"Every moment there seemed alive in a way that few have since. This had to do with being asked to be fully awake, to be at a new threshold of perception…"
- A Black Mountain College Student
In the history of experiments in education, probably no institution has had such a lasting influence as the Black Mountain College. Many of its students and faculty, such as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, Ben Shahn, Franz Kline, Arthur Penn, Buckminster Fuller, M.C. Richards, Francine du PlessixGray, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Dorothea Rockburne have contributed to shaping their respective fields of art. It was one of the first institutions to question the traditional systems of education and has inspired the founding of similar institutions. How come an institution that was never accredited, that was started with just $14,500, that enrolled not more than 100 students every year, that barely lasted 24 years, was so influential as to be credited with shaping the modern art movement?
The story is full of coincidences.
Black Mountain College was founded in the fall of 1933 by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier and other faculties who had just been either fired or resigned from Rollins College. At the height of the depression, it probably made more sense to start an institution rather than go around looking for a job. The founding of Black Mountain College also coincided with the rise of Hitler, the closing of the Bauhaus and the persecution of intellectuals and artists by Nazis. Some of these intellectuals and artists, such as Josef Albers, artist and former Bauhaus teacher, and his wife Anni Albers, a Bauhaus-trained textile designer and weaver, found their way to Black Mountain College.
The founders wanted the system to be free from dogmas, but they did have clear ideas on what shape to give the institution. Their ideas were heavily influenced by John Dewey and they sought to educate the whole student – head, heart and hand. Let us look at some key aspects of their approach.
They felt that education can’t end within the boundaries of the classroom. So, they consciously set up the institution in a serene natural setting in Ashville, North Carolina, USA. The students and even their families were residents at the campus and community living were as much a part of the education as what happened inside the class rooms – ‘the individual to be complete must be aware of his relations to others. Here the whole community becomes his teachers’. The classes were usually held in the morning and evening, with communal work activities in the afternoon. While there were helpers, most of the maintenance activities were performed by students and faculty. There was a farm, started by Norman Westom, a student, in the very first year. A new building at Lake Eden was also constructed entirely by students.
Art at the Heart
The entire construct of the institution was based on the belief that art should be central and not peripheral to a student’s educational experience. In the words of its founder Rice, “There is no expectation that many students will become artists…but there is something of an artist in everyone and the development of this talent, however small, carrying with it a severe discipline of its own, results in a student becoming more sensitive to order in the world and in himself…”
From its inception, the founders envisioned it to be a place not just of artistic greatness but an institution that brings about social change. Individual achievement was subordinated to the collective effort and the classes strived for ‘group thinking and cooperative intelligence’. This was a response to the rise of strident individualism that Rice felt was sterilising the American community. For this reason, the teaching always mixed contemporary work with classics. Black Mountain College saw the distinction between art and craft as undemocratic and strove for erasing such distinctions.
The college turned the conventional educational system on its head. There were no grades (except for purposes of transfer). The students chose the pace at which they learn and move on to the next level. Graduation was based on achievement of a project in the student’s area of specialization. When a student felt ready to graduate, he or she submitted a statement of accomplishment. The student was then tested by a group of outside examiners in front of anyone from the college who wished to participate. The focus was only on learning and 50% of the students never bothered to graduate. Black Mountain College took an interdisciplinary training in teaching the arts rather than specialisation. Students learnt different art forms such as painting, sculpture and dance and worked with diverse materials from textiles, wire, metals and stones.
In the end, many things that worked in favour of the Black Mountain College also worked against it. Its refusal to have a board of trustees ensured greater freedom, but also fewer funds. Though the college espoused community living, its community of scholars and artists had little interest in managing administration and farming. There were attempts to have a more traditional management system, but it came in the way of artistic and creative freedom that was central to its spirit. When the funds started dwindling in the 50s due to a more conservative political climate, the college had to close down. While the college faltered in its attempts at greatness, there is much to learn from the tightrope walk it managed between art and craft, education and community living, individuals and groups, excellence and freedom. It did live up to its dream – ‘to open eyes’ of the world to what education can be at its very best.
Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, Edited by Vincent Katz
Fully awake – A Documentary film By Catherine Davis Zommer and Neeley House
Organising Genius, A book by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman