The Liberal Arts, Black Mountain College, and Generalism

Black Mountain Range, North Carolina
W.T. Robertson, View of Black Mountain range from Mount Mitchell. Photo taken between 1875 and 1885. Getty Collection, Public Domain. Original.

From Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, on the educational program of the Black Mountain College:

Black Mountain College is famous for the number of artists and poets, later prominent, who studied or taught there, but it was not an art school. It was a college. It was launched during the Depression by a renegade Classics professor named John Andrew Rice, who had been fired from Rollins College in Florida, and for twenty-four years, it led a hand-to-mouth existence in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Asheville. In a good year, enrollment was sixty. The college opened in the fall of 1933 with twenty-two students, fourteen of whom, along with four of the faculty, had followed Rice from Rollins. To the extent that finances permitted, and depending on who was available to teach, it offered a full liberal education. Students could take courses in science, mathematics, history, economics, psychology, languages, and literature.

What made Black Mountain different from other colleges was that the center of the curriculum was art-making. Students studied, and faculty taught, whatever they liked, but every student was expected to take a class in some kind of arts practice—painting, sculpture, pottery, weaving, poetry, architecture, design, dance, music, photography. The goal was not to produce painters, poets, and architects. It was to produce citizens. “The democratic man,” as Rice explained his philosophy, “… must be an artist.” Rice thought that people learn best by doing, rather than by reading books or listening to lectures, and he regarded art-making as a form of mental discipline. It instills a habit of making independent choices, which is important in a democracy. This was the pedagogy of progressivism, derived from the educational theories of John Dewey, who visited the college frequently and served on its advisory board.

Black Mountain College only enrolled a little more than a thousand students in total, and closed in 1957 due to lack of operating funds. But I find so much that is imaginative, thrilling, and timely in this capacious model of what the “liberal arts” could be. First, it makes art useful–let us be very specific about why–because it creates people who use their own imagination, who have confidence in their own judgment, who form an independent point of view. This version of art, both practical and empowering, is neither reductive (in the sense of submitting art to a moral or political principle) nor damaging to the pursuit of art as an end in itself. By committing to learn an art form, to become–at least for a while–an artist, it is possible that a person is changed and made stronger as a person. This argument does not get nearly enough airtime today.

Second, it’s an important reminder that the liberal arts needn’t be limited to an agenda of academic study, as defined by the classical tradition, and by the history of European and American university systems. The liberal arts in their original form are not really what most Western universities aspire to today, anyway: rhetoric and grammar, for example, are rarely considered a core part of the educational program. The liberal arts is really just another term for a generalist education. And if they are hemmed in by traditional university curricula today, that reveals a fixed, unresponsive view of what it means to be a generalist.

There should be multiple liberal arts. If there can be one--as at Black Mountain--that consists of making artists, why could there not be another liberal arts for practical courses of study? Take the major industrial products that make modern life possible, what Vaclav Smil has recently called the “four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics and ammonia.” Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to spend a few years studying how to make these materials--through hands-on apprenticeship, experience in the practical steps, knowledge of the infrastructure and logistical requirements, study of the geopolitical and historical background, and a first-hand knowledge of what their effect is on the world? Wouldn’t that study constitute a kind of generalism? Or a scientific liberal arts, which might at the undergraduate level seek to give students an intermediate-level knowledge in all major scientific disciplines. Or an ecological liberal arts. Or a vocationally-minded liberal arts, in which students occupy themselves with a functional understanding and repair of the everyday amenities (cars, houses, water treatment, power generation) familiar to ordinary consumers. What would an “algorithmic” liberal arts, in which students studied the major components of civilization which are subject to computer modeling and control, look like?

If one lets go of the idea that “generalism” means a “here is a little bit of everything,” and replaces it with “here is a system with parts that work together,” it would be possible to imagine many more liberal arts than exist today. These would be liberal arts that are neither in competition with nor exclusive of one another, but which aspire to socially complementary versions of a generalist education.

The traditional liberal arts would still be a healthy community, one among other options, but much social and ideological pressure would be taken off of them. They would no longer have to be an everything education, the best model for both giving students a “good job” and a recipe for making good citizens. The current version of the liberal arts could be more honest about what they are—a philological, academic, theory-based account of the general good–and more healthy because it does not have to invent unrealistic promises about itself. Other liberal arts, other generalisms, could, for example, take over the work that the “Great Books” do now.

This gets us away from the idea that the humanities–or any subject–is necessarily at the center of the liberal arts. The liberal arts becomes a bigger and more powerful idea because it becomes more flexible. Instead of “these are subjects and courses of study that make up a generalist education,” the idea becomes “we need generalists, because generalists are fully realized human beings–let us figure out new ways to produce them.”

One last lesson that I take from the Black Mountain College experiment is that universities needn’t be set up as perpetual bodies to be successful. Presumptive immortality is just a curious feature of the current university model, where too many institutions model themselves on the few oldest universities. This would seem to prize institutional longevity more than almost anything else. The evidence can be found, for example, in how far universities go to protect and grow their endowments. But take other models: a commercial business, which operates for a few years, supports its operators, and then is closed or sold--this is not considered a failure. Neither is a church, whose particular congregation might wane even as the umbrella faith (which could be considered its own, exclusionist, “liberal art”) continues. There is no reason that a university can’t have a much smaller footprint, run while its ideas are fresh and its offerings attractive, and then fold as a normal outcome of a generational lifecycle. Black Mountain College existed for just 25 years, but it probably had more influence on the direction of higher education than many colleges that persist today.


Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

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