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1 Progressive Ideals and Experimental Higher Education: The Example of John Dewey and Black Mountain College Katherine C. Reynolds Universities, like families and like nations, live only as they are continually reborn, and rebirth means constant new endeavor of thought and action, and these mean an ever renewed process of change. ^ When pragmatic philosophy found its voice in education during the years just before and after 1900, John Dewey met widespread agreement with his conviction that experience and individuality could be channeled toward learning that was more meaningful than the usual fare in American schools. However, Dewey generally reserved his "progressive" education thoughts and discourse for elementary and secondary schooling. He found higher education an unlikely candidate for change, fuming, "I have never been able to feel much optimism regarding the possibilities of 'higher' education when it is built upon warped and weak foundation." ^ Nevertheless, as the progressive movement inspired by Dewey and others moved on to classroom experimentation and professional networking, Dewey's ideals of individual freedom and discovery in education caught the imagination of educators in colleges and universities. Fearing the liberal arts curriculum might be lost in a flurry of disciplinary fragmentation and course election that put more emphasis on the development of specialized knowledge and less on the development of students, critics of higher education began to promote progressive experimentation during the 1920's. A variety of distinctive colleges—labeled "experimental" for their untried innovations in teaching and curriculum—took hold at this time, quite admittedly adopting at least some of the progressive principles pioneered by Dewey and his colleagues. ^ From Deep Springs College in California to Sarah Lawrence and Bennington in the Northeast, and many in between, higher education spawned small and important test cases of individualized student programs, experiential learning in the classroom and community building outside the classroom. One of the most widely publicized and highly regarded of these experimenting endeavors was Black Mountain College, founded near Asheville, North Carolina, in 1933. While the ideals of the progressive movement are apparent at many of its distinctive sibling institutions, Black Mountain—through direct contact with John Dewey—offers a particularly vivid example of the transfer of those ideals to experimental college settings. Dewey and the Experimenters When John Dewey chaired the 1931 "Conference on Curriculum for the College of Liberal Arts" at Rollins College, he pleaded ignorance of the thorny issues to be pondered by the gathering of prominent educators from liberal arts colleges. "All my recent years have been given to graduate teaching," he insisted on the opening morning of the four-day meeting. "I have had practically no college teaching." However, he did allow that the lack of experience might give him "the degree of ignorance necessary to make me a suitable Chairman of this meeting." ^ Characteristically, Dewey had observed carefully as his own children attended college, and he noted this to the group at Rollins as his most noteworthy source of thought about undergraduate education. Maintaining that his children were offered "a deadly scheme" of six courses, two hours at a time, in their freshman years, he recalled telling them,"I didn't care about their slighting some courses, but I did hope they would find some one thing they were interested in to which they could really devote their thoughts and mental operations." Dewey's professed limitations concerning his understanding of undergraduate education may have provoked more than a few smiles among the impressive group of educators invited to Winter Park, Florida, to debate the ideal liberal arts college curriculum. Several of them already viewed Dewey and the progressive education movement as a source of insight and an inspiration to experimentation in undergraduate liberal education. Among the probable smilers around the conference table was Constance Warren, president of nearly two-year-old Sarah Lawrence College, a brave and thoughtful experiment committed to progressive ideals in women's education. Also attending—and perhaps smiling—was Beatrice Doerschuk, Sarah Lawrence's academic dean. The college's central commitments to individual student interests and learning settings governed by democratic principles were so rooted in Dewey's philosophy of education that president Education and Culture Spring, 1997 Vol. XIV No. 1 2 KATHERINE C...


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