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The most influential college you’ve never heard of, why it folded, and why it matters | Scalawag
"But Black Mountain College was not, strictly speaking, an art school. And it certainly didn’t start that way. In 1933, classics professor John Andrew Rice tossed the snowball that kicked off a decades-long avalanche, foregoing more pointed Latin and Greek coursework at Rollins College to lead his students on Socratic journeys about topics from religion to “What is Art” and bad-mouthing academic hierarchy. The Rollins College president, a self-proclaimed “experimenter in education,” was nonetheless displeased. For this curricular skullduggery, and for Rice’s generally winking attitude toward authority, he had Rice fired.

Popular as Rice was, his exit caused a scandal. When the dust settled, eight professors had left Rollins, and a number of students with them. After some uncertainty, Rice and his colleagues decided to put their rebellious philosophies to test. Thanks to a local professor, property was located in western North Carolina, a grand colonnaded hall atop an Appalachian hill in the shadows of the Blue Ridge; funders were secured to support the endeavor; teachers were recruited. From a pedagogic schism, Black Mountain College was born.

The goal was from the outset to approach education in an unregimented way. There were no required courses, no extensive examinations, no formal grading. The school was not even accredited, “graduating” only sixty students throughout its lifetime. Yet its alums were accepted by graduate schools and as transfers, from Harvard to Princeton to the Pasadena Playhouse College of the Theatre, despite their lack of certificates.

To ensure an open curriculum, the founders decided to avoid top-down control, instead granting ownership of the school to the whole faculty evenly, including new hires. Meanwhile, the school decided to make no decisions without student input—student officers could be present at faculty meetings and would sit on the governing Board of Fellows (constituted otherwise of a subgroup of the professoriate). Discussions of school policy were typically open affairs attended by all. Collectivism was applauded; democracy reigned.

This opened space for BMC’s idea that learning and living should interlace. As Louis Adamic, who spent three months at the school as a curious visitor, described the method in a breathless 1936 article for Harper’s: “At BMC there is no head-cramming. There education is experience that involves in action the whole person.”

To that end, Rice and his cofounders made art a core piece of the Black Mountain experience, in an effort to get each student to “put the same faith in doing that he has been taught to have in absorbing,” as an early school catalogue put it. Serendipitously (for Black Mountain, anyway), the year of the college’s founding, the Nazis closed down the radical Bauhaus art school in Germany. Josef and Anni Albers, looking to escape the rising tide of fascism, agreed to come on at BMC to teach art, despite the fact, as Josef wrote, that he did not “speak one word English.” In subsequent years, many Germans would follow.

The Albers’ arrival was a coup for the school. It immediately provided a strong artistic spine and influenced the pedagogy greatly: Josef was a champion of a humanistic approach to education, of art as a way to engage the world completely. So while art was central, everyone was not to become an artist, per se; instead, art looked more like the core of a liberal arts education today. BMC alum Will Hamlin described the result to historian Martin Duberman: “I think we had this in common with the painters and weavers and musicians, that we were trying to make some kind of order out of things, I mean really trying, not just pretending to be… I think we were—with a few exceptions—really working at creating our own universes of meaning.”

The decision to avoid any sort of administrative board cut both ways. The educational model was open as the sky. But the school was constantly scrambling for money, seemingly always on the verge of closing—although it still maintained a pay-what-you-can system (sometimes counterbalanced by accepting wealthier students for that reason alone).

The “precariousness, though deplored and decried at the time, may well have contributed to the community élan,” as Duberman writes. “The severity of the struggle for economic survival helped to knit the community together.” The upshot was a focus on collectively tending to the college: a work program was instituted early on, and students and professors alike worked a farm that provided food for sustenance and sometimes sale, constructed new school buildings, washed dishes, and maintained the grounds. This was cause for grumbling in some corners—it was work, after all—and romantic reverie in others. Rice, the school’s cheeky founder, perhaps summed up the ambivalent attitude best in his autobiography. “Untoiling poets may sing of the dignity of toil;” he wrote, “others know there is degradation in obligatory sweat.”

Nevertheless, there was definite communal buy-in among the Black Mountaineers. When psychologist John Wallen joined the faculty in 1945, he broadened the question of collective responsibility by reaching out to the largely bemused and distrustful surrounding community. (There was a bit of a cultural gap between the school and its environs. A maintenance man on BMC’s first campus described the student body to me as many contemporary locals would: “nothing to do but moonshine and sex.”)

In many ways, the experiment was successful. Students volunteered in town, worked in the Southern Negro Youth Conference, registered voters, gathered signatures for petitions. But it was also short-lived, as Wallen left BMC contentiously not two years into his appointment, taking his ideals with him.

Still, while insulated at times from its surroundings, the school tackled the social issues of its day. It offered a home to German Jews, artists and intellectuals during another era when immigration vexed the United States. In 1944, ten years before Brown v. Board of Education, Alma Stone, a Black musician from Georgia, attended BMC’s summer institute in the Jim Crow South. The following summer black artists began to teach, and Black students enrolled full-time, some back from the war on the GI Bill. When the students went into town, they abided by segregation laws; but when outsiders came to Black Mountain for concerts, theater productions, and the like, everybody sat where they pleased.

Democracy proved hard. Immediately upon BMC’s founding, a more powerful group of faculty emerged at its helm: John Rice, Josef Albers, engineer Theodore Dreier, a few compatriots. Soon, some of their colleagues began to resent the group’s authority as at odds with the school’s mission; when Rice had a very public affair with a student in the late ’30s, it provided a catalyst to put him on leave for a time. He never returned.

Sans affair (although that continued to happen every so often), this process repeated itself throughout the school’s history: groups of professors were forced out or resigned, sometimes taking significant portions of the student body with them. Eventually even Albers fell victim to such a dispute after a younger crop of professors decided that he and his ilk had become too stuffy.

The infighting shaped life at the school and gives a sense of the easy-come-easy-go nature of the work. Professors were appointed initially to two-year terms, and later to one-year terms; there was no tenure. Faculty could be asked to leave for the vaguest of reasons—complaints about classroom technique became shorthand for any number of nebulous collegial gripes. Yet because they were part of steering the college, because of their great freedom in implementing their visions of education, professors came. And they stayed.

Josef and Anni Albers, despite the consistently meager pay, taught at the school for 16 years. Co-founder Theodore Dreier, too. Poet Mary Catherine Richards stayed seven years and continued to be involved with the school after she left. The poet Charles Olson stayed six years, until the school closed. (Some students stayed about as long.) The pay was bad, yes. But to be architects of education, rather than grunts on its front line, was for many worth the shortfall.

Albers’s exit in 1949 began the last, most incandescent period of BMC’s history, under the rectorship of Olson, a six-foot-seven-inch whirlwind of a man. After a (comparatively) more staid period in the late ‘40s, the school under Olson lived up to its ideals of radical experimentation. Any semblance of traditional course structure was scrapped, seminars ran until the wee hours of morning, the lines blurred fully between students and faculty. The literary arts took central importance, and the “Black Mountain School” of poets emerged, buoyed by Robert Creeley’s publication of the Black Mountain Review, a journal whose contributors also included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

The Olson years were BMC magnified: yet more cash-starved, yet more experimental, yet more soul-searching. Yet more famous alumni—painter Dorothea Rockburne emerged from this period as well—yet more piercing thought. But the lack of structure had its costs; dwindling enrollment meant emptier coffers, and finally, in 1956-7, the school’s closure. Professors and students spun off to more traditional universities, to new experiments in communal living, to Abstract Expressionist New York and the San Francisco of the Beats.

Black Mountain College’s troubles stemmed from staunch opposition to centralized hierarchical governance. The UNC system’s current issues lend credence to those fears. Early last year, after the NC Board of Governors reviewed 240 academic institutes and centers across the UNC system, they decided to close down three—the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, at UNC Chapel Hill; East Carolina University’s NC Center for Biodiversity; and … [more]
northcarolina  2016  sammyfeldblum  hierarchy  education  highered  highereducation  bmc  blackmountaincollege  josefalbers  johnandrewrice  charlesolson  democracy  art  arts  curriculum  openness  experience  experientialeducation  learning  howwelearn  howweteach  pedagogy  governance  politics  precarity  rollinscollege  authority  opencurriculum  living  lcproject  openstudioproject  louisadamic  martinduberman  precariousness  community  collectivism  responsibility  theodoredreier  marycatherinerichards  robertcreeley  history  horizontality 
yesterday by robertogreco
Black Mountain College: "The Grass-Roots of Democracy" - Open Source with Christopher Lydon
"Our guest, the literary historian Louis Menand, explains that B.M.C. was a philosophical experiment intent on putting the progressive philosopher John Dewey‘s ideas to work in higher education. The college curriculum was unbelievably permissive — but it did ask that students undertake their own formation as citizens of the world by means of creative expression, and hard work, in a community of likeminded people.

The college may not have lived up to its utopian self-image — the scene was frequently riven by interpersonal conflict — but it did serve as a stage-set to some of modern culture’s most interesting personalities and partnerships."
bmc  blackmountaincollege  rutherickson  louismenand  teddreier  theodoredreier  sebastiansmee  taylordavis  williamdavis  2016  robertcreeley  jacoblawrence  josefalbers  robertrauschenberg  annialbers  davidtudor  franzkline  mercecunningham  johncage  charlesolson  buckminsterfuller  johndewey  democracy  art  music  film  poetry  cytwombly  bauhaus  experientiallearning  howwelearn  education  johnandrewrice  unschooling  deschooling  schools  schooling  learning  howelearn  howweteach  pedagogy  christopherlydon  abstractexpressionism  popart  jacksonpollock  arthistory  history  arts  purpose  lcproject  openstudioproject  leapbeforeyoulook  canon  discovery  conflict  artists  happenings  openness  rural  community  highered  highereducation  curriculum  willemdekooning  small  control  conversation  interdisciplinary  transdisciplinary  mitmedialab  medialab  chaos  utopia  dicklyons  artschools  davidbowie  experimentation  exploration  humanity  humanism  humility  politics 
october 2018 by robertogreco
Return to Black Mountain College - WSJ
"“Black Mountain is a myth, but it was mythic in its inception,” says Helen Molesworth, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, who is organizing the first major American museum show to examine the school’s legacy, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957, opening this month at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. “The people who made it had a lofty sense of what they were doing before it even started. They were trying to form a better world.” The exhibition will feature work by nearly 100 artists. Along with stars like the architect Walter Gropius and the Alberses, it includes figures like the sculptor Ruth Asawa, the collagist Ray Johnson and the funk potter Peter Voulkos, together with scores of photos and archival materials, as well as dance and music performances held within the galleries.

Other 20th-century art luminaries passed through the college too, including the abstract expressionists Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, Russian-born WPA muralist Ilya Bolotowsky and Jacob Lawrence, the African-American painter whose Great Migration pictures were the subject of a recent MoMA retrospective, all drawn largely by Josef Albers’s allure. From the start, “Albers had an international reputation, and so did the college,” says Alice Sebrell, program director of the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in nearby Asheville, which was founded in 1993 to honor the school. “He was very open to artists whose work was different from his own. The whole package was appealing to artists who were doing non-mainstream work.”

From today’s vantage point, the reality of Black Mountain College as a crucial nexus for artistic, intellectual and even political activity is coming into sharp focus. Artists, scholars, educators and curators are increasingly recognizing that its unique environment was essential to the flowering of midcentury American art and culture, a place where the avant-garde of Europe and the United States came together and created something new. The past year has seen another major show, Black Mountain: An Interdisciplinary Experiment 1933–1957, at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, which explored the creative contributions made by German refugee artists and intellectuals who converged at the school during the Nazi era. A new book, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, was published last December.

“Today Black Mountain seems so avant la lettre, so proto-Beat, proto-hippie, so completely off the known of the region but also of the nation,” says Eva Díaz, the book’s author. In a contemporary art world riveted by the idea of experimentation, she adds, “Black Mountain is often invoked as a touchstone.”

The school’s interdisciplinary outlook is like catnip to curators and academics because it anticipated the current interest in performance art, craft and design. Artists are fascinated by it too: “There’s a growing need for us to be socially engaged, to want an interaction with a larger aspect of society,” says photographer and sculptor Sara VanDerBeek, whose father, the experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek, studied at the college from 1949 to 1951. “That’s in keeping with the things they were discussing and engaging in at Black Mountain.”"



"“The teachers who were at Black Mountain were there because they really believed in freedom and education,” says abstractionist Dorothea Rockburne, who heard of it as a teenager in Montreal and began saving money to attend, which she finally did, from 1950 to 1954. She took science with the physicist Goldowski, but her most profound connection was with the German mathematician Max Dehn, with whom she studied topology, linear algebra and Euclidean geometry.

Part of what made Black Mountain special was the mix of disciplines, the intensity and the fact that everyone was together so constantly in the remote location. “We were all foreigners, so to speak, in that setting,” says Theodore Dreier Jr. (the son of the co-founder), who studied music there before transferring to Harvard, later becoming a psychiatrist. “It enhanced that kind of participatory, creative openness.”

The college was never accredited, largely because the founders wanted to remain independent from outside influences. Its largest class was 100, and only 66 students ever graduated. But great teaching was always the byword. Although the constantly evolving curriculum always included classroom instruction, Rockburne recalls that most of Dehn’s teaching “took place on our morning walks to the waterfall five days a week. He would explain to me the mathematics of nature,” pointing out examples of probability theory and Fibonacci progression as they occurred in plants. “I always had the sense that my teachers were living for me.”

By 1941, just before the United States joined the war, the school had raised the money to buy its own lakeside campus. It moved after the faculty and students had spent a year and a half constructing a two-story, 202-foot-long, streamlined modernist compound known as the Studies Building. When its summer art and music sessions, initiated by Albers, began in 1944, a dizzying array of instructors arrived, including the art critic Clement Greenberg, the choreographer Agnes de Mille, the gamelan composer Lou Harrison and the photographer Harry Callahan—most long before they became well known."
bmc  blackmountaincollege  2015  carolkino  interdisciplinary  interdisciplinarity  art  education  schools  unschooling  deschooling  democracy  freedom  autonomy  learning  history  robertrauschenberg  johncage  johnandrewrice  rollinscollege  highered  highereducation  stanvanderbeek  saravanderbeek  mercecunningham  jeromerobbins  josefalbers  bauhaus  communes  cytwombly  annialbers  buckminsterfuller  helenmolesworth  robertmotherwell  jacoblawrence  franzkline  ilyabolotowsky  alicesebrell  theodoredreier  jonathanwilliams  walking 
october 2015 by robertogreco
The Life and Work of an Institution of Progressive Higher Education: Towards a History of Black Mountain College, 1933-1949 by Jonathan Fisher | BMCS
"This ambitious new democratic structure for the administration of a college was unique to BMC, and to my knowledge has not been repeated on such a scale since. It would mean that teachers, in addition to their classroom and other responsibilities on campus, would also be taking on administrative tasks like bookkeeping, fundraising, hiring of new faculty and student admissions on a rotating basis. This commitment to a radically more democratic organizational structure for the new Black Mountain College would last until the bitter end, despite a list-ditch effort led by Dreier and Albers to alter it in the late 1940s. This attempt ultimately led to the Board of Fellows voting to remove Dreier, who had been on an extended leave of absence, in 1948. Josef and Anni Albers would leave the following year. But it was this radically democratic structure that would attract some of the world’s most visionary artists and teachers to this tiny town in rural Western North Carolina for more than two decades. It was also this structure which would allow the BMC community to move forward on issues of racial integration in the 1930s and ‘40s—decades before such attempts would be made at larger, more established colleges in the southeastern United States. It was ultimately John Dewey’s principles of progressive education that were at the foundation of these radical organizational structures, which were adopted by BMC’s founders.

During the first five years of Black Mountain College’s existence, things went remarkably smoothly. Of course finding enough money was always a problem. It was the height of the Great Depression in the United States and despite Rice, Dreier and Albers’ best efforts, BMC had never managed to secure more than minimal financial support for their new experimental progressive institution. A budget drawn up by Dreier in the first year of BMC totaled $32,000, with staff salaries totaling less than $2000, excluding Albers’ salary of $1000 annually, which was supported separately by an individual benefactor (Duberman, 1972, p.71). In these early years there were none of the scandals or disputes that would plague the community later on in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Furthermore, the college’s system of governance appeared to be working. And efforts at self-sustainability were taken on unflinchingly. A student-run cooperative store was set up on campus as well as a print shop and a cottage school for the community’s youngest members (ibid.). In addition to their academic work, students engaged in projects ranging from the staffing of the various cooperative enterprises set up on campus, to the manufacture of bookshelves, curtains and other furnishings for campus buildings. These activities helped supplement the goods available to them on the campus they were leasing from a Christian group, which used it for a summer camp for just a few months each year.

Among the highlights of these early years of the college were two visits by John Dewey, who in 1936 began serving officially as a member of BMC’s Advisory Council. Both of Dewey’s visits took place during the 1934-35 school year. It is unclear from the correspondence in the North Carolina Archives whether or not Dewey ever visited the campus again. But these two early visits set a precedent, which caused BMC faculty—especially Rice and Dreier— to request future visits, which always seem never to have quite worked out (e.g. Dreier [to Dewey] April 6, 1938; Dewey [to Dreier] April 13, 1938). In one of the oldest Dewey letters in the BMC General Collection of the North Carolina Archives, which is handwritten on Columbia University Department of Philosophy letterhead, Dewey expresses his regrets at not being able to pay Rice and the others at BMC a visit during the fall of 1936. He writes of postponing his planned visit until the spring, “when I hope to see the countryside and the flowers at their best” (Dewey [to John Rice] October 29, 1936)."



"Ultimately Dewey remained committed to his position on the Advisory council until the late 40s. A final lengthy unsent hand-written letter from Dreier addressed to Dewey provides a grim picture of the final days of Dreier’s involvement in college affairs (Dreier [unsent letter to John Dewey] 1947, July). Duberman has described in less sympathetic terms Dreier and Albers’ ploy to wrest control of BMC from the faculty and hand it over to a new Board of Trustees. At the root of Dreier’s decision, as usual, was a concern for the financial stability of the college. Black Mountain had never been officially accredited by the State of North Carolina, and student enrollment was too unreliable (Duberman p.484-5). But this was just one of many problems facing BMC in the late 40s. Dreier despairs in his unsent letter at the difficulty of finding good teachers who are also capable and willing college administrators:
Our program, a pretty real thing to [Albers] and me, was not much more than words to most new [faculty] members with one or two notable exceptions… One way of looking at the present difficulty is to say that we simply haven’t been able to get the staff we need. If we could get an adequate team that could pull together, then I think we could raise the money we need (Dreier [unsent letter to Dewey] 1947, July).

So, Dreier’s concerns are both immediate and practical, but no less frustrating for their immediacy or practicality. He is trying to escape a catch-22 of money and talent. But also, more tellingly, Dreier writes:
Another way of looking at our trouble is that our program has become unclear, conviction has sagged… Hardly anybody sees what’s wrong, but gradually the whole thing is sagging toward breaking (ibid.).

Dreier’s pain and frustration are palpable here. The emotion of this letter is even intensified by the fact that he decided not to send it to his mentor, Dewey. But this unsent letter to Dewey shows the philosophers’ influence as a guiding voice for Dreier, Albers and other faculty at BMC in the 1940s. Dreier, in writing this letter seems to be implicitly asking himself, “what would Dewey do?” not because John Dewey was some all-knowing being, capable of rescuing Black Mountain College from dire financial straits, but because Dewey’s pragmatist method of evaluating experience and taking action had been the basis for everything he had helped create at BMC over the course of the previous 15 years.

The changes in administrative structure that Dreier alludes to in his final unsent letter to Dewey, which he and Albers attempted to implement as a last-ditch effort at financial solvency for BMC, ultimately failed to stick. The ensuing crisis ended in Dreier and Albers being forced to leave. Ironically, strict adherence to the Deweyan progressive educational principle of professional autonomy, which was at the core of Rice’s idea for Black Mountain College, and which Dreier resigned from Rollins in support of, was the same issue that brought Dreier and Albers careers at BMC to an end when they switched sides. In other words, the same philosophical inclination that justified the founding of BMC in 1933 remained and kept BMC on its own radical trajectory in the late 40s, even when figures like Dreier and Albers stepped in to try to change the way the college was organized. So, on the one hand, Albers and Dreier failed at prolonging the life of BMC. But, on the other hand, even in this final failure on Dreier and Albers’s part— in their capitulation to the mainstream bureaucratic structure of higher education, the creation of a non-faculty Board of Trustees which would have had hiring and firing power for BMC— illustrates that the college retained that uniquely Deweyan pragmatist orientation and progressivism. When the community became aware of the changes that Dreier and Albers had gotten underway, they acted democratically to kick Dreier and Albers out!"
bmc  blackmountaincollege  education  progressive  progressiveeducation  johnndewey  johnandrewsrice  josefalbers  theodoredreier  democracy  tcsnmy  progressivism  compromise  annialbers  pragmatism  democratic  democraticschools  unschooling  deschooling  experience  complexity  cv  lcproject  openstudioproject 
august 2014 by robertogreco

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