by Joseph Bathanti
North Carolina Poet Laureate (2012-2014) and McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor in Interdisciplinary Education & Writer-in-Residence, Watauga Residential College, Appalachian State University
In early 1933, John Andrew Rice, an outspoken firebrand professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, was dismissed from his teaching post by Rollins President Hamilton Holt. Rice had been accused of many things, chief among them fomenting revolt among the Rollins faculty. Rice held that traditional lockstep academia, and its often neurasthenic curricula, allowed little in the way of independent thought and engagement in the pluralistic tradition of John Dewey: the holistic conflation of living and intellect.
Consequently, he led a band of fellow academic dissidents from Rollins, among them Robert Wunsch and Theodore Dreier, both of whom would prove influential in the life of the college, particularly and ongoingly Dreier – as well as a number of Rollins students loyal to him – and ended up founding Black Mountain College, deep in the mountains of North Carolina’s Buncombe County, between the village of Black Mountain and the city of Asheville. In his quest to start a new college, Rice had nothing in the way of a plan, much less dollars or even a building. America was in the early throes of the Great Depression. Europe was entering the cataclysmic swoon that eventually resulted in Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia. Modernism, a key progenitor of Black Mountain College, was in full tilt, charting in breathtaking, but often inscrutable media, the blasted fragments of World War I. Rice was adamant that his aim was not to establish an art school.
That first semester, fall of 1933, Black Mountain College was comprised of thirteen faculty members and twenty-six students. The physical plant materialized, like so many of Black Mountain’s milestones, through serendipity. One of Rice’s confederates, Bob Wunsch, a dramatist from Rollins – not incidentally the roommate of Thomas Wolfe for a time at the University of North Carolina – suggested the first site for Black Mountain College. The Blue Ridge Assembly, a Christian conference and training center, established in 1906, was a cluster of buildings, including the august antebellum Robert E. Lee Hall. It was utilized in the summer for religious retreats, but unused for the most part during the traditional academic year. Rice and Wunsch engineered a deal and were able to rent The Blue Ridge Assembly for a fantastic bargain. Nevertheless, there was the Depression to contend with. There was very little money. Mac Forbes, of the famous Forbes family and a former Rollins professor himself, provided the majority of underwriting for the initial start-up costs. A dependable operating budget remained a crucial issue, year to year, and the college annually mounted a campaign to raise even nominal amounts of money.
Black Mountain College faculty, with liberal input from the students, ran the entire operation, proprietarily and administratively. No boards of regents, directors or trustees. The College was not accredited. Of the roughly 1200 students who attended during its history, few (approximately 60) ever graduated, and those who did received hand-designed, homemade diplomas (Yet its students, upon leaving Black Mountain, were coveted by the very best graduate schools in America and beyond). The school's structure was its lack of structure. The pedagogical direction was whatever students and teachers agreed upon. No grades. Process claimed dominion over product.
Faculty were paid on the basis of individual need. When there were surplus funds, faculty received small salaries, as well as room and board. During those times when funds did not exist to pay entire salaries, that deficit was logged as a debt against the college at the end of the year.
Much of the food that fed the residents was grown on the college farm. Self-sufficiency, living lean and close to the land in the true pioneering tradition of America, was very much a part of Black Mountain. The College taught that the exchange of creature comfort for freedom was more than an equitable barter. Black Mountain invented itself and in so doing established a paradigm for all educational communities ever after to mimic. It initiated itself by posing tough questions about arbitrary, traditional rules governing education and teaching, questions about the self and various external fetters imposed upon it. The College’s very first catalogue states that it had been founded “to provide a place where free use might be made of tested and proved methods of education and new methods tried in a purely experimental spirit. . .”
Black Mountain was also a crucible of dangerously volatile social change. Long before the rest of America wrestled with sexual orientation and racial integration, Black Mountain established a forum for discussion and acceptance, but always — and perhaps more importantly — dissent. During its inception, it became a sanctuary for Jewish intellectuals, many of whom were fleeing the scourge of Nazi Europe.
While the overall impression one gets, whether myth or fact, is that the college was regarded by locals with suspicion and disdain, a haven of perdition, a number of Buncombe County residents attended concerts, lectures and plays at the college – and there were other intersections between Black Mountain College and the surrounding local community.
Black Mountain College closed its doors in 1957. Among the American public and academic community, at the time, as well as Buncombe County locals, there was a general lack of interest in Black Mountain. The College had no endowment and, in the end, it was unable to recruit enough students for it to remain solvent, and certainly the arch-conservative climate of the 1950s, inspired by McCarthyism, was another stake through its heart.
Yet to this day, it remains the greatest experimental academic adventure ever launched on American soil. During its shimmering stormy history, many of the nation’s greatest thinkers and artists were in residence or paid visits to Black Mountain: Anni Albers, Josef Albers, Hazel Larsen Archer, Ruth Asawa, Eric Bentley, John Cage, Harry Callahan, Jean Charlot, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Edward Dahlberg, Fielding Dawson, Robert DeNiro, Sr., John Dewey, Robert Duncan, Aldous Huxley, Alfred Kazin, Galway Kinnell, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Paul Goodman, Walter Gropius, Zora Neale Hurston, Karen Karnes, Franz Kline, Irwin Kremen, Jacob Lawrence, Henry Miller, Robert Motherwell, Charles Olson, Arthur Penn, Francine du Plessix-Gray, Mary Caroline Richards, Robert Rauschenburg, Nathan Rosen, Ben Shahn, Aaron Siskind, Cy Twombly, Jack Tworkov, Stan VanDerbeek, Thornton Wilder, Jonathan Williams and countless others. Albert Einstein even dropped by one afternoon.
However, to associate Black Mountain exclusively with this litany of the famous remains one of the chief hazards of its legacy. What makes the phenomenon of Black Mountain stupendous is the fact that apart from its glittering roster, there are any number of famous artists and writers, the one ones without names in neon, without international or even national reputations, but who have made prominent names for themselves across every area of the arts. But not just in the arts. Black Mountain produced some of America’s most profound innovators in Education, Science, Social Work, Architecture, Urban Planning, Psychiatry, History, Politics, on and on. To research a Black Mountain College alumnus is to stumble upon greatness, but not merely in typically quantifiable ways. They became citizens of blazing social consciousness and engagement who put to daily practice what John Andrew Rice imagined for his new college’s students back in 1933: "inner freedom in judgment and action."
Black Mountain College started with pure intellectual curiosity and radical curricular reform, most notably an arts-centered education and a clear focus on the classic master-apprentice paradigm, and rewrote the history of the self, an opus still unraveling as the endless labyrinth of influence that is Black Mountain branches off into tributary after tributary. As Martin Duberman points out in Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community: "It was the forerunner and exemplar of much that is currently considered innovative in art, education and lifestyle."