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..
Admission: By S.A.T. (Aptitude) not Achievement Test.
Church attendance; not required.
Endowment: $100,000 ($4,000 income per year).
Enrollment: 307 (plus tow working for special degrees).
Faculty salaries: Top-$6,300 per year
Foreign Students: 6.
Male Students: 5.
Marriages: about 33 percent of those who leave do so to get married. During the first ten years of the college's history this figure was 17 percent.
Transfers from Bennington: from 5 to 10.
Transfers to Bennington: about 20.
Tuition: $2100 per year (single room), $2250 (double room).
Scholarship holders: about 1/3 of the college.
Bennington's administrators have always had a hard time with the finances of the school. The alumnae body is energetic but small, and tuition is high of necessity. Burkhardt, as he sits his desk in the Barn, is constantly haunted by the $80,000 deficit with which Bennington starts off every year.
The one phase of Bennington's progressive system which creates an uneasy twitch among the students is the lack of grades. To one steeped in the progressive line this is no discomfiture, but a girl who arrives from a conventional school tends to feel unsure of her progress, at least for the first year. Marks are kept by the administration for use only in cases of transfer.
As a half-substitute, half-improvement over the marking system students have weekly conferences with faculty advisers, with some five hours of preparation for each conference. Although the conferences stress tutorial, the subjects discussed range from dating to health and hygiene. AT these tutorials girls get an indication of how they are doing in the college. The only official indication comes when students present an appraisal of their college life for entrance into the senior division. A girl may try for senior division at any time during her first two years. There are frequent cases, however, of juniors who are still applying for senior division. If by the end of her fifth term a girl falls to make it, then she is out.
Every girl has a different study plan, arranged according to her educational desires. This is one of the best-loved of the progressive ideas. In most courses the nature of the work undertaken is mapped out by both students and the professor at the beginning of the year. This freedom imposes many responsibilities, but Bennington students meet them honestly. The Harvard undergraduate, with his often lackadaisical approach in required reading, would be against at the amount of work most Bennington girls grind out every evening. There are few distractions on weekdays. On week ends, the distraction embraces Williams men who roll into Bennington with their flashy convertibles and blond crew cuts. There is a good deal of antagonism between Williams men and Bennington girls, the attitude of many girls is summed up in the popular saying, "after all, Williams men are all we get."
The Bennington faculty deserves mention for the amount of work required of each professor, generally two course, five to ten tutees, and a great deal of informal intellectual activity. Bennington professors have no contracts with the college; if student don't like them, they usually wash out. In answer to the charge that professors must feel a bit uneasy as the end of the year approaches. Burkhardt says that once a professor is accepted, he almost always gets the yearly nod from his students. Student opinion about tenure is expressed merely by waling up to college trustees and talking.
The faculty, packed with Harvard graduates, is strong in the music and drama departments. Erich From is probably the best known of the professors; his specialty is a senior division course entitled "Human Nature and Character Structure." Max Salvadori is another widely acclaimed intellectual. He is known mainly for his work in drafting the present Italian constitution.
Over enthusiastic girls sometimes claim that the students "can hire and fire the faculty." This is not true, although student government is very powerful.
Everybody in the college community-including staff members-vote for the undergraduate judicial committee, which has one faculty member sitting with it. All student disciplinary problems come before this committee which has the power to recommend that a girl be expelled or put on probation.
The basic units in the college are the 12 houses, which are governed by an elected student chairman; there are no "house mothers." Thus perhaps the most important Committee for voicing undergraduate opinions is the all-student Executive Committee on which these dorm chairman serve.
Student opinion is essentially as respected as the administration's. President Brukhardt says, "We treat the students as adults, because they're not that yet."
By the way, the Government is planning to make a movie of Bennington as "the typical girls college...