The Charles Olson Research Collection

Black Mountain College: A Foreword

Reprinted from the First Catalogue, 1933

Black Mountain College was founded in order to provide a place where free use might be made of tested and proved methods of education and new methods tried out in a purely experimental spirit. There is full realization, however, of the fact that experiment is, for the individual, also experience; hence, no experiment is being tried which is not submitted beforehand to the test of reasonable likelihood of good results. It is for this reason that the College is for the present content to place emphasis upon combining those experiments and the results of those experiences which have already shown their value in educational institutions of the western world, but which are often isolated and prevented from giving their full value because of their existence side by side with thoughtless tradition.

The College is at the same time a social unit. The members of the teaching staff, their families, and the students live in the same building, have their meals together and are in constant intimate contact with one another; as a result, the distinction is broken down between work done in the class-room and work done outside, and the relation is not so much of teacher to student as of one member of the community to another. This ease of communication restores one of the time-tested necessities of education. This does not mean that the disparity of interests between younger and older people is not recognized. On the contrary, it is understood that the ways of the scholar are not always those of the student; but an effort is being made to make the fields of common interest as wide as possible.

Another and equally important aspect of the life of the College lies in the relations of the students to one another. One of the implications of the accepted equality of men and women is that they should be educated together; but co-education should mean something more than the unconsidered association of young men and women in college. Here they should learn to know that their relationship to each other, both while they are in college and afterwards, is to be in the main, not one of opposites, but of those who live upon the common ground of humanity. Hence the attempt to keep the intellectual and social life of the College as much as possible on the same plane.

Of equal importance is the part played by the work that has to be done around the College. All of this except that which requires the continuous attention of one person, is divided among volunteers from the student body and the teaching staff. For example, at meal times members of the College take turns serving the food, and when it is necessary to repair the roads or cut wood or work on the farm, volunteer crews do this under the supervision of a student. It would of course be misleading to suppose that all students are equally alert in their responses. When the student learns to assume full responsibility, one of the principal tasks of the College is done. The emphasis is upon seeing whether the student is actually becoming responsible, not upon whether he acts as if he were responsible. Punctuality, for instance, may be evidence of complete slavery or of complete self-control.

There is no discrimination between students who pay the full fee and those who pay less, and unless the latter choose to tell it themselves, no one knows that they are beneficiaries. No student works his way through Black Mountain College. To have some students servants to the rest is disruptive of community life.

Curricular and extra-curricular activities, as the words are usually employed, imply divided responsibility; that is to say, students are responsible to teachers for their curricular activities and to themselves and each other for their extra-curricular activities. No such sharp distinction holds in Black Mountain College, where there is full recognition of the fact that self-directed work is invaluable.

As an inevitable result of this point of view, Dramatics, Music, and the Fine Arts, which often exist precariously on the fringes of the curriculum, are regarded as an integral part of the life of the College and of importance equal to that of the subjects that usually occupy the center of the curriculum. In fact, in the early part of the student's career, they are considered of greater importance; because, in the first place, they are, when properly employed, least subject to direction from without and yet have within them a severe discipline of their own; and also because of the conviction that, through some kind of art-expression, which is not necessarily the same as self-expression, the student can come to the realization of order in the world; and, by being sensitized to movement, form, sound, and other media of the arts, gets a firmer control of himself and his environment than is possible through purely intellectual efforts. This is a theory, but a theory which has met the test of experience. It has already been shown to the satisfaction of those who have had a share in it that the direct result of the discipline of the arts is to give tone and quality to intellectual discipline. It is expected that the way can be found to use other fields of activity, Science, for instance, as it is proposed to use the Arts. In the meanwhile, the student is encouraged on entering to alter the procedure to which he has usually become accustomed and to put the same faith in doing that he has been taught to have in absorbing. The effort is not always successful, but the fact that the whole community takes part is persuasive.

As a corollary to this belief, there are no required courses. The student is free to choose whatever courses he pleases, provided only he has the prerequisite knowledge that is necessary.

This extreme freedom of choice would in many cases result in confusion if it were irresponsible, but one of its purposes is to place responsibility where it belongs; namely, on the student. However, he is not thrust into an incomprehensible world and told he must find his way by trial and error, for there are always nearby older and more experienced people ready to help. But in the end the choice is with him. In consequence, there have been set up two points in the career of the student at which he must face comprehensive tests of his failure or success in meeting responsibility. The curriculum of the College is divided into two parts, the Junior Division and the Senior Division. Before passing from the Junior to the Senior Division the student must pass one of these tests, and before graduation, the other.

The student's stay in the Junior Division is a period of discovery, of himself and for himself, and of exploration. Here it is expected that he will come into contact with the fields of Science, Social Studies, Literature, and the Arts in a way that will enable him to form an intelligent opinion about them; for one of the principal purposes of the Junior Division is to allow the student to make a wise selection of a field of knowledge in which to specialize during the latter part of his career in college. But there is no prescription as to how he shall come to this choice. On his entrance to college, a plan of work for the first term is made out with each student individually, and thereafter each term while he is in the Junior Division. At first he may take entirely new subjects, or a combination of news subjects with some of which he is already acquainted, or he may work in the field of his immediate interest. It is expected, however, that as his interest grows and expands, he will see how it touches other subjects; so that, by the time he has completed his work in the Junior Division, he will have acquired an attitude towards Science, Social Studies, Literature, and the Arts that is based upon knowledge rather than ignorance.

When the student, after consultation with his teachers, decides that he is ready to enter the Senior Division, he presents to the Committee on Admissions to the Senior Division a detailed statement of what he has accomplished and what he knows, and a plan of the work he proposes to do in the Senior Division. If the committee is satisfied with the quality of these statements, that is to say, if the statement of accomplishment and knowledge indicates that the student has an adequate foundation for his proposed specialization, and if his plan of work shows an understanding of what lies ahead, he is required to take comprehensive examinations, oral and written. These examinations, set by the Committee on Admissions to the Senior Division, are devised to test capacity as well as knowledge. The record that the student has made in college is also considered an important criterion of his fitness.

The student, on entering the Senior Division, begins to work in a special field and closely related fields of knowledge. By this time it is assumed that he is sufficiently mature to assume responsibility for his work, and this is made easier by having him work under the supervision of one or more tutors. What courses he will take or whether in a given term he shall take any courses at all, is a matter to be determined on consultation with his tutor. It is not expected, however, that his special subject will take up much more than half his time, leaving the rest for related subjects and other interests.

When the student, on consultation with his tutor, thinks he is ready to graduate, he will submit to the faculty a statement of what he has accomplished and what he knows; if, in the opinion of the faculty, this statement is satisfactory, the candidate for graduation will be required to take comprehensive examinations, oral and written, covering the works he has done in the Senior Division. These examinations will be set by professors from other colleges and universities, and their opinion of his work will be the principal criterion of his fitness to graduate. The use of outside examiners tends to change the relationship of teacher and student, to put their work on a more agreeable footing, and increases the student's willingness to work hard.

The purpose of both these examinations, to enter the Senior Division and to graduate, is to find out whether the student knows what he professes to know, and how he can use this knowledge. This is one reason why the oral part is considered important, in that it tests the capacity to follow thought in motion. Another is that it is prepared for by intelligent conversation.

Every teacher has complete freedom in choosing methods of instruction; as a consequence, a visitor will find classes conducted as recitations, lectures, tutorials, and seminars. One of the experiments that is being made is in the conduct of the last. At the present time there are two seminars, one in writing, and another in English literature and history, in which there are four or more instructors who attend every meeting and who represent in their training several fields of knowledge. The intention is to let the student see the way in which an idea, a movement, a period in history, an art form, appear to a group of specialists, and also to get the student away from the habit of trying to please the teacher. Most of these seminars meet in the evening from eight o'clock on, in order to have plenty of time to follow an idea. Sometimes they are in session for less than an hour, sometimes for more than three hours. Other classes meet at some time between eight-thirty and twelve-thirty in the morning or between four and six in the afternoon. This allows a period after lunch for getting out of doors, and during this time no classes are scheduled. There is no prescription as to how often in the week a class shall meet; that is left to the discretion of the teacher.

As the faculty attempts to place responsibility on the students for their conduct, so also it assumes full responsibility for the government of the college. The Board of Fellows, elected by the faculty and consisting of members of the teaching staff, is like the governing bodies of Oxford or Cambridge colleges and those of some of the older colleges of this country in their early history. There is no legal control of the college from the outside, but in order to maintain contact with the outside world, an Advisory Council has been established on which there are representatives of the educational world and the world of affairs. The Board of Fellows works in close cooperation with the Advisory Council, keeping the Council continually informed as to what is being done in the college, and asking advice in the solution of difficult problems.

The Board of Fellows also keeps in constant communication with the student body through a committee of three students, who meet with the Board at least once a week. Most of the questions that come up are settled at these meetings, but when a matter is considered sufficiently important, there is a meeting of the whole college community. Here the question is discussed until a decision is reached. If this cannot be done in one session, the discussion continues at later meetings until the community moves as a whole. The development of the habit of self-government is at first slow; but, as principles of action are disclosed, skill and speed follow, both in the individual and in the social unit.



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