UNC Asheville professor of mathematics David Peifer was invited by the Asheville Museum of Science to give a presentation at The Collider about the history and legacy of Black Mountain College. His area of expertise is topology and infinite group theory, first introduced by German mathematician Max Dehn who taught at Black Mountain College from 1945 through 1952.
Topology is the study of geometric properties and spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures. Group theory is the branch of mathematics that deals with the structure of mathematical groups and mapping between them.
After Peifer moved to Asheville, he was surprised to learn that Dehn had spent the last seven years of his life teaching at Black Mountain College. “It’s amazing, once you start thinking about the school you find all these connections you have. It might be a family member or an artist that you have long admired. So ten years when I learned that Dehn taught at Black Mountain College I ended up on their Board of Directors.”
The college began in 1933 during the Great Depression at the Black Mountain YMCA, and soon moved to their Lake Eden campus. The college was closed in 1957, but to celebrate its legacy the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center was opened in 1953. It’s currently located at 120 College Street in Asheville.
“Conceived by John A. Rice, a brilliant and mercurial scholar who left Rollins College in a storm of controversy, Black Mountain College was born out of a desire to create a new type of college based on John Dewey’s principles of progressive education. The events that precipitated the college’s founding occurred simultaneously with the rise of Adolf Hitler, the closing of the Staatliches Bauhaus (German art school), and the beginning of the persecution of artists and intellectuals in Europe. Some of these refugees found their way to Black Mountain, either as students or faculty,” according to the museum’s website.
As a result of some dispute, Peifer said Rice was fired from Rollins College. According to a Rollins undergraduate research journal by Jennifer Ritter, “Rice opened Black Mountain in order to prove that he was a great man, which is what he sought.” Ritter’s research reveals that Rice was outspoken and unorthodox, he acted as a center of controversy on more than one occasion. His teaching style also raised questions.
“Rice’s view of liberal education came from John Dewey’s principles of progressive education; a democratic, pragmatic view. Students should be involved in making decisions in a democratic process,” Peifer said. A movement began in the 1920s to open liberal arts colleges. Robert Maynard Hutchins at the University of Chicago placed an emphasis on the study of “Great Books.”
“You’ve probably seen these on shelves someplace where they have all the books. You’ve got Kepler, Copernicus, Plato, and you work your way up through Newton.” St. John’s College in Maryland adopted the “Great Books” program in 1937. The founders of the Black Mountain College believed that the study and practice of art were indispensable aspects of a student’s general liberal arts education, and they hired Josef Albers to be the first art teacher.
Speaking not a word of English, Albers and his wife Anni left the turmoil in Hitler’s Germany and crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat to teach art at this small, rebellious college in the mountains of North Carolina. “Josef Albers had been the instructor for the first two year program at the Bauhaus. When he showed up at Black Mountain College in 1933, he brought with him this design oriented philosophy from the Bauhaus which had a very holistic view of arts and crafts blended with engineering,” Peifer said.
Black Mountain College was framed as a utopian society run by the students. “There were very few administrators. The students were building the facilities, and the faculty and students produced 80 percent of the food. They built the study building, the barn, and a science building. It was a liberal arts college, but it wasn’t an art school. They really believed that the arts were central to education, and led to an intellectual awakening more than any other way.”
Peifer said much has been published about the artists associated with Black Mountain College, but he also said not enough has been documented about the remarkable scientists, musicians, writers, sculptors, and architects associated with the school. Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome at the Black Mountain College campus.
There was a strong connection between the arts and the sciences. Peifer read the following quote from a preliminary report published by the college. “Scientific apparatus and laboratory equipment will of course be of simple scale. They will be sufficient however so that a small number of students may secure an adequate training in laboratory work of undergraduate caliber in physics, chemistry, and biology.”
Ted Dreier’s grandfather came to the United States as an immigrant and worked as a clerk in an iron trade company and later became a partner. So Ted Dreier’s father came from a family with money, was deeply involved in social reform, and had connections to the modern art community in New York.
“Ted Dreier earned an engineering degree at Harvard, worked for five years at General Electric, took a pay cut to teach at Rollins College, and quit after three years when Rice was fired to become one of the founders at Black Mountain College where he taught physics and math,” Peifer said.
Legendary even in its own time, Black Mountain College attracted and created maverick spirits, some of whom went on to become well-known and extremely influential individuals in the latter half of the 20th century. A partial list from the Black Mountain College Museum website includes Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, Susan Weil, Vera B. Williams, Ben Shahn, Ruth Asawa, Franz Kline, Arthur Penn, Buckminster Fuller, M.C. Richards, Francine du Plessix Gray, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Dorothea Rockburne and many others who have made an impact on the world in a significant way.