Another Consociate Family

The Easy Chair,  Harper’s,  April 1936

Let me say that I know very little about Black Mountain College except from reading Mr. Adamic’s article. I may seriously misunderstand and misrepresent the college: if I do, I must delegate the blame to Mr. Adamic. I should add that I have been a college teacher for twelve years, five of them at a large co-educational university, seven at Harvard. What I take to be logical objections to “experimental” education may be sheer prejudice; at any rate, I have been offered chairs in three different experimental colleges and have declined them all, each time with increased distaste. I have always distrusted the assumptions and the aims of such colleges, and as my experience increases I distrust them more. I believe that the basic problems of education are insoluble, and though I see no reason why people should not try to solve them, I regard optimism and idealism as unpromising equipment for such efforts. I believe that there is no right way to teach, or even a best way, and no optimum environment for college life — there are only more or less effective ways of ad hoc teaching in circumstances so complex and multifarious that it is idle to theorize about them. The conception of an ideal college seems to me preposterous; I cannot believe in such a conception and if confronted with its realization I should probably flee howling.

Mr. Adamic is a layman: his article frequently demonstrates his ignorance of the past and the present of education in America. The “revolutionizing of American education” which he thinks twenty Black Mountain branches would  accomplish has been at the boiling point for a century—for  two centuries if you recognize the process as religious.  It is  cyclic and its periodicity could probably be worked out. At any rate Black Mountain is older and less insurgent than he thinks. Nearly everything he mentions has been tried before, even in the same linkages and relationships: all of it has been, if you include the educational sects among the educational institutions. Whether or not it is new, of course, makes no difference; but at least there is a basis in experience for the objections I proceed to voice. For some of the things that rouse Mr. Adamic’s enthusiasm seem to me futile, some of them irrelevant, and some vicious.

Let’s begin with the simplest, the mixture of physical and intellectual labor which dozens of colleges encourage to-day and which has been a cornerstone for scores of our consecrated groups, from Mother Ann Lee’s Shakers on up through Brook Farm to Helicon Hall. Mr. Adamic thinks that rolling roads and picking up cigarette butts give the students “a sense of participating in the vital day-to-day life of the place as a whole.”  Well, you find that participation in the oddest places. It is the practice in jails and army cantonments, and if dishwashing is a stimulus to communal life we ought not to be so hard on Hitler and Stalin, for they realize this educational ideal in their labor battalions. If a student has to support himself by such work, college teachers usually regard it as a tolerable evil but still an evil.  Some of my students wash dishes and tend furnaces; I think they would be better students if they didn’t have to. So do the deans and college presidents who are continually trying to get larger scholarship funds. I don’t think that the deans and presidents are conspiring against the good life.

It’s pretty bad for the students.  It’s far worse for the  faculty.  (I understand Mr. Adamic to say that the dividing  line is pretty faintly drawn at Black Mountain, but it must exist.) The best use for an astrophysicist is in astrophysics, not bookkeeping. His job is to be a scientist and to teach.  The functions of the teacher-pupil relationship, however mystical they may be at Black Mountain, can be better exercised within the limits of his science; if there is anything spiritual in bookkeeping, a professional bookkeeper will be more adept at it than a philologist. No college will ever be free of administrative work. It’s best to have it done efficiently, by specialists. Most teachers are bad at it and dislike it and are glad to be relieved of it. Even if they like it and are good at it, any time they spend at it has to be taken from their primary jobs.

And these repeated efforts to give the management of the colleges back to the faculty have always seemed to me a kind of romance. A type-specimen of human absurdity is any college faculty forced, reluctantly and protestingly, to deliberate any question of policy or government. Ask anyone who ever went to a faculty meeting. The Boys don’t know much about it, are properly skeptical of those who pretend to, resent being called from the laboratory, bog down in inertia, and are pitifully glad to leave the decision to a committee or a dean. All a faculty needs — more than it usually wants— is a reserved sovereignty, to make sure that nothing will be slipped over on it. It nearly always has that, few attempts to slip something over are made, and fewer still succeed. No attempt has ever been made by any college officer or trustee to limit my freedom of thought, expression, teaching or action, or that of any acquaintance of mine. Such attempts are sometimes made and sometimes succeed, but the total is far smaller than editorial writers believe. The college teacher is about the freest man in the country. Certainly he is freer than the members of any other profession. When you read otherwise you are being misinformed. When his freedom is threatened, he has his own pressure groups, and you can do more for him by solidifying those groups than by giving him a part-time janitor’s job.

Mr. Hearst, the American Legion, and all the other ogres combined have done less damage to American education than that hoary wisecrack about Mark Hopkins and a log. Some people like that kind of education, but there are a lot of us who don’t. Mark Hopkins is all right at one end of a corridor, the longer the better, if there is a first-rate laboratory or library at the other end. It’s nice to have Mark on call when you want him, if he holes up when you don’t (Black Mountain’s cramped quarters might make that hard to manage) , but he is a ghastly bore when he is on hand all the time, and you want a good microscope or some original-source  documents oftener than you want Mark. You can frequently  find substitutes for Mark or even do without him, but there  is no substitute for libraries and laboratories, and the small college, the poor college and especially the experimental college fall down here. Mark can ramble on ever so enchantingly  about the web of nature or the class struggle, but you learn  about them by investigating them, and that takes equipment,  and equipment costs money and isn’t to be assembled overnight. For instance, Mr. Adamic’s article sent me to a lot of  original publications of Brook Farm and the Oneida Community, to verify my impression that I had seen a good deal of Black Mountain there. How many of those publications  has Black Mountain got?

Then there is freedom for the student. I don’t know what is good for either society or the individual, and no one has yet convinced me that he does. But granted that Black Mountain knows, I can’t say that its procedure is an innovation. Let’s say that the superior students are one fifth of any  enrollment. Most of us begin our teaching on a theory of the more liberty the better for everybody. Year by year we back away from the theory, and the interesting thing is that the pressure which makes us back away comes from the four fifths. They flounder and sink in freedom, and they resent it. My belief is that it doesn’t matter what happens to the four fifths, and year by year more of my energy is expended on the one fifth. The trend of the colleges in America is just that. The superior student has complete freedom now, in most places, and teaching-methods, library and laboratory equipment and social environment are all being oriented from him and toward his development. It seems to me that Black Mountain is in a serious dilemma. If it holds to its policy of the cross-section, it must to some degree disregard the superior student. If it concentrates on the superior student, it can’t possibly afford the libraries, laboratories and teaching by specialists that he needs.

All this, however, is comparatively unimportant. The pat answer to it is that Black Mountain isn’t so much interested in developing students as in developing personalities. And right here is where Black Mountain as Mr. Adamic describes it stops being, in my opinion, merely irrelevant or vieux jeu and becomes downright dangerous. It sounds a good deal less like an educational institution than a sanitarium for mental diseases, run by optimistic amateurs who substitute for psychiatric training sonic mystical ideas that sound nonsensical to me and sonic group practices that we usually denounce when we find more conspicuous groups indulging in them. This fact does not alarm me. A lot of the “group influence” must be fun, and anybody who wants it is certainly entitled to it. The human organism is tough: it can survive the mayhem we orthodox pedagogues commit on it, which is the insurance policy that safeguards education, and it can survive evangelical psycho-analysis by idealists. But the idealists are monkeying with mechanisms which they are not trained to monkey with and which psychiatrists leave strictly alone except in the gravest emergencies. You do not invade a gall bladder for fun but only when it gets infected,  and then you want a surgeon, not a woodcarver, be he ever so artistic and optimistic. As a teacher, I’ll stay away from  those areas, thanks, and as a father I’ll hope that when my children reach college age they won’t be interested in fingering themselves that way.

Mr. Adamic talks about “truth” in a large and pretty  vague way. I doubt that Black Mountain knows what truth is any better than jesting Pilate did. I don’t know what it is,  but I do know what these phenomena of  “group influence”  are; lots of people regard them as the most desirable things in the world, but they make me gag. No matter how suavely contrived, they are the phenomena of evangelical conversion,  and we have a lot of them in the colleges. Out in Terwillinger, which I was writing about last month, the Y.M.C.A.  invokes them every year with much the same jargon and  machinery. The Oxford Group, the Buchmanites, who carry on what seems to me a pretty loathsome activity in the  better colleges, are an even more exact parallel. There you  have the same mechanism of house-parties, exhibitionism,  group pressure, the dark night of the soul, mutual criticism, summons to the more ecstatic life, and rebirth in grace.  Pretty dangerous stuff. Usually it doesn’t do any harm to the  individual, except as exhibitionism and emotional jags may be harmful per se and as a state of grace is usually a state of Godawful priggishness as well. But it can do harm.  It can increase emotional instability and maladjustment, and it can create them. It can produce hysteria and even insanity: the camp meetings, which use the process in its purest form, are not a fine flower of the good life. Let us prayerfully remember the “burnt-over district” and its effects on American society—the hundreds of consecrated groups and experimental communities, which were also based on a cockeyed psychology and which also multiplied as Mr. Adamic expects Black Mountain to do.

The terminology varies—Black Mountain’s is more like Gourdyev’s than John Humphrey Noyes’s—but the energies involved and even the mechanisms employed are eternally the same.  A teacher or a student from Black Mountain could step into any of the Consociate Families of a century ago and, except for the vocabulary, feel perfectly at home.  The consecrations of those days didn’t prove much—except, maybe, that dedication and hope and idealism are neither an aim nor a process of education, and that phrases like “to experience an art as a process which is also life” are mere logomachy.  I can’t see that Black Mountain proves anything that wasn’t known and suspect long ago. And certainly it is part of the renewed Transcendentalism of these days. The long summary of Mr. Rice’s ideas which Mr. Adamic gives in his third section is full of echoes for anyone who knows Ripley, Brownson, Alcott, the Dial and the Harbinger.  There is the same call for the second birth of the individual and the regeneration of society, the same mystical ecstasy, the same wild marriage of apocalyptic vision and untenable psychology—and the same jargon.  For if Mr. Adamic understands what he represents Mr. Rice as saying about education and about the function of the artist in society, I don’t and I doubt that many others can find meaning in it. It may carry a more direct consolation and inspiration than meaning can
possibly have, but I am not sensitized to receive it and a good many people must share my lack. I can only say that its conception of mankind, the world and society is hidden from me and certainly different from mine, and that, to me, it sounds like a trance. I have seen that trance a good deal in our history, and I distrust it. It sounds like Charles Fourier to me, and Fourier has nothing to say to us to-day. We’ve tried him out—why repeat the experiment? In the end he came to promising that, if his theories were faithfully applied, all the seasons except Spring would disappear and the oceans would turn to lemonade. They didn’t, and Black Mountain’s promises seem to me no more realistic.  Fourier’s American followers could interpret a man’s character by putting a line of his handwriting to their foreheads and could work other mystical miracles, just as some of the Black Mountain boys and girls can converse by twitching their eyebrows.  But that proved to have not much bearing on the problems of education, and the phalansteries broke up. Mr. Adamic expects Black Mountain to multiply, but its predecessors multiplied by fission, by division, and that is the history of experimental societies and colleges in America.  Black Mountain itself came about by secession: another experimental college split mitotically to give it birth.

George Ripley, one of Mr. Rice’s forerunners, stated as the great object of all social reform: “the development of humanity, the substitution of a race of free, noble, holy men and women, instead of the dwarfish and mutilated specimens which now cover the earth.” That is the object that experimental colleges have always had in view. It would be interesting to see some really radical experimenters forego the free and holy and occupy themselves with the dwarfish and mutilated. An experimental college staffed by fanatical real ists and fanatical cynics instead of idealists would have a lot less fire but it might have a lot more iron. But you could never get such a faculty together. Teachers like that stay where they are, being bored from within and thanking God for an occasional brilliant student whom they can really help. Such a student doesn’t show up very often, but when he does they try to assist his search for knowledge — they don’t lead him down into the waters of redemption that he may be born again.