What it is to discover Bennington
Excerpted remarks from President-elect Liz Coleman’s address at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, May 1987
My associations with Bennington College are of a much more recent vintage— only slightly more than a year in duration, yet so vivid, so full, it is almost impossible for me to imagine what my life could have been like without Bennington in it. This evening I would like to share with you something of what it has been like for me to discover Bennington College.
My first encounter was with its alumni—a number of whom I met during the search process, a much larger number in the subsequent months. I soon came to expect the lively intelligence, high energy, generosity of spirit, the passion with which they take on life, but I am continually stunned by the extent to which Bennington marks those it touches—the depth, the penetration of its impact. No filling in the blanks here, not even simply the profound intellectual transformations one often encounters in graduates from a handful of particularly excellent undergraduate colleges—but rather it is as if the student’s very soul is touched, comes alive, takes shape. It is really quite astonishing to see, to hear this experience recounted over and over.
Then came the growing awareness of just how splendid the history is of this tiny institution tucked away in southern Vermont. Our cultural institutions are honeycombed with Bennington alumni. In the wings waiting their turn are the current Bennington students who every year during the months of January and February descend on the cultural and intellectual institutions of our cities seeking jobs and finding them.
Then came my encounter with the College itself nestled in its bucolic setting, looking deceptively innocent, serene, laid back—mellow as my son would say. My very first visit to Bennington was as part of the search process for its new president. At this point in the process I was still reasonably detached, determined to stay cool, to remain capable of seeing clearly, of making reliable appraisals, dispassionate judgments.
The most striking aspect of the College is easy enough to describe— it is its palpable educational vitality and excitement. That vitality is, in a word, electrifying, almost physical in its intensity. I had never see more accurately, felt anything quite like it and I had spent a lifetime, starting from my own undergraduate education at the University of Chicago in the midst of, or in the pursuit of, that intensity. I knew then that the single most important thing to me was in place. I knew that this was an institution that cares about what matters and cares deeply, that the center of the life of this institution, the jewel in the crown, the prime item on the agenda was what happens to its students. I knew that if fortunate enough to be offered the presidency there was no way I could turn away despite the range of its challenges, formidable difficulties, impossibilities, and they, I can assure you, were equally clear. These challenges seemed so overwhelmingly worth meeting, so deserving of winning. So much for my cool.
But finally Bennington, like any institution, is about the stories that surround and inform it and, most of all, that reveal it. I would like to tell you two. The first happened to me on my initial visit to the campus in the fall as a finalist in the presidential search process.
It was at the end of a long, exhilarating, but nonetheless grueling day. Bennington had, in its inimitable way, managed to throw every imaginable combination of students, faculty, and staff at me. Now I was going to a concert and the anticipation of being off center stage, watching others perform was, as you might imagine, particularly pleasant. I walked into a large gymnasium-like space with bleachers set up at one end and sat down. Insofar as I was still capable of registering anything I did notice that there were a large number of homemade instruments lying around on the floor—most of them string instruments, roughly cello-size and looking like drawings of Braque or Picasso. Just as the muscles in the back of my shoulders were beginning to relax, a man in a denim jeans outfit came over, introduced himself as Gunnar, and asked me if I would participate in the concert. The next thing I knew I was picking up one of those instruments. Thank God it only had one string.
By the time the concert actually started most of the audience had suffered the same fate—there were virtually no spectators. Periodically I and others would join in by using our instruments as directed by Gunnar. The sing-song melodies were eventually replaced by the sounds of a lute-like, many-stringed instrument played by a Chinese woman. Its music was of an exquisite delicacy and beauty, ravishing is more like it, and unlike anything I had ever heard before. Then quite suddenly and as if out of nowhere a brass ensemble, a gigantic banjo, and an upright piano started knocking out American ragtime. It was dynamite. All of my life I have wanted to like art associated with a more experimental or counterculture, but somehow I always seemed to end up wishing I was at the Met. But this was different—this was counterculture with class.
The second story is one of literally dozens that I have heard in the past months. Like the others it contains motifs that recur again and again and like each it is absolutely unique, utterly inimitable, completely its own. It was told to me by the husband of a Bennington alumna (a fate, by the way, which I am just beginning to appreciate has its own stories) and it is, naturally, about his wife.
She had come to Bennington intent on becoming a writer, had worked at it with some great passion and determination. At some point in her junior year, Bernard Malamud invites her to dinner to discuss the outcome of her efforts. He tells her that she, alas, is not a writer, that she does not have a writer’s commitment to a subject. In the course of her senior year following this verdict she happens across Plato’s Symposium, and decides that an understanding of this book is to be worthy of a major commitment. Upon graduation she heads for the home of the chair of the Classics Department at Harvard to pursue that quest. She knocks on his door and informs him of her intent to study with him. He discovers that she has absolutely no background in classics. His initial reaction is incredulity. By the end of the conversation she has agreed to spend a year at Tufts learning the rudiments of a classics education and he has agreed to accept her as a graduate student. She fulfills her promise, he, his, and now with a Harvard PhD in classics she teaches at a university, undoubtedly the Symposium.
Why do I especially love this story and why is it so representative? First of all the insistence that the valuing, the celebrating of creative vocations in no way diminishes the necessity for, the relevance of applying their particular criteria of excellence, however painful, even unjust at the moment of application; then her courage, her passion, her determination, the range and abandon of the resulting search and the extraordinary focus of its outcome, the elegant taste—if you’re going to pick a book, what a book—the fabulous and famous Bennington initiative and, most of all, the outrageous presumption that institutions made by human efforts are meant to reveal and serve what is most worthy in human needs, and not the reverse, combined with a blend of splendid idealism and the most matter-of-fact pragmatism that enables one to act effectively on that presumption. It is a story about an idea of education and what an idea. It embodies an ideal for education that Bennington has sustained with astonishing consistency from its origins in 1932 through the swings and surges that have swept, sometimes convulsed, higher education.
I suspect it is clear from what I have said that I do not think that Bennington is an institution in search of a mission. The central task of its leadership is then to nurture, support, and give voice to its mission.
There are a few other tasks. While it may not be necessary to return the thunder to Bennington, it would be nice if a few more people heard it. It is time, one is tempted to say high time, that the world heard something else about Bennington College other than the price of admission, like, for instance, why it is worth it.
It is also time that Bennington achieved financial stability and maturity that such a venture deserves and increasingly that such a venture demands. At one time it was possible for tuition to carry the full freight of the cost of a serious undergraduate education. It is simply not possible any longer, not even close. I appreciate that this would involve some departure from the past. So be it. As much as we all like a little excitement in our lives there are some kinds we can all do without, and let me assure you there are no charms to a mentality of survival. It is narrow, illiberal, desperate, finally poisonous, and that is as true on the campus of Bennington as it is anywhere else. Obviously its president must be as profoundly committed to meeting this challenge as any other.
Not an easy agenda, not possible even to imagine accomplishing alone, which brings me back to an invitation to you—old friends of the College and new ones, the affected and the disaffected, the pioneers and those just out—an invitation to play as much a part in the future unfolding of this remarkable institution as you, at least most of you, have played in shaping and defining its past. I can promise you that with your support the next decade at Bennington will be a great and triumphant adventure