Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community
Educational Commune: The Story of Commonwealth College
Since the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley signaled the official opening of the American student revolt in 1964, so much attention has been given to various efforts to improve or reconstruct the obviously inadequate and dangerous model of American higher education that earlier efforts to found experimental colleges recede into the background. But the 1930s were perhaps more fruitful in devising interesting varieties of possible educational experiences than the past decade has been. Bennington, Antioch, Reed, Sarah Lawrence, and the College of the University of Chicago all launched programs designed to provide a more liberal approach to college education than that afforded by the major-and-elective system, course grades, and accumulated credits. All these institutions continue to flourish. But their survival and continued vitality may attest less to the excellence of their programs than to the relative abundance of their resources at the time they began them. Of these, only Bennington was actually founded in the Thirties. Sarah Lawrence was born in 1928, which, fiscally, was a different century, and the other three were long established.
Neither Black Mountain nor Commonwealth College, the subjects of these two books, survived. Black Mountain, founded in 1933, lasted for twenty-three years, but it came close to extinction two or three times during that period, and the one surviving member of its founding group did her best to force it to close a year before it finally did in 1956.
Commonwealth’s tenure was far briefer. It was founded as a school for radical labor leaders in 1923, began independent operations in 1925, and was closed by the state of Arkansas which auctioned off its meager property between December, 1940, and March, 1941, in payment of a $2,500 fine imposed for “disseminating propaganda with the intent to encourage and advocate overthrowing the present form of government of the state of Arkansas and the United States by violence and other unlawful means,” and two lesser charges. Under a law that had recently been passed in Arkansas, the possession of more than a single copy of any publication deemed subversive was prima facie evidence of guilt. The most damning evidence that might have been introduced in substantiation of the charge could not, at the time, be used since its implications had not yet become clear; but it is a sad fact that, in 1935, Orval Faubus served as president of the student body.
Though defunct for thirty-two years, Commonwealth College remains on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations, according to the Kochs, whose statement I must accept since the document is not available from the Queen’s Printer here in Canada.
Certainly, the most bizarre contrast between their book and Duberman’s is to be found in the photographs of college scenes which illustrate each book. Since both schools were economically built in Southern mountain areas, the landscapes and structures are rather similar; and they are nearly enough contemporary for styles of dress to be much the same. The faces, however, are quite different, since the Kochs…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.