The Head's Perspective
The Head’s Perspective: Black Mountain College

All roads seem to have led to Black Mountain College recently, or at least to the wonderful exhibition of work at the Hammer. We were in Berlin over spring break, and I went to the Hamburger Banhoff, Berlin’s contemporary art museum, to see an amazing show, Manifesto, by Julian Rosefeldt. I hadn’t realized that Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957, a show at Hammer Museum and already on our calendar for when we returned to LA, had exhibited in Berlin last year.

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2015. Photo: Liza Voll Photography.

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2015. Photo: Liza Voll Photography.


If you haven’t seen the Black Mountain show, please do. It’s terrific, and it’s closing in just a few weeks. There’s much that will remind you of all that we treasure about Wildwood School and our work with students and families here, even sixty years later.


quoteblock_1It’s impossible to not think about the progressive parallels between Wildwood and the visionary artists, educators, and thinkers responsible for Black Mountain College and a broad list of colleges and universities based on the same ideals.  I found myself compelled, really, reading the beautifully and simply crafted opening statement:


…Black Mountain College was influenced by the utopian ideals of the progressive education movement…They experimented with new ways of teaching and learning; they encouraged discussion and free inquiry; they practiced living and working together as a community; they shared the ideas and values of different cultures; they were committed to learning through doing; they trusted in the new while remaining committed to ideas from the past; and they valued the idiosyncratic nature of the individual.


Anyone who works in schools—and I’d imagine many other organizations, as well—knows of the regular pull to come up with an “elevator speech” to describe what we do and how we do it. An esteemed colleague of mine, a now-retired head of school back east, once said to me, “I’m sick of that elevator speech stuff. What we do is too complicated to describe in three floors.” Her tongue-in-cheek lamentation resonated for me, but the language the folks at Hammer Museum used to describe Black Mountain College does it pretty well, I think.


I’ll be thinking about that show for a good long time, I suspect, and their particular brand of progressive pedagogy will help me frame and inform my own thoughts about how we learn, how we teach, and where we’re headed. Although Black Mountain College wasn’t a sustainable venture, it’s impossible for us to know how broadly its influence has been felt.


What I do know is that the students and teachers, artists and musicians, mathematicians and philosophers who inspired and learned from one another at Black Mountain went on to learn from and inspire others. Just one element of the introduction I’ve shared above captures it perfectly: “they trusted in the new while remaining committed to the ideas from the past.”

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