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Education for Democracy

Jonathan Creasy

I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, by John Andrew Rice, University of South Carolina Press, 351 pp, $24.95, ISBN: 978-1611174366

If one knows anything about Black Mountain College, it is probably a list of names – a roll call of the mid-twentieth-century avant-garde: Josef and Anni Albers, Franz Cline, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Ruth Asawa, MC Richards, Lou Harrison, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Paul Goodman, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Buckminster Fuller, and the list goes on. But this is only part of the story. To view the life of the college only through its most famous names is to underestimate the task set by its founders, and to limit its legacy in educational and artistic practices today.

Founded in 1933 in the mountains of western North Carolina and dissolved by 1957, Black Mountain College lasted a short time under extraordinary circumstances. It was established on the principles of John Dewey’s progressive education philosophy, and so it placed the arts at the centre of a general curriculum. The college went through at least three distinct phases, led in turn by three powerful personalities: classicist John Andrew Rice, painter Josef Albers and poet Charles Olson. Though it is primarily known now as a remote and rural escape for artists who went on to shape the postwar cultural landscape, Black Mountain must be understood as a daring departure from conventional forms of higher education. This idealistic, utopian experiment in education folded because of financial pressures and petty in-fighting, at once offering encouragement but also warning to those who see today’s systems of education as exclusionary, debased and fundamentally removed from the aspirations of civil society.

In a decision reached by the American Association of University Professors, it was determined that at Rollins College in Florida John Andrew Rice sought

to bring students to substitute, in place of assumptions accepted through tradition or convention, personal convictions reached through reflection; and that he did this chiefly, not by lecturing, but by a searching and skillful use of the Socratic dialogue.

These remarks came in an appeals hearing initiated by Rice after he was fired from Rollins by president Hamilton Holt. Holt found Rice to be a disruption to the college: he was arrogant, it was charged, insensitive to conventions of gender roles and general propriety; some of his students complained that Rice bullied them, that they were publicly humiliated. Rice had apparently displayed “obscene” pictures on the walls of his Greek Civilization class, and had excoriated fellow faculty for the intellectual and pedagogical weaknesses he found in them. He was even charged with indecency on account of his preferred swimming attire.

The AAUP hearings vindicated Rice, though he left Rollins all the same. This was 1933, with the Great Depression well under way. Rice found himself out of work, while his career-long reputation as iconoclast and pedagogical searcher left him no option or interest in pursuing work at a conventional institution.

In the most comprehensive historical study to date, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community (1972), Martin Duberman writes:

Rice hated what he called the “top sergeants” in teaching, of whom he took Thomas Arnold of Rugby to be the exemplar: “He was a builder of empire builders, and a destroyer of men, for he forces them into the mold of the immutable past.” Teachers like Arnold, Rice felt, had a deep distrust of learning, even while using it as a weapon to keep their students in line.

That summer of 1933, Rice helped establish one of the most vital experiments in education, art and living ever attempted in the United States. As location, he and his small band chose the mountains of North Carolina, far away from the artistic centres of New York, Los Angeles and the great cities of Europe. The remove afforded artists, teachers and inventors the space and time to experiment in ways they could not possibly have managed elsewhere. In the beginning, great obstacles were set before Rice and his idealist companions (several others who had walked out of Rollins in protest or had their positions terminated by Holt for supporting Rice). Most of the twenty-odd students in Black Mountain’s first class followed Rice from Rollins. Later in BMC’s history, Rice’s reputation was tarnished, and then rehabilitated. For better or worse, he stands as an embodiment of the college’s successes and failures, its vast ambitions and limited means.

In October 2014, University of South Carolina Press republished Rice’s long out-of-print autobiography, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century (1942). This republication rescues from obscurity a key text in Southern literature of the twentieth century. It also offers the witty, acerbic and insightful life of an American iconoclast. A potential legal scuffle with Holt over how he was represented in Rice’s chapter on the Rollins incident forced the book out of print despite excellent reviews in major periodicals, including Harper’s and The New York Times. The book closes with Rice’s painful break from the institution he helped establish, and it prompts readers to reexamine the reputation and influence of Black Mountain College.

In the throes of the Great Depression, with the economic foundation of the country bottomed out, space emerged for experimentation across fields and without official sanction. In her definitive study The Arts at Black Mountain College (2002), Mary Emma Harris writes:

Despite the unemployment and financial hardship, the Great Depression gave rise to a garden of utopian ventures, some ephemeral, some enduring. The collapse of the financial system brought disillusionment with the existing political, economic, and social order.

“Rice had often discussed the ‘ideal college’ in his Athenian Civilization class,” Harris continues, “and he seized the opportunity to implement his concepts.” After a national search for money and grounds, on August 24th, 1933 a lease was signed with the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina, fifteen miles from Asheville. For $4,500 per year, Rice and his associates could run whatever experimental college they wished up until the summer months, when again the campus would be taken over by Christian summer conventions. With a $10,000 seed grant from J Malcolm Forbes, Rice enlisted luminaries in United States academic, artistic and financial life, including Thomas Whitney Surette, director of the Concord Summer School of Music, John RP French, head of Cambridge School, and Henry Allen Moe, secretary of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, to help found his idyllic experiment in learning.

The school’s original incorporation certificate from the State of North Carolina, issued August 19th, 1933 reads in part:

The school is a place where coeds “may receive instruction in those branches of learning which will aid in qualifying them for honorably and effectively discharging their obligations to society and their duties as citizens.”

This comes straight from Dewey, who saw education as the process by which able citizens of democracy are created. Dewey, who acted as a close adviser to the BMC and visited Rice on campus, writes in “On Education”:

unless [the] end is placed in the context of services rendered to others, skills gained will be put to an egoistic and selfish use, and may be employed as means of a trained shrewdness in which one person gets the better of others. Too often, indeed, the schools, through reliance upon the spur of competition and bestowing of special honors and prizes, only build up and strengthen the disposition that makes an individual when he leaves school employ his special talents and superior skill to outwit his fellows without respect for the welfare of others.

Dewey’s argument is standard for the progressive education movement he shaped. At Black Mountain, however, even Dewey’s authoritative pronouncements were subject to question and criticism. Power was given to those who in a traditional academic setting would have had very little, as bitterly evidenced in the Rollins blowup. Instead of a board of trustees, Black Mountain was administered and directed by faculty and students. Quaker-style meetings were held to draw out consensus, a process that could be painfully tedious. Above all, a commitment to democracy guided the college’s policies.

In the 1940s, BMC moved from the rented grounds of the Blue Ridge Assembly to a purchased plot of land at nearby Lake Eden. From this point on, a college farm became integral to college life. Rice saw this move, and the purchase of property, as a grave mistake (a sentiment later echoed by Olson). He believed the college should travel light; it should be able to pick up and move when necessary, without debts. (He also had very little interest in maintaining a community farm.)

In the context of the Depression, with the many wandering and hungry jobless, this itinerant notion of education had appeal and a good deal of validity. The move to Lake Eden also signalled a move toward the later character of Black Mountain as an arts institute rather than a progressive college and intentional community. However, the foundation built by Rice and his reading of Dewey never entirely faded. To understand Black Mountain’s importance and the persistence of its legacy, one must realise its goals and effects outside the world of avant garde arts. It started with the belief that, as Dewey writes, “[t]o bring to the consciousness of the coming generation something of the potential significance of the life of to-day, to transmute it from outward fact into intelligent perception, is the first step in the creation of culture”. In commitment to this ideal, Black Mountain initiated students, faculty and indeed the great artists associated with it, toward what Rice called “a grammar of the art of living”.

I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century begins with Rice’s life “on a prosperous cotton plantation in South Carolina in the [eighteen] nineties”. The eighteenth century of the title refers to Rice’s affinity for the works of Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift, whose biting wit he employs and directs at his adversaries. It also points to the character of the American South, living as it did with the cultural memory of a grand, unforgotten past. Rice grew up as a disaffected Methodist, restlessly questioning the social norms of the reconstructed South. The evidence of racial discrimination and hatred appear everywhere, and Rice’s attitudes, even early on, are liberal compared to those of his surroundings.

As a boy, he attended the famous Webb School, the institution that produced more Rhodes scholars than any other school in the world. True to that heritage, Rice won a Rhodes scholarship himself and spent time at Oxford. There he found himself again in an eighteenth century world, far removed from the American South. He writes,

When the history of America’s last twenty-five years comes to be written, a chapter will be required with the title “The Influence of a Misunderstanding of Oxford on American Education” […]
To love her, an eighteenth century poet said of his girl, was a liberal education. That was [Swarthmore College president and Rice’s brother-in-law] Frank Aydelotte’s liberal education, love of Oxford, pure chivalry, with never a thought to the old ways that made her and kept her what she was; and to love was to defend, her and her nation […]
It was on Frank Aydelotte’s front porch in Swarthmore that Black Mountain College had its beginning – not out of acceptance of Oxford: out of rejection. Or had I too misunderstood?

In founding BMC, Rice, Ted Dreier and others hoped to take Dewey’s pronouncements on education several steps further. Rejecting conventional divisions of schools and disciplines, they sought a space wherein studies of the arts, sciences, mathematics, history, classics and languages could interact, giving sense of their inherent connections. This was to “start the revolution in American education”. Of the location, Rice writes: “Blue Ridge was perfect. Set halfway up in the bend of a mountain, it looked out over an endless chain of peaks. Here was peace.”

One major innovation of Black Mountain was to do away with typical administration, and to lose the title of college president. Instead, Black Mountain’s leader would be rector, as Rice became, and he was responsible to an administration made up only of faculty and students. There was a board of advisers, which included Dewey, Walter Gropius, William Carlos Williams and Albert Einstein. As Rice writes, the “center of the curriculum, we said, would be art. The democratic man, we said, must be an artist. The integrity, we said, of the democratic man was the integrity of the artist, an integrity of relationship.”

The peace did not last long. It must be kept in mind that when Rice was writing the chapters of his autobiography, his forced removal from Black Mountain (in part, for having an extra-marital affair with a student) was still fresh. He claims bitterly, the “trouble was, that there was not anyone calling himself an artist who was an artist. They were not in love with art; they were in love with themselves, and being in love with themselves, alone, they loved only what they themselves did.”

When one has lived with them and come to know them well in their daily living, it is easy to understand how some psychologists call art a neurosis. Their ruthlessness might be forgiven, if it were used to defend and protect art; but it does nothing of the kind; it is self-defense, and at the same time a plea for pity. Their private stomach-ache becomes the tragedy of the world.

But Rice’s end at Black Mountain was not the end of the college. In fact, the artistic achievements for which it is so famous came later on. Another key figure in the college’s story is German painter Josef Albers, hired by Rice. Albers and his wife, Anni, came to Black Mountain after the closure of Germany’s Bauhaus, a target of Hitler’s wrath. Initially, Albers spoke very little English, but he quickly became the pedagogical centre of BMC. In the college’s second phase, perhaps its most legendary, Albers moved it more and more toward the kind of arts institution it is generally assumed to have been. In this period, European artists and teachers – including Walter Gropius, Xanti Schawinsky, Stefan Wolpe and others – altered the peculiarly American character of the Black Mountain experiment.

Albers united the struggles of Europe and the United States, and the instigations of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain. His pragmatism also fit into the Dewey-Rice ethos: Frederick Horowitz writes that Albers “decried both ‘undisciplined laissez-faire’ and ‘imitative parroting’ as strategies for art education, saying that ‘shooting without aim’ was as senseless as ‘shooting at objects already shot’”. Albers understood, as Dewey writes, that the educator “like the artist […] has the problem of creating something that is not the exact duplicate of anything that has been wrought and achieved previously”. Black Mountain opened up a field of activity wherein discipline, the new and the old, the tried and the experimental, would interact.

Albers was the embodiment of these interactions. His approach and pedagogy quickly emerged as the high standard at Black Mountain, as it left room for each individual’s approach while demanding a “mastery of [art] materials or means, achieved over a lifetime”. (After BMC, Albers famously went on to apply this pedagogy at Yale.)

These were not skills gained merely for personal expression, just as the education at Black Mountain was not meant for personal distinction. Harris writes:

The curriculum that Albers developed at Black Mountain offered an alternative to both academic tradition and self-expression. Its content was a study of the elements of form; its method one of discovery and invention; its goal “a constant and accurate ‘seeing and perceiving.’” He noted that “in art, as in all communication, precision – as to the effect wanted – and discipline – as to means used – are decisive. Both can be achieved through experience, through continuous and repeated experimentation.

Some of the most notable achievements at Black Mountain came during the legendary summer institutes that Albers championed. John Cage and Merce Cunningham first visited the college in the summer of 1948. Cunningham established his dance company there, and it would emerge as the most important American company of the twentieth century after Martha Graham’s, of which Cunningham had been a principal member. Cage put on his infamous “happening” (Theatre Piece #1) at Black Mountain – an improvised, interactive performance mixing all media represented at the college. In the 1960s counterculture, Cage’s example exploded into hundreds, if not thousands, of these happenings around the world.

Another notable summer project was Buckminster Fuller’s first attempt at erecting his geodesic dome. This initial attempt failed and was jokingly referred to as the “supine dome”. However, the following summer, Fuller substituted a stronger material and the dome stood. His design is now universally recognised and used in structures throughout the world.

Poet Charles Olson would become the final rector of Black Mountain College, but initially he was invited by Albers to participate in a summer institute. Olson immediately recognised the unique business of the college:

why I like Albers is, that, right then and there he was flexible […] And so it happened, that […] between Albers and myself a method of education which has long been the law of Chinese education got applied again, here: that is, that a so-called creative man stays at his own last in a capital city, doing his work where men ought to do their work, in the midst of active society [… we] shouldn’t, any longer, deprive education of what it so very much needs – the active professional man, in the arts and in the fields of knowledge, who is not an historian (as, basically, all “professors” are) but is himself a maker of “history”, eh? [sic]

This interaction between Black Mountain and the major artistic centres, especially New York, helped spread the word about innovations happening in the remote mountains of North Carolina. But artistic innovation is not the college’s only legacy.

When Black Mountain student Fielding Dawson wrote that “Black Mountain was freedom”, the creative freedom he celebrates remained a core principle through schisms, phases, and fractures, over twenty-three years of the college’s existence. Yet actual freedom – regardless of race, politics, gender, or sexuality – was more elusive, and though Black Mountain created a progressive environment in which many of these insidious social barriers vanished, Buncombe County, North Carolina, as a whole, was not so forgiving of trespass against society’s prejudiced norms. Blacks in North Carolina were not only deprived of equal rights and education but of dignity, and in extreme but all too common circumstances of life itself.

In 1944, ten years before Brown v Board of Education and the forced integration of schools and college campuses, those at Black Mountain took steps to bring black students into their experiment. They faced condemnation from locals, the threat of violence or closure, and a growing reputation as a haven for “subversives” or “communists”, but the college stood at the vanguard not just of artistic and intellectual fights for freedom, but also a more explicit liberty: the inalienable rights, which all citizens had been promised. At Black Mountain, arts practice and pedagogy sought to enact those rights and extend those liberties.

At BMC, faculty and student meetings were held regularly, and for the most part copious minutes were kept. The integration debate continued throughout almost the entire lifespan of the college, from the very beginnings with Rice through the early 1950s. 

Like any institution in its position, elements within the faculty feared the repercussions of flouting Southern conventions. In a letter from theatre instructor Robert Wunsch to composer John Evarts dated April 3rd, 1944 we read:

The drama seemed to come out of our differences of opinion on the question of admitting Negroes […] In one dramatic meeting after another we discussed whether or not we should take Negroes. Clark Foreman was of the opinion that the move was a wise one and called the people against such a move cowards and reactionaries. […]
we got to the edge of a decision that seemed satisfactory to most of the members of the faculty […] we set up immediately a community course on the texture of the South, the mind of the South, the temper of the South […] instead of taking students now we allow an adult Negro, preferably a teacher, to come to one of the Institutes as a guest for several weeks this summer. […] It is the better part of wisdom not to invite trouble by declaring open warfare against the South.

The dangers were, perhaps, not overstated. Wunsch wrote to Evarts a few weeks later, on April 20th, 1944:

Dr. Hansgirg was waiting for me at the entrance of the Studies Building. He wanted to give me his reactions to the recent faculty meetings where we have been discussing the question of whether or not to admit Negro students this summer. He remained in my study until he had finished filling out the blank left here yesterday by a government official who wanted all available information he could get about the European countryside and manufacturies from the foreign members of the community. (Letters found in North Carolina, Western Regional State Archives)

This letter points to that unique circumstance of Black Mountain College: not only was it a progressive experimental school in the South, but it also housed a number of faculty – including the Alberses – and students from Europe who had fled Nazi domination in the early 1930s. Consequently, no black teacher or student would be walking into a community ignorant of suffering, prejudice, hate, and terror.

Instead of first taking on a member of faculty for the summer institute, the college decided to accept a young black student named Alma Stone, whose unpublished memoir of BMC resides in the Western North Carolina State Archives. At twenty-three years old she had a double major in English and Music from Spelman College, where she was valedictorian, and an MA in English from Atlanta University. She came to the music institute at Black Mountain to study piano. Here is how her memoir from 1995 begins:

Black Mountain’s leadership in the arts for the second half of the 20th century has been well documented […] Inadequately recognized is the fact that long before other southern schools integrated their campuses, Black Mountain College was enrolling black students. The University of N.C. at Chapel Hill opened its doors to Blacks in its graduate schools in 1951. Federal troops brought about forced integration at the University of Mississippi in 1962 […] under considerable duress.
By recruiting African American students as early as it did in 1944, Black Mountain College merited a first place position in the history of racial integration in the American South […] It is time for this achievement to be acknowledged.

Her first impressions of the college are striking. Stone writes:

No frills, no pretense awaited me at Black Mountain from its places and people. I felt at home, as much as any place I had ever been. […]
Mrs. Oliver Freud, daughter-in-law of Sigmund Freud, attended the art institute. Monica Mann, daughter of author Thomas Mann, was in the music program. We were told that Mrs. Freud had escaped Nazi persecution by trudging over the Alps at night with a Swiss guide. Monica had witnessed the drowning of her young husband in a ship wreck as they sought refuge in America. Eventually I learned of others, both students and faculty members, who had fled Hitler’s atrocities. The war was personalized in a new way as I saw these and other evidences of individual courage and sacrifice for themselves, their families, and the world of art.

Stone immediately recognises these others, not black but with their own histories of suffering, as fellow artists and students. They recognised her as an equal, and together they learned: “at BMC, art was people,” she writes, “[…] My discomfort was part of my education to see and perceive!” But at the end of the summer, when she left the confines of the secluded campus for a bus station in town, she saw that the world outside – the intractable South – had not changed:

Black Mountain could manage to integrate persons of diverse races, classes, nationalities and physical conditions in its community, but in Georgia, the state in which I was born, I was seen as one dimensional – Black – and therefore would be denied access to educational opportunities in its state institutions, opportunities I had demonstrated that I could use. This denial was not new to me. I should have known better than to think things had changed. The year was 1944. Though it wasn’t easy for it to do so, Black Mountain College was ready for me; the rest of the white South, not yet.

In April 1947, the Freedom Riders stopped at Black Mountain and spent the night there. On June 20th, 1947, Edward Lowinsky wrote in a letter: “After a very positive experience of a few years with the interracial program our Faculty has decided to open admission to Black Mountain College to students of all races.” This led to a push for scholarships for black students, though local tensions remained high, and the progressive attitudes of the college continued to be tested. In a faculty meeting on November 21th, 1951, Olson made this argument:

Mr Olson said that a student asked him if it was true that there is no discrimination at BM and that he said BM welcomes a student without any question of race, religion or politics but the fact that the average Negro in the south is confronted with such economic barriers would deter advising any to whom a recognized degree is important to enroll at BMC[.]

Almost ten years after its initial experiment with integration, Black Mountain College was still hesitant; Olson argues in the language of placation, at once assuming openness and inclusion, while implicitly upholding the prejudices of Southern segregation. In response, the composer and faculty member Lou Harrison stated flatly, “there is a generality involved which is not true”.

In an early chapter of his autobiography, confronted with violent disparities between the races, Rice remembers, “as I sat at the table and listened to the debate that raged among my elders, there came a faint beginning doubt as to whether I lived in a moral world”. This feeling seems never to have left him. At BMC, artistic freedom was always meant to mirror democratic freedom. The college struggled, as the nation did, to reconcile the divorce between its lofty ideals and the realities of life in the United States. The fight for real freedom, for true justice, remains vital and timely. In I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, John Andrew Rice bears witness to the troubles and triumphs of the American South, while the story of Black Mountain College continues to instruct and enliven our sense of education as a means for democracy.

1/12/2014

Jonathan Creasy is a writer, musician, editor and scholar based in Dublin. He studied music at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) under Charlie Haden and is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where he is completing doctoral work on US poetry and poetics. He is editor-in-chief at New Dublin Press (www.newdublinpress.org) and a reporter for RTÉ Radio 1.

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