At Zero

Black Mountain College
1933 - 1957

Caroline Collier
Michael Harrison

(Kettle's Yard/
When I was a lad, my strong-willed mother decided that she did not care for the public school rote learning system there in Northern Florida. She was a fan of John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead, so with the help of a few friends, in an old rented house on Bishop's Gate Lane, she inaugurated "The Child-Centered School." Me and my six brothers and sisters were enrolled --- I was the youngest --- along with twenty or so children of her more progressive friends, and for several years, we "learned by doing."

My most salient memory of the school was the spring day all the students became butterflies. We were given a length of silk cloth, and were taught to dip it in red, or yellow, or green, or blue dye, then knot it up until it dried. We then donned it, the colorful cloth tied lightly about the neck, an end in each hand. We fluttered about a Maypole, waving our wings as "In the Hall of the Mountain King" played on the wind-up Victrola. To be a butterfly was to be free, and this was, I expect, the high point of this particular six-year-old's experience in flying.

I was the last of the family tads, and in the early years of WWII, the experiment was put out of business and I was given over to the discipline and ABC's of the third grade at Fishweir School. What the others in our town thought of the Deweyesque style of teaching was shown by the way they referred to it years later: "The Self-Centered School."

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Ours was not the only experimental school of the era. In the year, 1933, several refugees from Nazi Germany came to Black Mountain, N. C., along with a few faculty who had been routed from Rollins College because of their easy ways. For the next twenty-four years, Black Mountain College experimented with the teachings of Dewey, bringing in a rich mix of teachers, artists, thinkers, and scientists. Walter Gropius, Robert Creeley, John Cage, Merce Cunninngham, Robert Motherwell, Ben Shahn, Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Goodman joined with visitors --- the likes of Aldous Huxley, Walter Gropius, Willem de Kooning, Albert Einstein and Buckminister Fuller to interact with the young in a system where, in truth, the teachers could be as students, the students teachers.

No grades were given. Learners and the learned worked, ate, studied and lived side by side. There was a college farm for food --- no classes were scheduled in the afternoons so all could join in maintenance, cooking, upkeep. They even managed to put out a robust magazine: seven editions of the influential "Black Mountain Review" came out during the years of the college's existence.

What made it such a vital experience? In interview, John Cage said, "What was important it seems to me about Black Mountain was the dining hall, because everyone had breakfast, lunch and dinner together."

    And the classes were less important than the meals. Because people lingered over the meals and it was there that the conversations took place. Every time that it's attempted to make Black Mountain over again, it's not understood that all the meals should be shared by all of the people. But that I think was the secret of the success of Black Mountain.

Buckminster Fuller commissioned a special project: the prototype of the Geodesic Dome which, because it immediately collapsed was dubbed The Supine Dome. "Buildings are being built as fortresses, historically, really, the heavier, bigger the better. You cannot make many experiments with big stone blocks, they're going to kill you," he wrote:

    So I told them I want to build a building that they're not afraid at having it collapse because it's so light it can't hurt anybody, it's like confetti.

Cage said that Fuller learned to appear in public because of a play that was put on at the college: "He was, as I say, very lively. I had arranged a Satie festival, the music of Erik Satie, and among those was a play that Erik Satie had written called The Trap...Medusa's Trap [The Ruse of the Medusa] in English, or Le Piege de Medusa in French. And the central character was Baron Meduse. And we asked Bucky to play that part. And he did so without any question. He had never acted before. But he did this beautifully. Later he said that experience of acting in Baron Meduse gave him the ability to give all the speeches that he subsequently gave throughout the world, universities."

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Black Mountain College came into being because of a power struggle between administration and faculty at Rollins College. It was the usual tension between creativity and order, between teaching for love of the subject, as opposed to teaching as a job. And the same struggle, so typical of utopian communities, came to Black Mountain, because the faculty were also the board of directors of the school, bringing the intolerable conflict that transpires when the staff are directors, and vice-versa. There was a coup, which forced the founders to depart in 1949, forced the school to finally shut down in 1957. Less than 1,200 students had come though in its brief existence.

Starting at Zero consists of five essays by participants, along with a profusion of photographs of students, campus, and teachers as well as photographs of jewery, pottery, sculpture, paintings, drawings, and sketches. What is missing is the full story of the falling-out of 1949 which ultimately doomed the project, along with the response to accusations of Bolshevism and race-mixing (blacks were very much a part of the school, which was not taken lightly by their Deep South neighbors).

However, since art at Black Mountain is the putative focus, perhaps Starting at Zero is best reporting the ecstatic feel of those years. It was a soaring experience, recalling the photographs of students, under the guidance of Cunningham, flying through the air like so many butterflies.

--- L. W. Milam

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