Endless Conversations: Education and History in Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community

Dissatisfaction with the “traditional” college experience runs deep in American history. Over 300 years ago, when New England Puritans thought Harvard was straying too far from its roots, they founded Yale. New forms of higher education continued to crop up in the following centuries, pursuing changing understandings of the purpose of higher education and the best way to implement it. Today’s fantasies for reforming higher education focus disproportionately on access and application to careers, but questions about how to build a good learning experience, and about what should be learned, remain. Reading Martin Duberman’s 1972 history of Black Mountain College, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, in light of ongoing debates about the meaning of higher education and the best practices for enacting it, provides a much needed perspective on how to foster learning for both individuals and communities.

In 1933, a small group of faculty fleeing an unfriendly administration at Rollins College set out to found an educational community based on values of progressive education. To quote  historian Rosalind Rosenberg, John Dewey’s progressive educational philosophy, followed by Black Mountain, was about “questioning, exploring, and being open to new ways of seeing the world.” They sought a balance between experimentation and adherence to “the results of those experiences which have already shown their value” and a refusal of “thoughtless tradition.” Taking its name from the Appalachian town where it began on rented camp grounds, Black Mountain College attempted to provide a space for individual educational development facilitated through community involvement.

There are many stories present in Duberman’s history of the college. One is an examination of how people learn and produce intellectual and creative work. Another looks at  how communities function. Still another explores the relationship of art, politics, and education. Also present is an experiment in how the process of understanding history works. As a student of educational history, my interest in reading Black Mountain focused primarily on the first and the last of this (un-exhaustive) list. But, appropriately when discussing a place where “All aspects of community life were thought to have a bearing on an individual’s education,” the other stories intervene. When perusing reviews of the book, certain key moments and themes emerge, but it quickly becomes evident that Black Mountain is a different book for each person who reads it. Duberman functions as author in the same role as that taken on by artist and star Black Mountain faculty member Josef Albers, “to bring out what was in each student rather than to impose his own perspective on them.” Each reader’s ideal method of learning becomes clear through their reading of this book.

Though they shifted over the years, the basic cornerstones of the educational experience at Black Mountain involved encouraging sustained engagement between faculty and students and among peers, allowing students to follow their interests in a quest for excellence, and “insistence that art be at the center of the curriculum.” These first two points resonate especially strongly for someone immersed in today’s discussions about online education, which often focus on self-directed learning on the one hand, and the value of individual attention on the other. In a discussion about pedagogy and governance in 1936, Black Mountain faculty member Edward Zeuch made the revealing comment,

A university is merely a factory. You cannot have any real education where you have three hundred people in your lecture section. You can have instruction but you would have that with phonograph records…I don’t believe there can be a real education unless there is contact of personality with the individual student…

In other words, education is not one size fits all. Following a period of intense industrialization, Black Mountain was founded at a moment when the factory loomed large in cultural consciousness, suggesting the production of identical products for a homogenized lifestyle. Black Mountain’s central educational outcome was to refuse attempts to assimilate or civilize students in favor of a more organic model of growth. Most important for today’s educational atmosphere is that while based on the individual, this process is one that develops in community.

Black Mountain has been accused by critics of lacking educational integrity, but Duberman consistently shows an educational experience worth striving for. In the Harvard Educational Review, Laurence Veysey is on the more forgiving end of things when he views the majority of Black Mountain’s existence as “dedicated to teaching in a relatively conventional way.” Despite its gentleness, this is a rather harsh criticism for an institution that often conceived of itself in terms of the “new.” Paul K. Conkin further sneered at Black Mountain’s curriculum in The Journal of American History, writing, “The college never had the staff or the facilities for a broad educational program, and was always pathetically weak in the physical and social sciences. The atmosphere was ‘arty,’ or vaguely therapeutic, but not very intellectual.” F. Garvin Davenport, Sr., agrees, accusing Black Mountain of “lack of real scholarship and intellectual stimulation that was supposed to come from the close association of teacher and student.” But other than not being “broad,” (the offerings at Black Mountain were undoubtedly “constricted”) Conkin and Davenport give little evidence for their claims, and base their assessment on criteria Black Mountain rejected, rather than, like Veysey, engaging Black Mountain on its own terms. After all, the creative output of Black Mountain faculty and alumni is well documented, and Duberman goes to some length to highlight the in depth process of intellectual critique. This theme stretches from early in Black Mountain’s history, as when he quotes a student from the end of the thirties saying, “it was just that many, many people were working very hard to perfect things as much as they could,” to its final years, when as the poet Jonathan Williams told Duberman of his interactions with writer and final college rector Charles Olson, “the conversations were endless…Night after night, day after day. He changed my whole poetic vision – and my whole vision of life too.” Black Mountain made no pretense at being comprehensive, but instead prided itself on pushing students to do their best. In the Journal of Higher Education, Maxwell Goldberg offers what in my estimation is a more appropriately optimistic view of the educational value of both Duberman’s account and Black Mountain, seeing in the book a “cornucopia of educational philosophy an practice, a case book of teaching -learning ways and means, both traditional and eccentric.” Black Mountain illustrates to contemporary readers that there is a viable alternative to an overarching focus on common “standards” and practices – providing a case study in the theory that the will to learn, improve, and share in the building of knowledge is more important than one particular method of teaching.

Full of conflict, discrimination, and confusion, Black Mountain can be and has been read as a cautionary tale. Several reviewers refer to the text as destructive, suggesting that against his will, Duberman is making clear the depths of Black Mountain’s failure. Davenport comments that “Duberman’s detailed history of the movement destroys the myth of an idealistic campus,” and Conkin goes further, writing, “Black Mountain College has finally bared its soul. Many will feel a sense of loss…No educational utopia ever existed.” But this is a fundamental misreading, rooted in distaste for Black Mountain’s educational process, embodied in Duberman’s innovative work. Duberman’s account of Black Mountain is full of electric excitement, speaking to the hope that higher education could be transformed and transformative – not utopian or idealistic, but human, fallible, inspiring, and ever changing. Ultimately, refusing the usual purposes of higher education does not mean the school lacked a successful structure. Duberman makes a convincing case that the educational experience at Black Mountain provided a space for students to critically engage with a range of subjects that served them well. He gives countless examples of alumni who went on to graduate study and eventual faculty roles, of artists and professionals who have been successful in their fields. Black Mountain neither destroys nor re-animates a myth, it depicts, and creates, a complicated educational experience grounded in following questions. 

Though reviewers frequently cite the extensive research and meticulous accounting obviously involved in writing Black Mountain, it is undoubtedly controversial as a scholarly text. Duberman experiments with historical methodology, chaffing against tradition. The author makes no secret of the extent to which the volume is a love letter to a place he never saw. He writes in his introduction,

I believe it’s time historians put their personalities as well as their names to their books…This book is…an effort to let the reader see who the historian is and the process by which he interacts with the data – the actual process, not the smoothed-over end result, the third person voice, or no voice at all.

In being as much about Duberman as it is about Black Mountain, the book offers an unusual opportunity to gain a more nuanced understanding of the historical subject. Duberman’s combination of traditional forms of scholarship with his stylized reflections works to enhance the text and embody some of the qualities of Black Mountain’s educational experience. When the narrative is in danger of portraying Black Mountain as magical, he reigns it in with extensive descriptions of disagreements and political machinations. When it threatens to seem like an endless series of petty battles, he draws back, highlighting the compelling environment that brought so many passionate people together and produced such stunning work. For me, the final result was to walk away with the dual sense of understanding much about the nature of Black Mountain, its central struggles and successes, while also being keenly aware of the gaps in the history, the uncrossable distance between reader, author, and subject.

Because Duberman insists on exploring the way he intersects with history, the book demands to be interpreted based on how it intersects with the reader. Coming from an academic background foregrounding gender, race, and sexuality, it is strange for me to read a history in which the dominant characters are straight white men. But Duberman consistently draws attention to race, gender, and perhaps most of all sexuality, as he traces policies and prevailing attitudes about racial integration, homosexuality and bisexuality, and women’s roles in education and art. Thanks to this awareness, it is possible to see that at end of the day, Black Mountain pursued certain educational and community ideals attractive to a wide variety of people (especially those focused on creative and artistic methods), and that it was always primarily a space created by and for white straight men, despite efforts at expansion. The many women and gay men who figure prominently, such as Mary Caroline Richards, Molly Gregory, Nell Rice, Natasha Goldowski, and Robert Wunsch, are ultimately marginalized by the college, never coming to stand in for the heart of Black Mountain the way John Rice, Josef Albers, and Charles Olson do.

Duberman clearly struggles with this, writing poignantly that Black Mountain again and again proved itself “unable to assimilate significant differences.” This is a somewhat double-edged comment. On the one hand, the phrase suggests, as Veysey puts it, that at its worst, “The real aim at Black Mountain…was to influence everyone to become more like the kinds of people who controlled it.” But “assimilation” seems far from a worthy goal when assessing a place invested in multiplicity. There is a seed of success in Black Mountain’s continual reckoning with the question of difference. Yes, arguments around governance and policies frequently ended with the purging of some who fell on the “losing” side of the battle. But the winners and losers shifted over the years, with those who had once commanded later expelled. Returning to Black Mountain’s principles, the process becomes more important than the outcome. In this way, even as Black Mountain remained limited by sexism, racism, and homophobia, it managed to still provide avenues for engagement to those who would resist the prevailing norms.

There were two moments in reading this book where I felt a sudden divergence from my perspective and Duberman’s. Largely, I took him as reliable narrator, trusting his willingness to reveal his own biases, resting on the assumption that our views would generally align. But when Duberman discusses his classes at Princeton, I was shaken by the radical nature of his approach. This is a controversial moment for many reviewers. It is where Duberman perhaps strays farthest from traditional history, digging in to his own experience to by extension offer a glimpse of what certain impulses at Black Mountain might have been, in a way not possible with the historian’s usual toolkit. In his 1973 review, Paul Conkin refers to this as “disruptive,” claiming, “Duberman increasingly detours into autobiography. The book becomes a confession.” I end up liking this “diversion” – it shakes me as a reader, challenging me to identify the connections and the gaps with Black Mountain. As Veysey, Goldberg, and Ezell have noted, at various points Duberman uses the book to give “an elementary lesson in historiography.”

I see this as one of those moments, along with his insertion of his reflections into 1936 faculty meeting transcripts and his depiction of several differing accounts of events at John Cage’s 1952 Happening. Other reviewers seem to think it merely navel gazing, or worse – Conkin’s revulsion for historian and subject is glaringly obvious when he states, “The book degenerates into something as artless, as unfocused, as sentimental and self-indulgent as Black Mountain at its worst.” It’s difficult not to read homophobia into Conkin’s reaction here, especially when he writes, “Most historians, in preface or conclusion, reveal their own tastes. They do not parade them.” Ezell notes that such a reaction was common among Duberman’s critics, who in discussing their distaste with his methodology frequently utilize phrasing that combines discomfort with Duberman’s sexuality,

It seems clear that many critics of the day saw the relationship between author, text, and reader as intimate, always potentially sexualized, but that they see Duberman’s sin here as calling too much attention to this fact, straining its reputed chasteness, and admitting a range of sexualities to the characterization of this relationship. How dare he blow the whistle?

Duberman’s unconventional method, then, is directly tied to resisting the assertion of white, straight, maleness as the norm. Here Duberman shows us how to make use of what Black Mountain offers without giving in to it more oppressive qualities – without being assimilated.

The other moment of rupture came for me shortly before the end of the book (I at first tellingly wrote novel). Writing about Black Mountain towards the end of its existence, Duberman writes, “There were many more unmarried men than women in the community during its last years, and sexual tension and rivalry could be fierce. At one point a girl who’d been doing her best to equalize the odds suddenly flipped out and called her daddy to say she’d been raped.” This shocked me to the point where, after re-reading, I had to put down the book. Unlike his discussion of his unorthodox course practices, this casual suggestion of a faked rape claim felt like betrayal. It made me look at the preceding almost 400 pages differently – to wonder whose side I was on, after all. The ongoing inquisition as to whether or not Black Mountain could be forgiven its moral failings in the realm of racism and sexual norms due to historic pressure disappears here. Duberman for the moment takes on the same faults as his subjects, just as he so often embodies their successes.

There are other moments of dissonance. Towards the end of the book, Duberman mentions “the occasional appearance of two frightened black girls” as a brief counter-point to his depiction of the end of political involvement at Black Mountain. The anecdote feels thrown in among a cascade of recollections meant to explain Black Mountain’s demise. Why were the girls (I can forgive the use of the juvenile throughout as of the historical moment) frightened? Why did they continue to attend? What was their experience like among these brash and sexist male poets? What did they study? There’s no space afforded in this chronicle for the interiority of these students. Duberman evokes the image of the “girls” without his usual interrogation, mentioning them only as Flora Shepard’s “only legacy.” This points to a problem throughout the text, that given the unusual prominence of students in Black Mountain’s identity and governance, it is unfortunate that the book frequently returns to faculty to determine the structure of Black Mountain’s history. Students too often are invoked only to reflect on their teachers and their campus. Here Duberman, like most of Black Mountain’s leaders, fails at centering the learners, falling back on the prestige of the experts as the critical feature of the community. Since Duberman is actively concentrating on his own experience as learner in writing about Black Mountain, this is perhaps justified, but my own questioning leads me to wish for histories that focus more on the students.

Despite the frequent use of “definitive” to describe the Black Mountain, Duberman, like the college, makes no claims at being comprehensive. At Black Mountain, “Albers believed learning was facilitated when students continually compared their different solutions for identical tasks.” Duberman shows his readers the different solutions tried by the leaders of Black Mountain to the task of creating an educational community, and presents his own solution to writing the history of that community. The result as compelling as it is informative. Black Mountain ultimately challenges the reader to respond – to build community, to learn, to teach, to keep searching for good solutions.

Bibliography

Paul K. Conkin. “Review of Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community by Martin Duberman.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Sep., 1973), pp. 510-512. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2936861

F. Garvin Davenport, Sr. “Review of Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community by Martin Duberman.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 524-525 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1850719

Martin Duberman. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1972.

Jason Ezell. “Martin Duberman’s Queer Historiography and Pedagogy.” The Journal of Black Mountain College Studies Vol 1.4 (2010) http://www.blackmountainstudiesjournal.org/wp/?page_id=37 Accessed 05/12/13.

Henry C. Ferrell, Jr. “Review of Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community by Martin Duberman.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Aug., 1973), pp. 469-470 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2206294 .

Maxwell H. Goldberg “Review of Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community by Martin Duberman” The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 44, No. 9 (Dec., 1973), pp. 736-73 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1980607

Rosalind Rosenberg. Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Laurence Veysey. “Essay Reviews: Experiments in Higher Education.” Harvard Educational Review Vol.43 No. 2 (May, 1973), pp. 258-264.

I wrote this review for a course at Teachers College in 2013, “History and Theory of Higher Education.” I was using Chicago Style when writing and have not yet figured out how to add footnotes in WordPress, so I have (with great consternation) removed citations for the moment.

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