With school, spirit of Black Mountain College lives on

Fred McCormick

Before Black Mountain College moved to Lake Eden in 1941, the innovative college began on the grounds of the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, putting into practice philosopher John Dewey's theories on the importance of social interaction in education.

So it is no coincidence that the new Black Mountain School, which seeks to buck the trend of the "one size fits all" approach to education, has been established on the same grounds.

Chelsea Ragan and Adam Void moved to Black Mountain in 2012. Inspired by a visionary encounter that Ragan had with a black lion, the two artists gathered 17 other artists at a retreat in Lake Eden to develop the framework for a school in the spirit of Black Mountain College.

The Black Mountain School offers an alternative to traditional "one size fits all" curriculum.

Black Mountain School, which offers a "multi-tiered curriculum" that encourages teacher-student collaboration and seeks to empower students, was the result of that retreat. The school opened its doors on May 21.

With about 30 regular faculty members, Ragan and Void are joined on the administrative staff by designer and gallerist Heidi Gruner, who also sits on the school's board.

"Black Mountain College came about in a time when it was so desperately needed, and they created a safe space for artistic and personal growth," Gruner said in an email. "We seek to create that same spirit, to create that same haven, in this same magical place."

Black Mountain School is not an attempt to replicate its predecessor, according to Gruner. Instead, the iconic school has been "an incredible source of inspiration" for the modern school, she said.

Black Mountain College's legacy "is far from lost on us," she said. "But we're looking forward to creating something new."

The result of that endeavor has been a curriculum that creates a "new, progressive, ever-evolving learning space," through creative approaches to structuring class, she said.

Using the four principle states of matter, Black Mountain School offers classes ranging "solid" classes - more traditional classes that focus on the acquisition of concrete skills - to "gas" courses that are experimental and derived from the ideas of the students.

In the same spirit of communal living that was vital to the collaborative nature of Black Mountain College, an emphasis on hard work at Black Mountain School also contributes to a well-rounded education, according to Gruner.

"Getting outside of yourself through hard work further instills that sense of community that is so vital to collaboration," she said. "We are all working to make this place function. This further promotes a sense of community, one that leaves students feeling comfortable to host student led 'gas' classes at night, and to speak up in class, and to collaborate and learn and grow together."

That's the environment that the founders of Black Mountain School hope will "create conditions necessary for a present-day community of pioneering artists and critical thinkers," but at a fraction of the cost of traditional schools, Gruner said.

"The cost of higher education is extremely prohibitive and results in massive amounts of debt," she said. "We've created an affordable, nonhierarchal school where the programming has the fluidity to change based on the classes needs, where students can choose their level of involvement, where there are no prerequisites, no grades, no diploma. This is, quite simply, a place to learn from others."

The campus, which houses the same buildings used by many influential American artists from the 20th Century, remains relevant for the students of the current century.

"We have been so fortunate to be able to have our school on the original site of Black Mountain College and are so appreciative of the folks at YMCA for being so accommodating to us," Gruner said. "We are swimming and dancing and learning and 'making' on not only the original, historical site, but in the magic of these mountains. As corny as that may sound, this place really is magical. The spirit of these mountains creates an energy that is vital to 'making.'"