Nothing but a wall separates Bennington College from the rolling Vermont pastures. Forming the South end of the main quadrangle, it is only a foot and a half in height and symbolizes more than anything else the lack of restrictions and the freedom of ideas which are so much a part of Bennington education.
This is admittedly a progressive college. Unlike most such institutions, its students do not wince when tagged with that familiar and controversial label. Bennington girls are proud of the way they live and the way they learn.
As in all progressive institutions, individuality is untouchable at Bennington. President Frederick H. Burkhardt will admit that "the emphasis on the individual tends to make for a little anarchy." But he says with pride, "Here, education is different for every girl. No two girls ever take the same program." Then he beams and says, "At Bennington we teach students, not subjects."
The art of living at Bennington hinges on solidarity. The triumvirate of the administration, the faculty, and the students runs the college according to their wishes. In theory, this means that every student, professor, and staff member lives by the grace of others. In practice, it works. While most residents of the college have no trouble, the professor who cannot please his class or the girl who fails to impress the faculty and staff do not last long. The system is run with a gentle hand; otherwise it might assume the nature of an inquisition.
The parietal rules at the college would make most Harvard deans blush. College men who arrive at Bennington for the first time soon feel at home. Stretched out comfortably in a girl's room with a glass in hand. All this abundance ends at 6.30 P.M. At that time, guests can either remain in the house living room or set out in search of something to do. The clause which really shocks outsiders is the one that allows girls to sign out until seven in the morning. Of course, a girl cannot do this too often. There's no written law that says she can't; it's just a loose agreement between the students, the administration, and the night watchmen.
Dungarees and Blouses
An overwhelming sense of informality permeates the Bennington campus, largely because of its isolation. Aside from dress, which is largely restricted to dungarees and blouses, the informality is strongest in the classroom. About half of the classes are held in a converted barn. The rest meet in the house living rooms, or, in warm weather, outside. Dormitory classes are the most informal, with girls slouched all over chairs and couches, some lying on the floor. Girls wear almost anything except just shorts and halters. Girls can smoke in almost all classes, and no-smoking signs in the barn and disregarded. Generally, the older students are less informal and less apt to go to class in their pajamas.
Theoretically, there is no competition at Bennington; there are no organized sports or extra-curricular activities. In reality, however, the 80-minute classes are highly competitive. The unwritten law in the classroom is that the professor must ask questions of a challenging nature if he expects any response. There is the oft' told tale of the newly arrived professor who asked his students factual questions. After a few meetings, the number of students dwindled until the professor was finally alone. Needless to say, he revised his teaching techniques.
The Bennington system succeeds to the point where it instills its pupils with a healthy regard for intellect. This is manifested in the classrooms, where students vie to ask piercing questions. Although Burkhardt claims that "girls aren't afraid of being dumb," the competition in some classes assumes disproportionate dimensions and tends to make the duller students remain silent. The classes, which meet one to three times weekly, and entail many papers, run about 13 members and may include an occasional male one of the drama students.
Males Are Misfits Here
The position of the five male students isn't quite in balance with the rest of the college. As one girl said, "After all, what would you think of a man who goes to a woman's college?"
Girls may cut classes at will. The tendency is to cut more in warm weather. The majority of the girls, however, are conscientious about their attendance, particularly since the Bennington system gives an odd twist to the half-filled classroom. One freshman paraphrased it well when she said. "It's more or less courtesy to the teacher not to skip."
Feverish note-taking is lacking, as is the idea of the instructor preaching a gospel. Professors employ largely the "key sentence" technique of drawing generalizations from specific reading material. They orient their classes to "social implications" by exemplifying cases of tension and conflict and then demonstrating the effects of that conflict on morality. This subtle system, overwhelming when it works, sometimes leads to a carelessness is dong assignments and gaining purely empirical knowledge.
Compared to its more pompous sisters, Bennington is still in diapers. It was founded in 1923 by a Congregationalist minister, with the support of a large group of townsmen. Also helping were the president of Radcliffe, Smith, and Columbia. As one of the countless college catalogues claims, "enthusiasm grew by leaps and bounds." This statement is verified by the fact that when Bennington started classes in 1932 during the blackest depths of the depression, fund-raising was a job fit only for blackmailers..