“The college was an intense, high-pressure, exciting educational experience, one that disturbed students’ ideas of the status quo and often profoundly changed their lives. It required nothing but expected everything – a total commitment of emotion, intellect, and creativity.” – Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center
Black Mountain College was the first American college of its kind, an experimental school born out of John Dewey’s principles of experiential education. Central to the college was the idea that the arts are at the core of the experience of learning. Its founders believed that exploration of the arts- whether visual arts, music, literature, drama, or dance– are valuable in learning self-discipline and self-expression.
Also central to the philosophy of the school was the idea of community. Dedicated to the concept of democratic governance, the college strived to employ very few outsiders and be as self-sufficient as possible with no administration. The students and faculty themselves took part in the college’s operations, including farm work, building maintenance, and kitchen duty.
BMC students were expected to take individual responsibility for their education; to be engaged in the learning process; and to seek, find and create opportunities for personal growth. This meant few rules and regulations: no required curriculum, no schedule of exams, and no formal grades.
Lee Hall provided the ideal accommodations for the college community. Classes and lectures were held in the lobby, the porch offered dynamic places for group meetings, and the lawns and rooftops provided unique spaces for social gatherings. The building even hosted the College’s legendary Halloween parties each year in the basement.
While some faculty lived with the students in dormitory wings of Lee Hall, staff with families resided in the nearby cottages. Lastly, the dining hall just behind Lee Hall served as a center of intellectual and innovative activity, where students and professors could converse over shared meals.
Students & Faculty
Black Mountain College attracted immigrant artists from around the world to teach at the campus. This faculty, well-known in their respected fields, became magnets to young amateurs who were eager to learn and experience new artistic methods and theories. Students came to BMC from across the country, many by word of mouth. Enrollment was sometimes 50, sometimes 10, but never more than 100 students at any one time.
With small classes and one-to-one tutoring, students and faculty were in close everyday contact. These unsanctioned mentorships and apprenticeships eventually played out and it was not uncommon for students to go on to become teachers at the college themselves. The school created a critical mass of professionals in many different areas of art- music, dance, painting, photography, poetry, and sculpture. Yet the overlying goal remained consistent: to challenge mainstream social values.
The progressive reputation of Black Mountain College grew quickly and generated a buzz in the industry, attracting other notable contemporaries of the time. It drew such guest lecturers as Thornton Wilder (1934), Louis Adamic (1935), Aldous Huxley (1937), William Carlos Williams (1940s), Henry Miller (1940s), and Clement Greenberg (1950) . Even Albert Einstein and the schools “founding father” John Dewey made several visits and eventually became members of the College’s Advisory Board.
Next up…Our final installment to the series: “Black Mountain College: The Later Years”