Education in a Time of War

Kenneth Kurtz teaching with Political Science Class. Courtesy of Western Regional ArchivesFig. 1

Education was one of many things at Black Mountain College that changed during World War II. For the most part many of the standard classes remained. However, there was a noticeable shift towards more practical courses, such as surveying, first aid, and photography, Oriental history, and Russian.[1]  It was still important to the faculty of BMC to retain one of the basic functions of higher education: training in thoughtful action, transmission and enhancement of cultural heritage, and a development of consciousness for the principles with which the world was struggling at that time.[2] The inhabitants of BMC believed that it was only through a humanistic and “deep understanding of the current issues, imagination, and true conviction” that current problems could be resolved. BMC also extended their curriculum to meet wartime demands.[3] Under the new structure of the curriculum, students could graduate faster—in 3 years instead of 4—so as to participate in the war as soon as possible. This new layout featured 4 semesters as opposed to the traditional Fall-Spring semesters. Students were encouraged to take all 4 terms. The college also created “Wartime Scholarships.” These 17 reduced fee scholarships (10 for men, 7 for women) were intended to help adults who could not afford an education. The scholarships ranged from $200-$750. In addition to the scholarships, BMC reduced its fee for tuition: those who could not afford the full $1, 200 could pay as little as $450.[4] BMC also considered students at a younger age (as young as a sophomore in high school) so as to help them graduate younger and join the armed forces or war efforts.[5]

Erwin Straus with class. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives.Fig. 2

Beyond the course content and layout during the war, BMC also looked ahead to educational needs after the war. Dr. Erwin Straus, European refugee and Professor of Psychology, developed a well-received plan for the education of soldiers. Dr. Straus’ plan required soldiers to make payments towards the educational institute that they would like to attend upon return. The payments must cover at least one full year of study. The money would be held in a type of savings account for when the soldiers returned. Upon the request of the soldier, the money would either be refunded or transferred to the educational institution of choice upon the individual’s admittance into the college or university.[6] Straus believed that his plan addressed multiple problems. The plan would give young men and women who were serving more certainty about their future, help them to avoid neuroses caused by personal uncertainty about the future, and provide men and women with post-war training that would be useful to them. It would also protect money against senseless waste, keep money out of circulation so as to help avoid inflation, and provide colleges and universities with guaranteed financial support for after the war.[7] Others agreed with Straus, believing that just as “one must prepare for war in peace time, one must prepare for peace in war time” and that it would be best to help veterans obtain a higher education since they would be running the country in the future.[8]

Letter from Robert Wunsch to Helen Adams. Courtesy of the Western Regional Archives.Fig. 3

Whether addressing education during or after the war, BMC vehemently argued for the continuation of their particular brand of democratic learning. Multiple faculty members could be found giving speeches or writing essays about the particular importance of education, even in a time of war. Robert “Bob” Wunsch, rector at BMC during World War II, argued that even in time of war, independent thinking becomes especially important. “You will have to decide how to help to create out of the fragments made by modern war a new civilization […] If civilization is to continue in this country it must continue largely through the wisdom and the devotion of you and your contemporaries in other colleges. Independent, hard-headed, clear thinking people can make this spot in the world vibrant and alive with learning and understanding.”[9] Renowned artist Josef Albers insisted that one of the best ways to defend democracy was “through a democratic education in which qualities of character are considered just as much as intellectual abilities and social adjustment, and more respected than mere acquisition of knowledge and skill,” that it had never been so clear that “education must emphasize human relationship just as much as, if not more, than intellectual training.”[10] To the professors of Black Mountain College, it wasn’t enough to simply support the war, or to address education during and after the war. To them, the type of education that they provided was absolutely necessary in protecting and understanding why they must continue protecting democracy.


[1] College Publications Announcements 1942-43, Black Mountain College Papers, Box 26, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

[2] College Publications Announcements 1942-43.

[3] College Publications Announcements 1942-43.

[4] College Publications Announcements 1942-43.

[5] Morton Steinau to Nan Weston, Black Mountain College Papers, Box 9, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

[6] Erwin Straus, Plan for an Educational Savings Fund Organisation Based on Self Help, Black Mountain College Papers, Box 37, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

[7] Plan for an Educational Savings Fund Organisation Based on Self Help by Erwin Straus.

[8] Erwin Straus, Plans and Accompanying Papers, Black Mountain College Papers, Box 40, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

[9] BMC Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 17 November 1942, Black Mountain College Papers, Box 26, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

[10] Josef Albers, Address for the Black Mountain College Meeting June 12, 1940, Black Mountain College Research Project, Box 12, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

Fig. 1 Kenneth Kurtz Teaching Class, Black Mountain College Papers, Box 4, Folder 58, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

Fig. 2 Edwin Straus with Class, Black Mountain College Papers, Faculty Photos, Box 4, Folder 74, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

Fig. 3 Robert Wunsch to Helen Adams, Christmas Campaign 1941, Black Mountain College Papers, Box 13, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

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