The setting is idyllic, chosen for its peaceful remoteness and ability to inspire. Black Mountain College occupies more than 600 acres of rolling meadowland tucked into a valley of the Great Craggy Mountains, watered by a creek that drains into Lake Eden.
The whole enterprise is a dare — a bet on a very radical design for an educational institution. It’s founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, an unconventional professor of Classics who was dismissed from Rollins College in Florida on a variety of unfounded charges, including that he alienated a female student from her sorority (he believed they limited other friendships), and that he called debates “a pernicious form of intellectual perversion” (because debaters, in his view, cared only about winning, not about finding truth).
Rice now undertakes a new kind of college, one not stifled by arcane rules, one that addresses the whole student — not just the intellect. His collaborators include Ralph Reed Lounsbury, a history professor, and Frederick Raymond Georgia, a chemist — both also dismissed by Rollins — and others, both faculty and students, who resigned in solidarity. The new college will intermingle the arts, sciences, humanities, social sciences, and manual labor, including farming vegetables for the dining hall. It will be a community first and foremost, a collaboration of faculty and students.
Black Mountain College takes shape first at the Blue Ridge Assembly, a Protestant retreat and conference facility built into a hillside near the town of Black Mountain, just east of Asheville. For $4,500 per year, BMC leases the site, holding classes for fall and spring terms, then vacating the property so that the church can run its summer programs.
The main venue is Robert E. Lee Hall, a gargantuan, white-columned wooden building. It contains both living quarters and instruction space for the initial 22 students, in addition to a cavernous lobby, in which communal gatherings — meetings, concerts, debates, and lectures — are held.
BMC becomes famous, and somewhat notorious, for its faculty, who are among the most progressive and accomplished in their respective fields, and some of whom are also uncompromising egoists.
Still, the faculty roster reads like a who’s who of important innovators in the arts, humanities, sciences, and design: Willem de Kooning, a Dutch-born Abstract Expressionist painter, and his wife, Elaine Fried de Kooning, also an Abstract Expressionist painter and a premier art critic; Eric Russell Bentley, a British-born playwright and critic; Hazel Larsen Archer, a photography student at BMC who returns as its first full-time photography instructor; Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of design; avant-garde composer John Cage; and R. Buckminster Fuller, the futuristic architect of the prefabricated cylindrical Dymaxion House, among dozens of full-time and visiting instructors.
While typical colleges teach classic literature, art, and music, BMC emphasizes the art of its own time. So when John Cage joins the faculty, he performs the early 20th-century music of French composer Erik Satie — anti-virtuoso, fluid melodies containing subtle jokes on other musical genres. Cage prefaces his series of piano recitals with theoretical talks in which he attacks the German Romantic tradition as personified by Wagner and Beethoven. He collaborates with choreographer Merce Cunningham on a program composed around the principles of rhythm and duration, rather than narrative emotion, and Cunningham incorporates movements from everyday life into the dances.
BMC is a roiling ferment of ideas about history, science, philosophy, psychology, literature, and political science, it becomes perhaps best known for its bold, pioneering work in the arts.
Professors defy convention. Anni Albers creates elaborate geometric tapestries — as well as fine jewelry — using aluminum washers, drain strainers, and paper clips. Her husband, Josef Albers, paints geometric canvases that fool the eye with impossible angles of perspective.
Painters and sculptors explore geometric abstraction and vivid color. Designers like Fuller eschew the traditional architecture of compression — based on sturdy, load-bearing framing in steel or wood — and develop lightweight structures based on the principle of tension, the way a circus tent is held up by a web of ropes and poles.
There is no set curriculum — students confer with a mentor and design their own programs of study. There is no attendance policy, nor are there grades. Classes may contain as few as a single student, and rarely more than half a dozen. As Rice articulates in a letter, the aim is “to maintain some order, but at the same time, keep flexibility, and once you get things too definitely on paper, that vanishes.”
Students matriculate into the junior division and then, when they feel ready, write a statement of achievement summarizing what they think they have learned in their chosen field of study. They then take a series of written and oral exams. Passing the first exam set gains a student admission into the senior division, and passing a second set earns graduation. The exams can last for many hours, and the oral questioning is open to observation by the whole community.
At BMC, activities usually considered “extracurricular” are as important as the classes: hiking in the woods, having coffee with a mentor, cutting wood, hoeing a vegetable patch, playing tennis.
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In 1937, with the Blue Ridge Assembly lease set to expire in 1941, the college acquires the Lake Eden site for $35,000.
The buildings at Lake Eden are the leftovers of a summer lodge and entertainment center developed in the 1920s: a round stone house, two stone cottages, four summer lodges, and a dining hall. But a larger building is needed.
The college first commissions a design from Gropius and his partner, Marcel Breuer, but considers it too expensive to build and turns to A. Lawrence Kocher. He designs a clean, modern-style complex with four wings spreading out from a hexagonal central hall, two stories of wood-framed structure over a foundation story of stone.
As a cost-saving measure, students and faculty provide free labor. In 1940, classes are scheduled so as to leave afternoons free for work. Community members work in teams to gather rocks, mix cement, and haul lumber. The Studies wing takes shape on the lakeshore as the signature of BMC, housing classrooms, faculty apartments, and other specialized spaces.
“The thing that holds Black Mountain together and keeps it from the phoniness I had feared is that they are building their new building with their own hands,” writes poet and novelist May Sarton, who lectures as a visitor in 1940. “It is something hard to describe in words to watch [Erwin] Straus, the ex-German psychiatrist with a wonderful head of white hair throwing rocks to a young girl who throws them to a boy who sets them in the wall which others have prepared with a bed of cement.” She herself lends a hand, feeling “more whole and ready for thought than I have in years.” She concludes that in an ideal world, every college would be rebuilt by each new class of freshmen to discourage “the intellectual slovenliness, immaturity, lack of reality, and sentimentality which the average college produces.”
The Studies Building is the only wing ever completed. In spring 1941, faculty and students work together to move the entire enterprise there on a flatbed trailer pulled by a tractor — pianos, looms, books, kitchen appliances, even the heating system they installed in Robert E. Lee Hall.
Theodore Dreier, a physics professor who resigned from Rollins in solidarity with Rice, raises much of the money needed to finance the move. But afterward, he has mixed emotions. “So much of the wonder of that original community came out of its architecture, which was a matter of pure luck almost,” he recalls in an interview years later. Faculty and students shared quarters in Lee Hall but now are segregated. “Once we were at the new college, although there was a great deal of intimacy, the faculty were much more separated somehow from students than before,” Dreier says.
One faculty member who does not survive the move is Rice, whose arrogance has made him enemies among his colleagues, and who is finally ruined by a scandalous romantic affair with a student.
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The unconventional ways of BMC soon attract the attention of a suspicious governmental agency: the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover.
In 1942, the FBI recruits an informant in a class taught by Paul Radin at the California Labor School. A Polish-born anthropologist, Radin is renowned as much for his work battling racial discrimination as for his monographs on Ojibwa, Blackfeet, Ottawa, and other Indian tribes. His lectures include “Racial Problems and Social Problems” and “Racism Refutation of the Race Theory of Hitler.”
The informant reports that the professor favors full racial integration and is a member of the Communist Party. Radin leaves California under a Communist cloud and teaches at Black Mountain during various periods between 1941 and 1944.
A weekend trip to Tennessee by two female BMC students leads to charges of prostitution — they are found hitchhiking and sentenced to 60 days in the county workhouse. Radin steps up to their defense at a faculty meeting, asserting that the two young women “were victims of a bad class-conscious society.” His remarks are reported to the FBI — and he is not invited back to teach at BMC.
The FBI also keeps a file on R. Buckminster Fuller, who is a visiting professor in 1948-49. His file eventually covers 69 pages.
When the United States enters the war, the draft takes all but one male student — a polio survivor — from the campus. The GI Bill offers a reprieve in 1945, and Black Mountain enrolls more men.
But BMC can’t survive the wave of paranoia toward nonconformists that sweeps the country with the Red Scare, and its heyday is fading fast.
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One essential contradiction is built into the very design of BMC: Individual liberty exists always in tension with the ideal of a cooperative community. No one is forced to work on the farm, to haul coal, or to cut trees for the new building, which can lead to resentment against those who don’t pitch in. And a nearly continuous state of political infighting among factions of the faculty creates fissures and interferes with matters both practical and academic. The atmosphere is electric with creative ferment and controversy.
One controversy that is debated for years is the question of whether to enroll black students. BMC students overwhelmingly support the move — but faculty members, though believing it the right thing to do, fear a backlash from the very conservative local community that might spell the end of the college.
They advance cautiously into a compromise solution by inviting two black students and two black artists to participate in the summer Music and Art Institutes, which are not part of the regular college curriculum. The artists are contralto Carol Brice and composer Roland Hayes. Brice performed at an inauguration concert honoring President Roosevelt in 1941 and is a rising star in opera and musical theater. Hayes, a lyric tenor, performs his own arrangements of Negro spirituals, and for two weeks regales the community with his stories. Their dual visit is the highlight of the season. Soon afterward, Sylvesta Martin, who attended the Institutes, is enrolled as BMC’s first full-time black student.
From the start, BMC is strapped for operating funds, relying on a few wealthy, progressive donors and the efforts of students and faculty. They enlarge the farm, try mining mica for the war effort. At one point, the faculty votes to limit their own salaries to $10 a month in order to cut costs. Despite all the hard work and sacrifice, the college is never more than a bad year or two away from dissolution.
But its effect on a generation of students and faculty is transformative. “It was a total experience, as total as I would ever experience,” recalls I.S. Nakata, a student from 1940-43 who returns from 1946-48. “Black Mountain was first and foremost and always the people it attracted and held in its dream of a better community, a different kind of educational adventure.”
During its sublime and turbulent existence, Black Mountain College serves almost 1,200 students, graduating only 55 with formal degrees. It survives just 23 years — an unlikely comet shooting across the educational firmament — and the afterglow of its fiery tale endures in memory, in art, and in legend.