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Black Mountain College Bulletin
Series 1, No. 8
Kenneth Kurtz, "Black Mountain College, Its Aims and Methods"

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BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE   Bulletin 8

BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE, ITS AIMS AND METHODS

 

Black Mountain College is a co-educational liberal arts college with

a student body of between seventy and a hundred and a faculty of

twenty. It is also a functioning community. Several important fea-

tures distinguish it from the conventional American college, while

at the same time it pursues the essential aims of liberal arts insti-

tutions.

 

One main difference is that the fine arts are equated as a field

of study with the sciences, languages and literatures, and the social

sciences. Students are expected to qualify in all these four fields

before they are permitted to specialize in one. Most colleges offer-

ing the B.A. or its equivalent require some work in a science, but

few require experience in the arts. The arts offered at Black Moun-

tain are music, painting, drama and dancing, work with material,

architecture, and weaving. These are studied in their theoretical

and historical aspects as well as from the point of view of craft.

But their larger contribution to a student's education is that the

arts, like literature, social studies, or the sciences when widely con-

ceived, are treated as a focus for many aspects of life. Hence they

become a discipline equal in scope and significance with the three

conventional divisions of the curriculum. There are other media of

communication than words or mathematical formulae, and other

repositories of human experience than books. It is the function

of the teacher of an art to enliven the student's understanding in

his particular medium, to the end that he will not only see and

appreciate but perhaps learn to use this medium to some small

degree for his own communication and expression. The aim is not

so much to produce artists as to develop an understanding of the

worlds and the languages with which the various arts have to do.

 

Many American college students sing or play instruments, but they

are not often encouraged to play the world's great music as a natural

pastime or to enjoy it in informal concerts as a normal form of

entertainment. Acting, writing, and even painting are not unknown

to the American undergraduate, but usually these activities have a

marginal position in collegiate life; they are extra-curricular, or

are studied in courses attended primarily by the special student, or

they are cultivated by cliques of self-conscious individuals who

flatter their own egos and are mildly contemned by the more virile,

sociable, and intellectual. Under these circumstances the arts as a

subject for serious and general study do not flourish in most col-

leges. At Black Mountain, however, they take their more proper

 

 

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place as one of the primary means of expression. Faculty and stu-

dents, many of whom have no special training in the arts, partici-

pate in community plays, concerts, drawing and designing classes,

and building. There is constant artistic activity of various kinds

which is a normal part of the community life and in which almost

everyone participates in one way or another.

 

A second divergence from conventional college life is the inclusion

of a work program as a part of education. All take part in this,

irrespective of the tuition fee they pay (the college fee is based

on a sliding scale, the individual paying according to his financial

resources). The college is unendowed and hence forced to live

frugally on its income from student fees and occasional gifts. Out

of this necessity rose certain educational possibilities which have

developed into principles. Everyone is expected to help with the

work of the community: building the necessary college buildings

under the supervision of an architect, landscaping the grounds,

helping run a farm which produces a considerable amount of the

food of the community maintaining roads and buildings, construct-

ing stage sets, helping in the college offices. In this work students

learn to handle tools and simple machinery; they become acquainted

with some of the basic routines of the world's work and with

the life of the worker. By the end of their four years some may

even become fairly competent craftsmen. But more important is

the fact that they live in a simple yet representative American

community which is engaged in a variety of the practical activities

of daily modern life. In seeking to maintain a smoothly operating

and productive plant, which they feel belongs to them and provides

the means for their education, the students come to know real

responsibility.

 

A third aspect of the college distinguishes it from most colleges,

and like the first two mentioned may offer a suggestion for future

developments in American institutions. I refer to real self-government.

 

The college is established on its own property and, being neither

tax supported nor endowed, is independent of a board of trustees

or other external controlling groups. It derives its income largely

from student fees. Hence it is free to act according to its own

decisions. The faculty as a body own and have the ultimate control

of the college property and educational discipline. They elect

from their membership a board of fellows which administers the

finances and makes faculty appointments. The board is considered

to be an executive committee of the faculty. This means real self-

government for a college faculty.

 

Community Self-Government

 

The students participate in this community self-govermnent. Their

four officer's attend faculty meetings dealing with the general affairs

 

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of the college. The chief student officer, the moderator, is a legal

member of the board of fellows during his period of office. As

such he has full voting power and an equal voice with the other

eight members. Needless to say, this is a grave responsibility for a

student, since his vote may have a decided weight in making an

appointment to the faculty or in determining financial policy which

affects the whole community.

 

Community problems are brought to the general community meet-

ings for discussion and in so far as possible for settlement. These

meetings, attended by all members of the staff, their families, and

the students are in character much like the New England town

meeting. Anyone who feels he has something that should be said

is expected to speak, and his words are weighed according to their

worth, not according to the age or reputation of the speaker.

Decisions are based on a consensus of opinion.

 

Aims of Education

 

The foregoing remarks should give some idea of the meaning of the

stated aim of the college: to educate a student as a person and as a

citizen. There are certain broad areas in human experience: the

intellectual, the esthetic, the practical, the social and political, the

religious. In most American colleges all but the first of these are

generally ignored. Undoubtedly the intellectual education of a stu-

dent is of major importance; and unfortunately even that takes

longer than a brief four years, following a somewhat inadequate

high school background, will permit. But a wider training is

necessary today. In a college where the life approximates that of a

normal community in the variety of practical activities, and in the

interdependence of associates of  different ages and backgrounds

ranging from faculty-children to elderly people and students from

abroad), a student gets much basic social and political experience

from the life itself, and this is of great importance in the education

of citizens in these times.

 

This ease of communication between faculty and student is not an

educational ideal imposed on principle. It is inherent in the life

of the college community, where students and faculty eat together

in a common living room and share the work of serving themselves.

According to their abilities they participate together in concerts,

plays, and radio programs, in sawing wood for the community

furnaces, entertaining college guests, interviewing prospective stu-

dents, helping to raise money to meet deficits, and in the thousand

and one tasks incidental to running the college. Living and studying

are thus two aspects of one unified educational process.

 

I do not suggest--it would be too naive--that varied experiences

in themselves educate in the higher sense. Life gives such oppor-

tunities to most people, and it is the business of a liberal arts col-

lege to render a student "expert beyond experience." As Roger

 

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Ascham said long ago: "Learning teacheth more in one year than

experience in twenty . . . he hazardeth sore that waxeth wise by ex-

experience." I am speaking rather of the cumulative effect of con-

stant association between teacher and student at all levels of ex-

perience in and out of the classroom, in situations where knowledge

and wisdom furnish a ready answer, and in situations as where they

do not. Undergraduates are largely influenced by the personalities

with whom they have the most immediate and prolonged asso-

ciation. Generally these are members of a fraternity or sorority.

Most American students live in a world which is quite different

from the normal adult world. They associate almost wholly for

four years with people of their own age group, often only of their

own sex, and very often only of their own interests. At graduation

they are suddenly precipitated into a new kind of life, of business,

conflict and competition, worry and responsibility, where the things

they have studied seem to have little application. Black Mountain

College tries to prepare students for life by carrying on learning

in an environment of normal human activities. It offers something

like adult education, in a community where the main emphasis is

upon study but where the work of the world plays an active role.

 

The road to self-discipline, maturity, and competence is long and

hard. The kind of education Black Mountain attempts is not an

easy one. Of course the surest way to get efficiency in administer-

ing a community would be to establish a permanent bureaucracy of

faculty members who knew the work and could despatch it quickly.

Effective routines would he set up and conflicts avoided.

 

This, however, does not lead to maturity of judgment and action,

or to civic responsibility in a tangled world where established forms

and values are vanishing. We need citizens who have toughness of

mind, a capacity for meeting the unexpected with clear eye, and

a steadiness of purpose that is based on the sure knowledge derived

from experience, understanding, and practical competence.

 

Academic Program

 

The aim of the college in the academic area is to give students

a sound introduction to major subjects that lie in the four areas of

the curriculum and to develop sufficient grasp of a special field so

that a student may be able to form independent judgments within

it. Work is divided into the junior and the senior divisions, each

usually taking two years of the student's time. Completion of work

in each division is determined by means of comprehensive exami-

nations and faculty consideration of the individual student's

progress.

In the  junior division a student studies central subjects in each of

the four areas. These may vary somewhat according to his interests.

He should gain sufficient knowledge in these areas so that he can

choose intelligently in that special field in which he is most interested

 

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and for which he has the most talent. There is no heirarchy of

courses leading automatically to entrance into the senior division,

and in this sense no courses are "required." However, the com-

prehensive examination for entrance into the senior division is a

test of real knowledge at an undergraduate level, in the four fields.

 

To prepare himself for this a student is encouraged to pursue his

own reading as well as taking courses. The faculty assume the po-

sition of guides and advisers. The student is made to feel that it is

his responsibility to prepare himself for the examination, which he

may take whenever the faculty believe he is ready for it. A part

of the duty of the faculty adviser is to help him to realize his

accomplishments and this limitation in this respect. The exami-

nation consists of two parts: a comprehensive test of knowledge

and understanding in the four areas of study, and a group of ques-

tions to which they may be no answers but which test a student's

judgment, observation, imagination, appreciation, and capacity to

reach decisions. The faculty as a body study these papers thorough-

ly and review the applicant's maturity of conduct within the com-

munity before passing him into the senior division and recommend-

ing a particular field for special study.

 

Work in the senior division corresponds to the usual "major" in

American colleges, though it may he somewhat more intensive and

is usually done under tutorial guidance rather than in course work.

A student is expected by the time he graduates to be capable of

independent work in his special field: to be familiar with its main

areas and to be able to use the chief sources of information avail-

able. He should also have his own method of working and be able

to form independent judgments based on first-hand acquaintance

with the material of the subject. In the senior division the student

is given considerable freedom of action under the guidance of his

major instructor and adviser. The comprehensive examinations for

graduation, consisting of from five to seven three-hour papers and

a public oral examination are given by authorities in the field

from outside the college. It is assumed that the work done will be

at least equal to that required for graduation in particular field

at the better American colleges and universities.

 

Black Mountain College aims to educate persons as well as minds.

Life in a community, with its attendant work and the social aware-

ness and competences derived therefrom, and the development of

esthetic sensibilities that enrich individual living, are regarded as

parts of that education. Direct experience of the democratic pro-

cesses and of some of the common tasks of the world, in a context

of intensive liberal arts study, seem to the faculty of this college to

provide one significant way to educate American citizens.

 

KENNETH KURTZ

 

Reprinted from The Haverford Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 1944.

 

PAGES 6,7 AND 8 ARE BLANK.