A lot of sociological terminology gets thrown around when it comes to the idea of community at Black Mountain College: “group process”, “a sense of community”, “creative sociability”, and so on. (1) ‘Community’ itself is a loaded word, and when it comes to what exactly the term meant for the liberal arts school in rural North Carolina, interpretations vary. The definition of community changed as the college changed, and participants in school life, whether they were there for a few weeks or many years, described its existence and influence in different ways. Bill Levi described college and community as essentially the same thing, and believed it was “the particular genius of Black Mountain” that it could be both. (2)

Martin Duberman’s 1974 book ‘Black Mountain College’ was the first in-depth exploration of community during the college’s 24-year lifespan, followed in 1988 by Mary Emma Harris’s “The Arts at Black Mountain College”. What both of these enlightening and entertaining works made clear was that community at Black Mountain was a fluid, ever-changing entity, subject to highs and lows, periods of calm and disruption, growth and decline.

Dining Room, Blue Ridge campus, Black Mountain College, ca. 1940. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives

Dining Room, Blue Ridge campus, Black Mountain College, ca. 1940. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives

College founder John Andrew Rice envisioned a democratic, communal learning environment from the start, where students and faculty were in intimate contact. The nature of both the Blue Ridge Assembly and Lake Eden campuses as summer resort-like environments contributed to the sense of community. The size of the school was consciously limited: co-founder Ted Dreier explained that enrollment of 75 to 80 students was ideal, both because that number could sustain the school financially, as well as maintain a cohesive group that didn’t become too cliquish. (3)

Although the college is sometimes compared to nineteenth and twentieth century artists’ colonies or intentional bohemian communes, Black Mountain fundamentally differed from these kinds of groups because it was an educational institution first and foremost. But it did share some important characteristics: its democratic structure and communal work program resembled that of communes like Brook Farm or New Harmony, and the mountain resort setting and emphasis on the arts resembled many artists’ colonies, both in Europe and America. Black Mountain also shared some of the same problems: interpersonal disputes, staying financially viable, and enduring for a long period of time.

Rice explained to Adamic that there was the expectation among some that Black Mountain was a community before it was an educational institution:

One of the difficulties we have here is that the students and faculty come here with the idea that this is going to be an ideal community. And when this idea goes haywire, as it always does, they get disturbed on that score […]. Here, our job is to have people do what they came to do and then leave. (4)

Black Mountain, unlike intentional communities, did not try to retain its members indefinitely. Rice’s intention certainly was never to start a community—his mission was entirely educational—and later, in his autobiography, he wrote:

(…) I have read the history of Brook Farm, of New Harmony, and other communities, and I have laughed, and squirmed, many times; but I was glad that I had not read them before: I would never have gone near Black Mountain. (5)

From its founding, the college fostered a democratic sense of community that put students and faculty on equal terms, which led to on-going, honest discussion and collaboration. Sometimes this democratic process became problematic, such as in the case with faculty meetings, which always included three or four student representatives. Unanimous consent was required to make any official decision, therefore discussions could go on and on. Despite the occasional arduousness of this process, the clear benefit of the democratic system was that it allowed for open discourse, which promoted closer relationships between faculty and students, as well as visitors, and led to numerous examples of collaboration and friendships that lasted long after the college dissolved.

This article was written by Kate Mothes, M.A., University of Edinburgh.

1. ‘Group process’ was used by writer Louis Adamic in his 1936 article in Harper’s, ‘Education on a Mountain’; ‘sense of community’ is a term coined by sociologists David MacMillan and D.M. Chavis in 1976; ‘creative sociability’ is derived from historian Nina Lübbren’s study of nineteenth century artists’ colonies.
2. Bill Levi, ‘The Meaning of Black Mountain,’ Address given at Black Mountain College, Fall 1947, reprinted in Black Mountain College, Sprouted Seeds: An Anthology of Personal Accounts edited by Mervin Lane (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1990): 183.
3. Ted Dreier, ‘Early Close Calls,’ in Lane, ed., Sprouted Seeds, 27.
4. Rice quoted in Katherine C. Reynolds, ‘Progressive Ideals and Experimental Higher Education: The Example of John Dewey and Black Mountain College,’ in Education and Culture, 14:1, Spring 1997, 4.
5. John Andrew Rice, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century (New York, London: Harpers, 1942) 325.