Grad2B Salutes – The Awesome Legend of Black Mountain College

Grad2B Salutes – The Awesome Legend of Black Mountain College

Can a radical idea become a reality? Just ask the creators of GOOGLE. Well, then, can a radical idea become a college?

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, whether in class, in the work program, in our own work, or in the life of the community...It let us perceive how much we, each of us, had meaning in the process of the life of the community. That was our education. --- A.G. (Black Mountain College Student, 1943-1946)

Oh yes, indeed it can. When brilliant creative people decide its time to initiate their own personal concept of life, anything can happen.

Today we salute, not an individual, but an institution of higher education. And this institution was born of an idea— a concept of higher education, as revolutionary as it was intense.

Some say we are already in a new Depression. Today I want to go back in time to the first Great Depression. A time of hardships, very much like today.

Now it is President Obama. Then it was President Franklin Roosevelt. Each leader was committed to putting people back to work. Franklin established the Public Works Arts Project (forerunner of the WPA). We wonder what President Obama might do, if he were unobstructed by Congress?

Black Mountain College was established in 1933. It’s origins were unconventional and inspiring. Art and higher education would never be the same.

Born in the lush North Carolina “Blue Ridge” mountains (just north of Asheville) the rugged and remote setting gave a fiercely independent spirit to everyone involved.

But how was it born? With an idea, of course. An idea in the brain of an individual.

John Rice was a brilliant scholar, far ahead of his times. Angered by narrow thinking, Rice left Rollins College. He conceived of a new kind of college, and chose the mountains of North Carolina as a beautiful inspiring place for learning.

More importantly, Black Mountain College was based on John Dewey’s (then radical) principles of “progressive education.”

What did this word “progressive” mean? It means democratic principles carried out to their fullest extent.

Everyone worked. Everyone contributed. Everyone learned.

Black Mountain College

Black Mountain College was fundamentally different from other colleges and universities of the time. It was owned and operated by the faculty and was committed to democratic governance… and to the idea that the study and practice of the Arts is critical to learning itself.

Black Mountain College was born in world turmoil. 20th-century art was under attack, with the rise of Adolf Hitler, the closing of the Bauhaus by the Nazis, and the persecution of European artists and other writers and intellectuals.

Word of the artistic freedom of Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, had quickly reached the Euro art circles. Condemned as “degenerative”, creative people fled Germany and Europe, and a number of them came to Black Mountain, either as students or faculty.

The founders of the College hired artist Josef Albers to be the first art teacher. Google Albers. In art, he was far ahead of his time. Albers fled Hitler’s Germany with his wife, and came to Black Mountain not knowing a word of English.

All members of the College community participated in its operation, including even farm work, and construction projects and kitchen duty. Each person worked. Each person taught and learned. No one was too good to share in the work or the knowledge or the overall experience of creative intensity.

Black Mountain College

Legendary even in its own time, Black Mountain College attracted many who thrived in the intellectual freedom there, and became giants of 20th-century art and ideas.

A partial list includes people such as— you will recognize some but GOOGLE those you don’t know, and be amazed…

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 Plessix Gray, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Dorothea Rockburne…

And there are many others, famous and not-so-famous, Black Mountain educators and students, who have impacted the world in a significant way.

In 1957, the college had passed its zenith, and due to financial issues, closed. It seems that many good things must come to an end. Or they bear fruit and wither, having served their purposes for their creators.

Even now, decades after its closing, the stunning gestalt of Black Mountain College inspires higher educators everywhere— challenges them to always explore new ways to educate, educate, educate, by encouraging students to explore their own energies and talents.

But now, again, private colleges are springing up both on the ground, and online. Students now have a dazzling array of choices.

Be proactive. Look hard for the school that suits your persona most effectively. Don’t settle for less.

We wonder if these hard times will inspire greatness in higher education, and radical new ways of learning?

Online learning is one new way. New institutions with new ways of learning may be another.

Black Mountain College, though now closed, still glows with an inspiring light of its ideas— to guide us into the new century of higher education.

And the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains are still there.

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