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John A. Rice (1888–1968)

Black Mountain College, Life as a Writer

Founder and first rector of Black Mountain College, a renowned experimental and progressive endeavor in higher education (1933–1956), John Andrew Rice Jr., was a major figure in debates during the 1930s and early 1940s among educators concerning the appropriate means and methods of a liberal education. Through magazine articles and his book I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century (1942), he became known as an eloquent and harsh critic of a variety of approaches to education such as lecture, over-reliance on "great books," memorization, and counting credits by time in seat; and a proponent of Progressive education philosophies concerning student centered curriculum and classroom community.

Born in Lynchburg, South Carolina, Rice was the son of John Andrew Rice Sr., a Methodist minister who eventually became the president of Columbia (South Carolina) College and a founding faculty member at Southern Methodist University (Dallas, Texas). His mother, Annabelle Smith, was the sister of U.S. Senator Ellison Durant ("Cotton Ed") Smith. Two years after her death in 1899, the senior Rice married Launa Darnell who became stepmother to Rice and his two younger brothers.

Rice attended the Webb School, a highly regarded college preparatory boarding school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, from 1905 to 1908, where he encountered the teacher he would revere all his life, John Webb. Webb's penchant for open and wide-ranging classroom discussion sparked young Rice's first interest in learning. Rice then attended Tulane University and, after graduating in three years with a bachelor of arts degree, won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University.

At Oxford Rice met Frank Aydelotte, future president of Swarthmore College, and the latter's sister Nell. Rice and Nell Aydelotte were married in 1914, after Rice graduated from Oxford with first honors in jurisprudence. He began his teaching career at Webb School, but left after a year to pursue doctoral studies in classics at the University of Chicago.

Although Rice never completed his doctoral dissertation, he secured a faculty position at University of Nebraska, where he and Nell Rice and their two young children lived from 1920 to 1927. Rice proved brilliant in the classroom and in counseling individual students. His Socratic style and ability to provoke free-ranging conversations drew students to his courses in increasing numbers. His methods aimed at their emotional and intellectual maturity rather than their store of subject knowledge and he began writing articles that criticized American higher education for teaching unconnected course subjects with pedagogy that emphasized lecture and response. As he insisted in an article in Harper's in 1937, "What you do with what you know is the important thing. To know is not enough" (p. 590).

When Rice's candid and critical opinions extended to his immediate surroundings, he could seem audacious and insulting. His stay at the University of Nebraska ended when the president who hired and protected him fell ill. Next, at New Jersey College for Women, he quickly managed to rankle Dean Mabel Smith Douglass and was forced to resign after two years. After a year in England on a Guggenheim fellowship, he landed a faculty position at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

At Rollins, Rice would eventually earn a national reputation as the subject of an early and highly publicized investigation by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). He managed to polarize faculty and students by speaking out against fraternities and sororities and by objecting to various policies of Rollins president Hamilton Holt. Students and colleagues found him either brilliant and charismatic or argumentative and insulting. After three years, President Holt asked Rice to resign, an act that resulted in a nationally reported AAUP investigation that eventually censured Rollins and exonerated Rice. A number of supportive Rollins faculty and students resigned during the fracas and, along with Rice, began planning the learning community that would become Black Mountain College, located near Asheville, North Carolina, on the campus of a YMCA summer conference facility in the town of Black Mountain.

Black Mountain College

The college opened in 1933 with twenty-one students and eventually grew to nearly 100 students. It quickly gathered national notice for testing a number of innovative ideas about the means and ends of American higher education. Among these were the following: (1) the centrality of artistic experience to support learning in any discipline; (2) the value of experiential learning; (3) the practice of democratic governance shared among faculty and students; (4) the contribution of social and cultural endeavors outside the classroom; and (5) the absence of over-sight from outside trustees.

Rice recruited artist Josef Albers and weaver Anni Albers from Germany's famed Bauhaus Art and Architecture Institute after it was closed by the Nazi regime. They were joined by Bauhaus stage designer and graphic artist Xanti Schawinsky. Although students might select economics, foreign languages, mathematics, or music as major areas in their individually tailored programs of study, all were required to take Josef Albers's drawing course and Rice's classics course. As the college gained national renown for its art program and its experimental approaches to education, numerous well-known visitors joined the community for days or weeks at a time, including John Dewey, Buckminster Fuller, Marcel Breuer, Thornton Wilder, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, and others.

Rice enjoyed incorporating visitors into classes, evening seminars, even campus dramatic productions or community work projects. He committed the college to the practice of participatory democracy among students, faculty, staff, and families in order to prepare students for life in a democratic society. Although formal degrees or graduation ceremonies were absent, students needed to pass oral examinations by outside examiners in their chosen areas of emphasis in order to complete their course of study. Those who did had little problem entering graduate programs at selective universities.

Life as a Writer

Rice's outspoken and polarizing personality contributed to his resignation from the college, requested by the faculty, in 1940. He and Nell Rice divorced; he later married Dikka Moen with whom he had two children. Rice forged a second career in writing, starting with a collection in 1942 of his own memories and essays, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, named by his publisher as a winner of its one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary prize for best non-fiction. Rice then turned to fiction, writing short stories mostly about life and race relations in the South for The New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Harper's, and others. His stories also appeared in several anthologies and were collected in his book Local Color (1957).

When financially struggling Black Mountain College closed in 1956, Rice exchanged correspondence with final rector Charles Olson in an attempted to retrieve books he had left for the college library. However, he was never directly involved with teaching or educational ideas after his departure from the college.


ADAMIC, LOUIS. 1936. "Education on a Mountain." Harper's 172:516–530.

DUBERMAN, MARTIN. 1972. Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community. New York: Dutton.

HARRIS, MARY EMMA. 1987. The Arts at Black Mountain College. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

LANE, MERVIN, ed. 1990. Black Mountain College, Sprouted Seeds: An Anthology of Personal Accounts. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

REYNOLDS, KATHERINE C. 1998. Visions and Vanities: John Andrew Rice of Black Mountain College. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

RICE, JOHN ANDREW. 1937. "Fundamentalism and the Higher Learning." Harper's 174:587–596.

RICE, JOHN ANDREW. 1942. I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Harper.

RICE, JOHN ANDREW. 1955. Local Color. New York: Dell.


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