique educational experiment for the artists and writers who conducted it, and as such an important incubator for the American avant garde. Black Mountain proved to be an important precursor to and prototype for many of the alternative colleges of today
All members of the college community participated in its operation, including farm work, construction projects, and kitchen duty. Twenty minutes east of Asheville, the secluded environment fostered a strong sense of individuality and creative intensity.
For the first eight years, the college rented the Blue Ridge Assembly buildings located south of the village of Black Mountain. Classes were held in the mornings and evenings. Work program and other activities took place in the afternoon. For entertainment there was after dinner dancing during the week and parties, plays and concerts by community members on weekends.
The war years brought new hardship to the college which was too small to qualify for the wartime programs which sustained many colleges and universities. Many young Americans were drafted or left to join the war effort, and the community consisted mostly of older Americans, European refugee faculty and women students.
Josef Albers teaching Robert De Niro Sr - 1939
Approval for benefits under the GI Bill of Rights was critical to the post-war survival of the college. New faculty were hired, both Americans interested in an alternative teaching environment and refugees from Europe. Young men returning from the war were eager to find a non-authoritarian atmosphere in which to study. With over ninety students, the college was its largest.
Those who inherited Black Mountain College in the fall of 1949 were faced with the formidable task of healing the badly fractured community, of raising funds, and of reexamining the college’s goals. An administrator was hired to reorganize the college and to raise funds – a union that was neither satisfactory for him nor for the college.
Although the college continued to espouse the inherited ideals of the 1930s such as community living, a farm, work program, and faculty-run college, the community was, in fact, comprised largely of artists and scholars with little interest in farming, administration or maintenance. Periodic efforts to give the college a more traditional structure and program were unsuccessful.
A conventional college with an authoritarian administration inevitably meant a loss of academic and creative freedom. The GI Bill benefits were dwindling, and the conservative atmosphere in the 50s made it virtually impossible for experimental ventures to raise funds. Eventually, the faculty were paid in beef allotments from the remaining cows and parcels of property were sold.
In its darkest hours, despite the inevitable demise, Charles Olson continued to postulate new schemes. Finally, in the fall of 1956, the remaining faculty directed Olson to begin the process of closing the college. The few students left the campus, many for San Francisco where the college continued to sponsor programs including a drama workshop directed by Robert Duncan and Olson’s Special View of History lectures. In March 1957 the courts ordered Olson to cease all programs, and the college closed although a postmortem issue of the Black Mountain Review did not appear until Autumn 1957.