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  • Drinking Deep at Black Mountain College
  • Charles Perrow (bio)

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Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, was an icon of progressive education during its short life, from 1933 to 1956. Isolated in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, it was one of the very few schools in the country that was open to experimentation. Buckminster Fuller's students demonstrate the lightness of the dome during the 1949 Summer Architecture Institute, photographed by Masato Nakagawa. All photographs from the North Carolina Museum of Art Black Mountain Research Project, courtesy of the North Carolina Digital Collections, ncdcr.gov.

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Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, was an icon of progressive education during its short life, from 1933 to 1956. When I was there, from 1946 to 1948, there were sixty to eighty students and twenty faculty. There were few formal academic requirements, no required courses, no grades, limited resources, but an amazing abundance of creative students and faculty. Students in my two years included such notables as the writer Jose Yglesias, director Arthur Penn, painter Kenneth Noland, and sculptor Ruth Asawa. The Summer Art Institute in 1948 had John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Richard Lippold. The regular faculty had as its star the abstract painter Josef Albers, and many notables in painting, mathematics, chemistry, weaving, and music, including Ilya Bolotowsky, Max Dehn, Natasha Goldowski, Anni Albers, Erwin Bodky, and Edward Lowinsky. The rest of the faculty included lesser-known but often distinguished writers, philosophers, musicians, historians, and a progressive psychologist.

The college was always a dynamic, explosive, self-destructive hothouse. Since its inception, it had been a hotel for progressive ideas in American education, the arts, and the social sciences. Isolated in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, it was one of the very few schools in the country that was open to experimentation. A busload of new faculty and students arrived yearly, welcomed as refreshers and feared as competitors by those who had been there a year or two. Some tried to renovate BMC in their own image, some simply basked in its tolerance and idealism. The most authentic of the students and faculty were seeking to feed deeply on its vibrant flesh, immersing themselves in the unique experience and embracing its contradictions. All but a few moved on after a year or two, gratified or rejected, and a new busload arrived. A small core faculty stayed, providing some continuity and every three or four years wearily congratulating themselves on staving off another educational challenge and on disposing of the disruptive faculty and students who sought renovations (and sometimes achieved them). The core faculty sullenly cleaned up and tried again to square the circle, to create stability and security while proclaiming innovation. My busload, I believe, was quintessential.

Making Our Way

Almost everyone there at this period seemed a poster-child of some sort, representing a fragment of our culture—the closet gay, the civil rights activist, the communist, the avant-garde painter, the urgent truth-seeker, the parent-escaper. My poster was being about the only student from the West Coast (most were from the Northeast, particularly New York City); about being the only one without parents and siblings who had attended college (most students, but certainly not all, were from a well-educated upper middle class, or intellectual elite class); and being one [End Page 77] of the few, I suppose, who had had little contact with Jewish people. BMC, in my retrospective judgment, was predominantly a Jewish culture. Tacoma, Washington, had a few Jews (including a friend), and some of my army friends were probably Jewish, but I never thought much of it. My acquaintance with Jewish culture was so limited that, even after I left BMC and went to live on the Lower East Side (East 6th and Avenue A), it struck me as very strange as I walked in my neighborhood (a Jewish enclave in 1948-49) that all the people chatting on the front steps spent their time telling Jewish jokes. I finally realized that BMC was the only context in which I had heard...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 76-94
Launched on MUSE
2013-11-14
Open Access
No
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