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26 June, 2013
Black Mountain College
One of the hallmarks of what we fondly call the "American educational system" is the fact that someone, somewhere, is always dissatisfied with it. This has been the case all the way back to Cotton Mather, up through the first high school in Beverly, Massachusetts, the first college, not far from there (Harvard) and fortunately, this dissatisfaction continues today. It is, I think, what has made our higher education system (at least) the envy of the world. It was this feeling of dissatisfaction, a feeling of "we can do better" that led John Andrew Rice into the backwoods hills of North Carolina to a small town called Black Mountain and the founding, in 1933, of Black Mountain College.

As institutions of higher education go, even in the midst of the depression, it wasn't much of a college, at least not in the traditional sense. It held its first classes in a rented church social room, then a year later moved across Lake Eden to cobbled up "permanent" facilities that were much more like a farm or summer camp than any kind of college campus. Actually, during the summer it was BOTH, supplying the college and the local community with agricultural products while at the same time playing host to a list of guest lecturers that today, reads like a "Who's Who" of the arts and liberal learning of the time. To a somewhat lesser extent, the same could be said of those who attended classes there too. It was a topsy turvy educational world with the faculty (rather than the administration) in command, with a great deal of democratic input from the student body. It was never accredited by any governmental or educational authority and was never far from financial collapse at any point in its 24-year history. In fact, fewer than 1200 students ever attended classes there before it closed in 1957.

It may sound trite to say so today, but back in its heyday, it was more a frame of mind than an institution of high education. Even the phrase, liberal arts school, doesn't do it justice. The centerpiece of the entire curriculum were the fine arts--music, dance, drama, and painting. Grades were unimportant. What mattered was the complete freedom on the part of the students and faculty to experiment with all things new and beautiful in the arts. Studies were rigorous and the faculty demanding, but neither of these factors adequately account for the creative burst of energy that radiated into the American fine arts world from this tiny candle of free expression. It was not, however, a perfect learning situation. A former student perhaps put it best: "If you went to Black mountain...you learned a lot about art in its various forms, you learned nothing about the Real World."

Contributed by Lane, Jim
23 August 1998

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