Bauhaus and The Evergreen State College

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The Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin, Germany.

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I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading about Bauhaus, the influential early twentieth century school of art. I studied it a little bit, mostly tangentially, when I was in college. At the time, I mostly paid attention to the distinctive way they approached graphic design. I never dug into their history.

(I did get to check out the wonderful Bauhaus-Archiv while I was in Berlin last year. That’s where I snapped the photo above.)

In my current bout of research (no reason), I’ve been reading books and articles, and watching documentaries, and I’m learning so much about the school that I never knew before. Given my recent experience of working at The Evergreen State College, I’ve found the similarities between my current workplace and Bauhaus rather striking.

Here are a few of the things that I’ve caught:

  • Bauhaus was started with the goal of reforming the way art was taught in Germany. They rejected art history and the tedious copying of old masters in favor of exploring the fundamentals of form (shape, color, and material) and building up an entirely new, rationalized, international style.

    Similarly, Evergreen was founded to revolutionize the way college works in the United States. Evergreen explores basic subjects from a common point of view, effectively wrapping up several classes into on big program. Instead of choosing a major and following its track from beginning to end, students are encouraged to take programs that interest them, and then deciding what they want to call their studies when they graduate.

  • Because of the radical, unconventional nature of these schools, they both attract a radical, unconventional breed of students (and often faculty and staff, too). In 1920s Germany, it was primarily communists. The men would grow their hair long, women wore trousers, and they caused parents to cross the street with their children whenever they approached. They were the hippies and punks of their time. In present day Olympia, the Evergreen campus is filled with unwashed, hairy, Kool-Aid-blue–haired students. And they’re probably still primarily communists.

  • Bauhaus didn’t give out grades to its students. Instead, all of the graduates’ accomplishments were written on their diploma. Evergreen doesn’t give out grades either; in their place, students are given detailed, written evaluations of their successes, and areas where they still need to improve. An Evergreen transcript is like a small book.

That doesn’t mean that the schools are identical, of course. One major difference is that Evergreen doesn’t teach trade skills, instead giving students a well-rounded, liberal arts education. The school seeks to prepare graduates to survive the varied challenges they’ll experience in the real world on their own terms. Bauhaus, on the other hand, sought to teach art and production skills, and granted students the title of Master, which they then used to get art, design, and architecture jobs.

Another way the two schools are different is that Bauhaus operated with a utopian vision that mass production would solve the world’s problems. As László Moholy-Nagy believed, “everyone is equal before the machine.” Today’s Greeners would probably frown on such a bleak view of individuality. But they’d have to appreciate that at the time, the Bauhaus teachings of progressive rationality were once a challenge to authority. In hindsight, it’s hard to see that, when the authority has adopted their practices and called it branding.

It’s really interesting to see the potential impact of a novel style of education and to be involved in a version of my own. There is, however, one thing that I find a bit portentous: that Bauhaus’s progressive ideals were constantly seen as a political threat. They were effectively chased around Germany until the rise of Nazism made it prudent to shutter the school and move it to the United States. When the authorities use their power to oppress and divide the people, wild ideas are threatening. Yet at a time when our planet seems poised at the brink of an apocalypse, we need wild ideas to make a difference.

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