“Be Intelligent”

Abstract: this is an old paper I wrote during my graduate school coursework.  It meanders, but I like it.  In it, I compare to rival systems of education from the 1940s: John Andrew Rice’s Black Mountain College and John Erskine’s “Great Works” program at Columbia.


“Be Intelligent”

Between this rising host that follow intelligence, and the old camp that put their trust in a stout heart, a firm will, and a strong hand, the fight is on.  Our college men will be in the thick of it.

—John Erskine

Black Mountain College was a school with no rules, none at all, except one pithy guiding principle: “Be intelligent.” This laconic, malleable, and deliberately vague dictum was the closest thing to a “rule” John Andrew Rice ever imposed on his students.  Yet Black Mountain College was designed explicitly to avoid the pitfalls of rote intellectualism and academic pedantry, which makes this motto puzzling.  Given that Black Mountain College valued experimentation, self-exploration, contemplation, creation, and character far more than intelligence, what could Rice possibly have meant with such a command?

By tracing the origins of Rice’s dictum back to John Erskine’s 1915 essay “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent,” this paper examines Black Mountain College as a counter-cultural alternative to the dominant tendency of colleges in the 1930s toward disciplinary codification, General Education curricula, and Great Works programs that were designed in Universities such as Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard.  Erskine’s dichotomy of “intelligence” versus “character” is embodied in the comparison of Black Mountain education to liberal University education, as well as in the comparison of individual education versus mass education, and the idea of wisdom versus knowledge, heart versus mind, knowledge versus skill, know versus know how, process versus product.  What is fascinating is that John Erskine and

John Rice completely agreed on the nature of the pedagogical problem, that is, the problem of American anti-intellectualism and the false dichotomy inherent in the question of whether it is more important to teach toward character or toward knowledge.  Furthermore, Rice and Erskine both agreed on the necessary solution, the creation of a system that would create students with both character and intelligence, a system that would create thinkers and doers—yet they built pedagogical systems that could not have been more diametrically opposite.  Ultimately, Erskine’s system would prove the more influential—but this paper entertains Rice’s solution to the problem Erskine outlined two decades before Black Mountain College was anything more than a fanciful utopian daydream.

John Erskine & General Honors

In “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” (1915), Erskine asks whether or not intelligence is a value western society admires.  A good question—surely intelligence seems to be the sort of virtue that one ought to strive for, yet American politics so often prefers the “everyman” candidate, the “Joe the Plumber” or the “sort of guy you could have a beer with” over the snobbery of some know-it-all academic.  In Erskine’s time, perhaps he would have had similar thoughts about the brainy Woodrow Wilson, former head of Princeton University, as compared to the muscular, manly Theodore Roosevelt, President and cowboy.  As Erskine puts it, the cultural assumption has long been that the relationship between goodness and intelligence operates as an inverse ratio—the more of the one, the less of the other:

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.[1]

 

Erskine notes that much of the Western literary canon tells us to be wary of intelligence.  Again and again some version of the myth of Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is reframed: intelligence perverts; intelligence inexorably alienates man from his naturally good God-made state.  The man who chooses to submit to the system, to the will of God, will inevitably be a good man; such a man chooses responsibility over knowledge—an Old Testament sentiment well-expressed by Ari Elon in his description of the relationship between rabbinical and ritual duty: “Behold I place before you responsibility and truth.  And you shall choose responsibility. Every day I choose responsibility.”[2]  For Elon, responsibility means duty towards one’s wife, one’s family, one’s community, and the ritual of one’s religion.  Responsibility is being a good man of god, obedient to his laws—truth, however, would be to study the Torah, to try to understand it and interpret it, to achieve some proximal relationship to divine knowledge; it is safer and likely wiser to choose responsibility (proper action) over truth (proper thought).

Erskine briefly skims the western literary canon for corroborating evidence and notes that intelligence is the primary attribute of nearly all of Shakespeare’s villains (Iago, Shylock, Edmund), not to mention his tragic heroes (Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth); Milton’s reasonable and contemplative Satan is the downfall of man; Dr. Faustus warns us what happens when we learn beyond our limits. By comparison, the naturally well-moralled unthinking sidekicks (Horatio, Bassanio, Pickwick, et al) often survive and achieve their roles as heroes as a direct result of their benign ignorance.  Erskine posits that this preference for character over intelligence finds its source “in the German forests” where the savage Saxons survived in the wilderness by sheer will, not by intelligence, where words were as good as deeds, and good deeds were by definition deeds done by good men, a natural result of his goodness.

Enough of this eschewing of intelligence, Erskine tells us.  It is time for Americans to return to a “Greek love of knowledge, in a Greek assurance that sin and misery are the fruit of ignorance, and that to know is to achieve virtue.”  Here is where Erskine defines the fight: the problem with valuing character over intelligence is it leads to kicking down doors which could simply be unlocked; it couches rational decision-making in unnecessary and deceptive moralizing language.  He concludes:

The faith that needs the fewest altars, the hypothesis that leaves least unexplained, survives; and the intelligence that changes most fears into opportunity is most divine…. In history at least, if not yet in the individual, Plato’s faith has come true, that sin is but ignorance, and knowledge and virtue are one. But all that intelligence has accomplished dwindles in comparison with the vision it suggests and warrants. Beholding this long liberation of the human spirit, we foresee, in every new light of the mind, one unifying mind, wherein the human race shall know its destiny and proceed to it with satisfaction, as an idea moves to its proper conclusion; we conceive of intelligence at last as the infinite order, wherein man, when he enters it, shall find himself.[3]

 

Erskine’s call to arms is nothing short of John Andrew Rice’s “Be intelligent!” His language, “….in the new light of the mind, one unifying mind,” recalls Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Act V.iv, in which the reflective gaoler wishes, “I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good.” Both John Erskine and Shakespeare’s gaoler imagine a world perfected by the unity of reason, of well-exercised logic leading all minds and hearts to one and the same conclusion good.

It should come as no surprise that Erskine’s Platonic conception of a shared, unifying ethics achieved through the communal seeking of knowledge would later inspire his General Honors course at Columbia. The two-year class covered “the truly great books….a list of some fifty or sixty, from Homer to William James, masterpieces in all fields—literature, economics, science, philosophy, history.” The goal of General Honors, a course that would serve as the later basis for Columbia’s Core Curriculum, “is to give the students a common intellectual world…to give the students as a body a wealth of ideas and suggestions which they can and do talk about as about any other interest that might be alive in human society.”[4]  Erskine’s pointed emphasis on a shared body of knowledge places precedence on the creation of a shared academic culture, a liberal conception of education in which one size fits all, and every American citizen can set off on a path toward self-improvement, regardless the limits of his or her capabilities, by engaging in this common curriculum centered around this established set of books.  Mortimer Adler, a student of Erksine’s during the 1920s, would later expand this list of “endlessly re-readable” books along with a 350 page explication of how to become a better “synoptic” reader in his bestselling book on books, How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education (1940).[5]  The success of Adler’s bestseller (revised and republished in 1967 and 1972 with the help of Charles van Doren under the subtitle The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading[6]) reflects the popularity of this possible solution to the problem of mass-culture and education.

Erskine’s “one mind good” was an effort at the democratization of education, a liberal schematizing of knowledge into a system that, ideally, all can participate in—this conception of education still dominates university systems today, hearkening back to the idea of the self-reliant American who “pulls himself up by his own bootstraps.”[7]  The idea has now expanded into the contemporary debate surrounding the so-called “digital humanities” and MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”), both efforts to democratize learning and education into a one-size-fits-all curriculum that any tenacious citizen might seize. In 2012, the student who received the most press for graduating from Columbia University was a 52-year-old Yugoslavian-born custodian named Gac Filipaj who spent twelve years learning English and achieving his degree.   The embodiment of lifelong learning, of the spirit of liberal education, of the self-made man, of the merit of the Core Curriculum, of the American dream, and of the universal applicability of Erskine’s “great works” to appeal to the shared commonality among all man, Gac Filipaj’s success at Columbia’s General Studies program symbolized so much more than simply a bachelor’s degree in Classics.[8]  In an interview given at his graduation, Filipaj channeled Erskine’s liberal imagination of education, even evoking the dichotomy of heart and head, character and intelligence: “I am not blind. I look in the mirror and see myself. If god has not given me some nice appearance he has given me a head, has given me a heart and I can make myself better.” [9] Filipaj is rightly touted as an exemplar product of Columbia’s liberal education, the paragon of Alder’s and Erskine’s magnanimous solution to the problem of how to democratize of education.  Some variation of Erskine’s educational philosophy, imagined nearly ninety years ago, remains the central tenet of most liberal arts curricula today.

What Black Mountain Was Not

The anti-institutional values at the core of BMC invite a description from the negative rather than the positive; BMC was the antipode of Columbia.  It was a college that deliberately did without many things that one generally assumes absolutely necessary in a school.

For one, Black Mountain never had a permanent campus.  The college rented property from the nearby YMCA for the first ten years of its existence.  This meant BMC had to vacate the YMCA facilities every summer to make way for their summer programming, and the College had to be re-constructed afresh every year.[10]  This also meant the school operated on only a small library, generally pooled together from the personal libraries of the professors.  Students and teachers alike toyed with the idea of a tent-city style of campus, one that was completely mobile, impermanent, ever-wandering and adapting—even as late as the 1950s, Buckminster Fuller taught his students how to construct elaborate geometric domes that could be easily erected and deconstructed as needed, and might be used to solve BMCs housing difficulties.[11]  The impermanent, transient nature of the school in many ways made it a place that was less focused on locality or some iconic building (i.e., Columbia’s Butler Library), and more so a state of mind, which is perhaps why alumnus and writer Fielding Dawson, writing decades after the school had shut down, described Black Mountain as holding “as much an influence on me today, and every day, as it ever was…It’s simple. I was at Black Mountain before I got there.”[12]  Black Mountain was placeless and timeless.

Black Mountain was born of the Great Depression and never had much funding.  It subsisted on the barebones donations of a few donors, scant tuition fees, and assiduous subsistence farming.  This penniless existence was the result of Rice’s staunch “objection—that college and university trustees, presidents, and deans, most of whom were not teachers or scholars but executives and disciplinarians, [have] the power to interfere with the teachers’ function.”  Rice adamantly refused to entertain the possibility of anyone outside of the community of the school meddling in the internal decision-making processes of the school.[13]  As such, everyone who worked at BMC—except for a single, administrative typist—was a teacher.  Even the students were considered to be teachers “as important as the rector and the rest of the staff…free to criticize the teachers as they are to criticize [the student]; free to open his mouth about anything.”[14]  This idea of a community of democratic learners derived in part from Rice’s conception that

a good teacher is always more a learner than a teacher, making the demand of everyone to be taught something…we [teachers] would provide the students with a liberal education if we merely gave them the privilege of looking on while we educated ourselves.[15]

By divorcing Black Mountain from the supposedly necessary evil of money, Rice deliberately created an academic utopia, an eden, an intellectual Bohemia where freedom of thought could be entertained without the incessant requirement of benchmarks and publication to justify its existence, without the constraints of the progressive capitalistic world ever demanding what have you done for me lately?  He anticipated, in this regard, Irving Howe’s excoriating critique (“This Age of Conformity”) of the University system and the loss of an intellectual Bohemia for free-thinking artists and philosophers and the slow steady surrender of intellectual independence in exchange for quotidian comfort.  Howe lamented

that the truly powerless people are those intellectuals…who attach themselves to the seats of power, where they surrender their freedom of expression without gaining any significance as political figures.  For it is crucial to the history of the American intellectuals in the past few decades—as well as to the relationship between ‘wealth’ and ‘intellect’—that whenever they become absorbed into the accredited institutions of society they not only lose their traditional rebelliousness but to one extent or another they cease to function as intellectuals.[16]

Rice refused at all costs—even at the cost of meager rations in the cafeteria—to sacrifice the independence and autonomy of his school.  And of course, most teachers received negligible pay, or altruistically chose not to collect pay when times were lean.  To Rice, the paltry budget was a necessary price of freedom that inspired creative problem-solving.  Every year was a scramble to obtain the necessary minimum operating costs; time and again BMC was saved from ruin by the “joint resourcefulness and self-denial of both the faculty and students.”[17]  Though Howe didn’t write the following words until 1954, they very well could have come straight from J.A. Rice’s mouth:

…far more prevalent and far more insidious is that slow attrition which destroys one’s ability to stand firm and alone…All of life, my older friends often tell me, is a conspiracy against that ideal of independence with which a young intellectual begins; but if so, wisdom consists not in premature surrender but in learning when to evade, when to stave off and when to oppose head-on.[18]

Rice spoke a parallel truth about intellectuals and their high-minded truisms to the intellectually free muse: “People think they want something new and different, think they want freedom, but what they really want is the old things changed enough to make them feel comfortable.”[19]  Rice demanded action, not simply thought; creativity, not comfort.  Knowing the right thing to do is not the same thing as doing the right thing.  Rice’s dogged adherence to the principle of democratic independence was critical to the freedom that existed at BMC.  Years later, Fielding Dawson would open his memoir of Black Mountain College with a panegyrical passage beginning with a sentence that was only possible because of Rice’s commitment: “Black Mountain was freedom.”[20]

First and foremost, Black Mountain was freedom.  The integrity of the school hinged on its separation from mainstream mass education, and independence from trustees, administrative structures, or outside influences of standardization.  Rice’s values had instilled at Black Mountain School a strong sense of negative liberty, of “freedom from” restriction.  In valuing right action (and not simply thought), self-sufficiency, self-reliance, self-denial, and the sheer willpower to exist, Rice demonstrated the strength of the other half of Erskine’s argument: the importance of character over intelligence.  But what of positive liberty?

Black Mountain College had no curriculum, required courses, or degree standards.  One did not go to BMC “to get” a degree.  As Louis Adamic explained:

‘to get’ an education…lights up the whole fallacy of the prevailing system, for education can only be experienced; one ‘gets’ only information or ‘facts’—and the ‘facts’ acquired in the average college have to do with the past and are mainly worthless to one destined to live in the future.[21]

In short, BMC endeavored to train people to be thinkers, not simply to give students pre-formed thoughts.  Rice, however, was not so polite as Adamic when explaining why Black Mountain disdained any sort of curriculum, particularly Great Works:

To nothing has reverence been paid more stupidly than the classics…Grammar is no complete guide to the future except for prigs…Rhetoric, taken in its least obnoxious sense, is a record of the formulae for persuasion that have been used in the past…Education, instead of being the acquisition of a common stock of fundamental ideas, may well be a learning of a common way of doing things, a way of approach, a method of dealing with ideas or anything else.  What you do with what you know is the important thing. To know is not enough.[22]

An education is not a product, but a way of life.  While Columbia could be said to produce graduates, Black Mountain School trained students, or, to use Lionel Trilling’s words, Columbia produced “doctors,” whereas Black Mountain produced “explorers.”[23] To Rice and Adamic, a student pumped full of facts is nothing but a bag of hot air, huffing and puffing with information that drives no piston, has no application.  Facts are useful only so far as they allow for the training of imagination, that is, the creative and unanticipated manipulation of ideas and perception for the sake of greater understanding, appreciation, empathy, and goodness.  Rice wanted students whose good deeds would be a direct result of their creative thinking, whose thoughts lead to action and visa versa, students whose character and intellect were inextricably bonded, not to the detriment of one or the other, but to the synergistic benefit of both.  At Black Mountain, the idea of having a curriculum that would fit every student was unthinkable.  Instead, each student was expected to design his or her own curriculum, because of or despite the limitations of the schools resources.  This sort of self-motivated, self-designed curriculum is difficult to ever “complete” and as a result, precious few students formally graduated from BMC—“graduating” was not really the point.

A school without curriculum or requirements is a difficult concept to grapple with: what is a school if not a curriculum?  Dawson’s memoir provides the best insight into the attitude of the student body towards class requirements.

I sat by the lake, reborn every morning barefoot barechested beautiful in bluejeans (no underpants, none of us wore underpants)…I rolled a cigarette, sleepily sipped some homebrew thinking fuck French class I was aware of my identity gathering in the universe.[24]

So what had Black Mountain in place of a curriculum?  Perhaps it is best to call it a philosophy, or a methodology, a way of life, a Socratic belief in the conception of gnothi seauton, or “know thyself.”  Josef Albers, one of the most prominent leaders of the school and master color theorist, felt that “All education…is self-education, but self-education best proceeds through comparison.”[25]  John Wallen, teacher of psychology, said almost exactly the same Socratic thing as Albers: “All genuine learning is self learning.”[26]  Arthur Adams concurred, that Black Mountain “had implemented the principle that learning can only begin when a student wants to learn,” in other words, there is no point in making Dawson sit in French class until he, by his own volition, decides to give a fuck.  Albers claim that “self-education best proceeds through comparison” meshed neatly with Rice’s multidisciplinary teaching methodology, in which he was “constantly pointing out the interrelationship and interdependence of the subjects taught in the college, and integrating them in those who teach and study them.  He aims to develop the idea and feeling that knowledge, truth, art, education, effort, action, experience, life are all of one piece, or at least they can by synchronized.”[27]  Rice does in fact call BMC’s lack of curriculum a “curriculum,” but it is so openly defined it is difficult to imagine what exactly it entailed:

The center of the curriculum, we said, would be art. The democratic man, we said, must be an artist. The integrity, we said, of the democratic man was the integrity of the artist, an integrity of relationship… The artist, we said, was not a competitor. He competed only with himself. His struggle was inside, not against his fellows, but against his own ignorance and clumsiness. The painting was his integrity, the score, the words of a play, and, at last, understanding, the will and the skill to do with his fellows, with the corporation, what he had done with paints and sounds: the integrity that was a relationship between himself and the corporation.  But just as the painter must learn to paint, starting with ignorance and clumsiness, so this new artist, this creator of integrity between himself and his fellows, must know and know how, must have knowledge and skill.  Also just as the artist would not paint his picture with muddy colors, so this artist must see clear colors in humanity; and must himself be clear color, for he too was his fellow artist’s color, sound, form, the material of his art. But, different from pigment, bow, granite, not used up in the use; rather, made more of what he would be, a note within the symphony, the clearer for having been written; giving up, and asked to give up, nothing of himself. That was the integrity of the artist as artist. That should be the integrity of man as man.” [28]

Rice purported to design a system of democratic education, a sort of enlightened Jeffersonian democracy of working artist-philosophers who, in their individual learning, and communal sharing and participation, create a uniquely democratic space for the trying out of ideas.  His process of learning is fundamentally focused on doing.  A technical skillset, such as painting, is a medium for the exploration of ideas, the expansion of the imagination, the creation of new things.  The essential point was the expansion of what Rice calls “the realm of the imagination.”[29]  At heart was Rice’s unwavering insistence that students must “cease being passive recipients and handers-out of mere information; to become productive, creative, using everything that comes within their orbit, including especially people.”  The focus on the individual is critical: only as a result of an individual’s will to learn and to improve him or herself can that student become a harmonious note within the symphony of the Black Mountain community—each note requires its own tuning, its own curriculum.  Yet simultaneously each student must exist in relation to the greater community.

Where Columbia focused on a one-size-fits-all curriculum for the liberal improvement of mankind, Black Mountain designed a program specifically suited to each individual student.  Erskine begins with a curriculum to which he molds each individual; Rice begins with an individual to whom he molds each curriculum.  Where Erskine would have education at Columbia train active thinkers both morally and academically knowledgeable (intellectuals), Rice would train active doers, people who build, craft, create, revise, rebuild, recreate (artists).

Erskine and John Rice both recognized the necessity of breaking down the dichotomy of intelligence versus character.  To this end, they both turned to the example of Socrates as a man who found virtue through intellect, and correct action through rigorous philosophical thought.  Both professors attempted a chiastic interweaving of those two elements which refuted the assumption that intelligence and character existed only in inverse proportion to one another.  But Erskine started with the curriculum, with knowledge and wisdom, and endeavored through his General Honors course to teach to the character of his students, beginning from the common knowledge of a shared body of texts.  Erskine agreed with his most successful student, Lionel Trilling, who “had never given assent to the modern saw about ‘teaching students, not subjects’” and also likely agreed that “if one gives his first loyalty to the subject, the student is best instructed.”[30]   But neither of these titanic professors lived together and ate together with their students.  They had separate academic lives and home lives, and therefore, they were bound by the limits of their institution; they had no ability to teach character, to demonstrate character, or to influence character, except through the examples within the books they taught.  The closest they could come to teaching wisdom and character—and not mere facts and information—was the hopeful estimation that maybe, just maybe “each student inevitably experienced the books in privacy and found their meaning in reference to his own life.”[31]  By the time Erskine’s tenure had passed, and Trilling had taken up the charge of teaching General Honors and Modern Literature, Trilling began to sound more and more like John Rice, insisting that each of his students approach the void, peer in, and ask: “But is it true? Is it true for me?[32]  Or, in Rice’s cutting admonitory language:

Nothing can do greater disservice to a student than to send [a student] out from college provided with a systematic philosophy, for it cannot possibly be his own and has probably never been anybody’s….We sometimes forget that systems of philosophy are the products of old age; and we have failed to follow the Socratic direction to teach the young how to become, not how to be, philosophers, and to show them that in their quest for certainty the only thing on which they can rely with assurance is the experience of the quest. We should realize that there is wisdom of youth as well as wisdom of old age.[33]

 

John Rice began with the individual character of his students and built upwards (and not downwards from the ivory marble academic tower) towards a body of knowledge that could be directly applicable to that individual student.  Ultimately, what Rice imagined for his students was the chiastic interweaving of character and intelligence, always beginning with the character of the individual.  Erskine’s call for intelligence was pegged on the Socratic belief that insight leads to virtue, and by cultivating the one, the other would naturally increase, that the modern man—unlike the classical man—had an obligation to temper his action with rational, thoughtful decision-making.  Rice would have agreed with this, but Rice’s understanding of intelligence was founded on a different understanding of the nature of man, both as individual and part of a community:

Modern man is looking for a savior, someone to save him from his individualism.  But he cannot find him, for he insists upon the terms of his own salvation. He wants, and needs, to be saved, but he must be, he says, just as he was before.  He is like a fifth century Athenian, all brain and little heart.  He has this choice: to retreat, as the Germans have, to slavery, from which another Christ may come to rescue him—that was what the early Christian was, slave made into man—or else by pushing his individualism as far as it will go, he may come to realize, as Socrates tried to teach him, and failed—Socrates was, after all, an Athenian, as Christ was a Jew—the limits of sheer thinking, and , unafraid, look about him and see his fellows all in the same predicament, speak to them with his heart as well as his mind, acknowledge that they as well as he are both thinker and lover, and losing nothing of himself, find all of himself within all humanity.  If he does, if he has the will to go on, he will discover that he needs no leader, that he is in himself both leader and follower. Christ, calling himself son and brother, refused to be leader, kept saying ‘not me but the Father,’ and Socrates saying the same thing in the Athenian way, together warned man against exclusion, against either—or as a way of thought and feeling; plead with him to be both and to leave nothing out, to be whole: to be the Christian Socrates, Socratic Christ.[34]

 

If your goal is to find a savior, a leader, to have someone educate you, and lead you in your studies, by all means (Rice would say) you should go to Columbia and be led.  But if your goal is to engage with the truly terrifying questions of selfhood, if you have the courage to “stare into the void,” as Trilling invited his students to do, to push your individualism to its limit, to be your own leader, to face the universal questions without accepting the easy, comfortable answers, many of them age old, then Black Mountain is for you.

With all this in mind, we begin to see what was meant by the singular dictum: “Be Intelligent.”  It was not merely a catch-all phrase meant to instill some loose honor code for BMC—was the only rule that could possibly be had at a school with no rules.  Rice had created a space that allowed nearly complete freedom from all restrictions, absolute freedom from any impediment that might get in the way of one’s own education, as Mark Twain quotably quipped.[35]  In fact, one was free not to be intelligent, to make stupid decisions, to waste time, to think thoughtless thoughts—but that is the greatness of the motto.  The choice is no longer between responsibility and truth, as Ari Elon put it (and everyday he chose responsibility on the path toward goodness).  Instead Rice removed responsibility from the equation and replaced it with freedom.  Rice had made it so that responsibility was no longer an issue—there is no longer responsibility, except for, perhaps, the responsibility to choose the truth.  But that choice had to be freely made.  A student’s only restriction within an educational community organized around utter freedom was to choose to use the time wisely and fully, to “Be Intelligent.”  He created a modern eden in which the only law was everyone really ought to eat the fruit and would often be invited to do just that.  The rule was not, as Adamic explained, “‘Be intellectual!’ [be a man of thought] or ‘Be muscular!’ [be a man of action] (in both cases the dividing line is the neck) but ‘Be intelligent!’ A college should take account of the whole being and be a sort of second womb form which young people are born to all-round human maturity.”[36]

In 1915, John Erskine set down the parameters of the age-old battle between those who value intelligence and philosophy, and those who value character and action.  Recognizing the inherent falseness of the dichotomy, Erskine took up the mantle in defense of intelligence by creating an educational system which aspired to produce well-rounded, educated, democratic young men of “one unifying mind.”  John Andrew Rice, in complete agreement with Erskine’s assessment of the unnecessary conflict between intelligence and character, built an a-systematic school that was diametrically opposite to what Erskine imagined would be the natural product of his logic.  They both agreed on the ideal student and the purpose of an education, but their paths for teaching that student could not have been more opposite.  And so both teachers would train another generation of some of the greatest philosophers and artists using completely opposite methods, but agreeing fundamentally on the virtues of the ideal student:

…his greatest longing is for [great ideas], but he wants ideas in use, to see them in action.  His life is full of meanings, and he is looking for a way to express them, through language, through art, through science.  But he will refuse to allow his mind to be suffocated by a transparent glaze of meaningless abstractions.  When every day offers the adventure of seeking the word for meaning rather than the meaning for the word, when action and word merge and become one, then shall we have the higher learning in America, and not before.[37]


[1] John Erskine, “Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent,” ca. 1915, <http://home.uchicago.edu/~ahkissel/education/erskine.html>.

[2] Ari Elon, From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven: Meditations on the Soul of Israel, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996) 7.

[3] Erskine “The Moral Obligation…”

[4] John Erskine, “General Honors at Columbia,The New Republic, (Vol. 32, Issue 412, October 25, 1922), 13.

[5] Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972) 347.

[6] My emphasis on the word “Intelligent.”

[7] A physically impossible feat, I’ve found.

[8] Alexander Gould, “Gac Filipaj,” The Columbia Owl: the Alumni Magazine for the School of General Studies (June, 2012) , <http://gs.columbia.edu/files/gs/Owl_2012.pdf> 31.

[9] Tony Guida, “Gac Filipaj: from janitor to Ivy League graduate,” CBS News, (CBS Interactive Inc :13 May 2012) <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57433417/gac-filipaj-from-janitor-to-ivy-league-graduate/>.

[10] Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 1972) 64.

[11] Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987) His largest attempt to create such a dome failed, and was honorably named the “supine dome.” But as with all things in Black Mountain, product was not nearly important as process, and learning could still be had in the process of failure, or as Fuller put it, “you succeed when you stop failing.”

[12] Fielding Dawson, The Black Mountain Book: A New Edition, (Rocky Mount, NC: Wesleyan College Press, 1991) 7 & 171, respectively.

[13] John Andrew Rice, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942) 318.

[14] Louis Adamic, “Education on a Mountain: the Story of Black Mountain College,” (Harper’s Magazine, April 1936) 522.

[15] Qtd in Adamic, 526.

[16] Irving Howe, “This Age of Conformity,” Partisan Review, (Issue 20, 1954) 13.

[17] Adamic 517.

[18] Howe 11.

[19] Rice 328.

[20] Dawson 7.

[21] Adamic 518.

[22] John Andrew Rice, “Fundamentalism and the Higher Learning,” (Harpers Magazine, May, 1937) 590-595.

[23] Lionel Trilling, “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” (Partisan Review, 1961) 10.  I quote Trilling with a tidbit of irony, given Trilling was Erskine’s student, yet his statements about education favor Rice’s methodology.

[24] Dawson 169.

[25] Duberman 53.

[26] Duberman 234.

[27] Adamic  526.

[28] Rice, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century 328-329.

[29] Adamic 518.

[30] Trilling 19.

[31] Trilling 34.

[32] Trilling 10.

[33] Rice, “Fundamentalism and The Higher Learning,” 592.

[34] Rice, I Came from the Eighteenth Century,”  334.

[35] “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.”

[36] Adamic 518.

[37] Rice, “Fundamentalism and The Higher Learning” 596.

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