by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Anthony Hennen writes for the Martin Center about an interesting piece of North Carolina’s higher education past.
Just east of Asheville, Black Mountain College (BMC) was founded in 1933 and survived for 24 years until closing due to funding issues and a lack of students. But before it did, it had a strong core of teachers to attract students, attracting artists like Josef and Anni Albers from Germany after the Nazis rose to power and, in its later years, architect Buckminster Fuller and poet Charles Olson, among others. A liberal arts school, president John A. Rice emphasized the importance of the arts in every student’s education.
The education it offered was extremely atypical. Black Mountain didn’t have a standard grading system or set of classes; professors and students determined the curriculum together. It was unaccredited. It didn’t have a board of directors. During its existence, BMC only graduated about 60 students of the 1,200 who attended. Yet, despite this lack of standardization (or because of it), its students enrolled in graduate school at elite institutions and looked back fondly upon their time at Black Mountain.
“I think we’re wild about it because it had so many soap opera aspects to it,” said Joseph Bathani, an expert on Black Mountain College and the McFarlane family distinguished professor in interdisciplinary education at Appalachian State University. “It’s become its kind of myth.”
That myth serves as something unimaginable in today’s higher education environment. Higher ed has many roadblocks that prevent any sort of Black Mountain 2.0: Many students think of college as the first credential necessary for a good job; most colleges are too bureaucratized and regulated to allow such campus experimentation; and campus officials are too resistant to change for a decentralized education approach to take hold. Though various college programs and academics have been influenced by Black Mountain College, it’s questionable whether any college working within traditional higher ed today could recreate something like BMC.