Black Mountain College

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Black Mountain College: An Experiment in Alternative Education

“BMC was a crazy and magical place, and the
electricity of all the people seemed to make for a
wonderfully charged atmosphere, so that one woke up in
the mornings excited and a little anxious, as though a
thunderstorm were sweeping in.”
- Lyle Bonge, Student 1947-48.


Founded in the remote mountains of North Carolina in
1933 against a background of global economic
depression, Black Mountain College was a practical
experiment in alternative education. It pioneered an
arts-centred approach that encouraged students to
learn by experiment, rather than through formal
teaching and it combined communal living with
informality in the classroom.

During the subsequent 24 years the College attracted a
remarkable roll-call of ‘teachers” and students. It
was there that Buckminster Fuller developed his
geodesic dome as a solution to the global housing
crisis, and the composer John Cage and the dancer
Merce Cunningham created the first “happening’ and
transformed modern music and dance.

Avant-garde poets (subsequently known as the Black
Mountain Poets) were drawn to the school - nearly all
of them linked to anarchism and anti-war activism,
most notably Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and
Robert Creeley. The College also attracted artists
and architects fleeing from fascism in Europe
including Josef & Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, and
Lyonel Feiniger, as well as rebellious US artists such
as Ben Shahn and Robert Motherwell.

Although the student body never reached more than 100
at any one time (and was often less than 50) nearly
1,200 students attended the College during its
lifetime, becoming involved in an exciting,
high-pressure educational experience,that profoundly
changed their lives. There were few rules and
regulations, no required courses, no set schedule of
examinations, no formal grades. Faculty members were
relatively free to choose the courses they would
teach, and at the beginning of each term, students
could sit in on classes to decide which they wished to
take.

The College work programme was a central element in
the college experience and all students took part.
Influenced by educator John Dewey's belief in
"learning by doing" this was similar to the anarchist
concept of “integral” education which believed
intellectual skills should be grounded in practical
tasks.

The college strived to be as self-sufficient as
possible so students contributed to its operation
through a work programme. Work was shared equally by
male and female students - many did farm work, while
others helped in the kitchen and dining room or with
building maintenance. In 1941-42 staff and students
constructed a new Studies Building on the College’s
Lake Eden campus, requiring a massive amount of
labour by College faculty and students, most of whom
had never built anything! With little funding
available, their combined efforts were crucial to
creating the intense feeling of community that
characterised Black mountain College until its closure
in 1956.

Martyn Everett

(Originally published in Freedom, 29 July 2006)