"A Bennington Education is an Education in the Real" (Summer 2015)
"A Bennington education is an education in the real." These were the words of class speaker Parke Haskell ’15 to her fellow graduates at this year’s commencement. “We don't ask questions that already have answers,” she continued. “We are encouraged to reach beyond the realm of the ascertained, to take risks and leap into the very scary real, where we do not know at all what will happen, where questions only engender more questions, where nothing has a name. This is why I believe that a Bennington education is the most terrifying and gratifying one in the world.”
What does it take to leap into the real? It means being ready to face the opportunities and challenges of the present and being primed for a lifetime of building upon and refining what we have learned. It means seizing ideas that inspire, and searching out or creating the tools we need to make them manifest. This is what Bennington students learn, this is what Bennington graduates can do, this is what our faculty and staff practice and teach.
Able to face an unwritten future but committed to the now: this is the crucial balance sought by everyone committed to what Bennington can offer our students and the world. As Gloria Steinem reminded us on that same warm night in June, “Because we only have all of our five senses in the present, we can’t live in the past or the future…. You can only be alive in the present. Right now is all there is.”
With the words of these two women in mind, I would like to take the opportunity to talk about how Bennington is seizing the opportunities and challenges of the present and priming ourselves for what comes next.
The Class of 2015 is Ready
Like their predecessors, this year’s graduates have been reaching and readying themselves for the real since they arrived on campus four years ago.
Here is a snapshot of accomplishments of the Class of 2015: two Fulbright fellowships; articles in the Christian Science Monitor, Vice, the Atlantic, the LA Review of Books, and other national media; a published book of poetry; a co-authored paper in the Journal of Biological Research. They spent their Field Work Terms at major arts organizations including Glimmerglass Opera and the International Center for Photography, and worked in the studios of the architect Frank Gehry and the Martha Graham Dance Company. Members of this year’s class established a support and advocacy group for undocumented workers in the Bennington area, they reimagined peer support and student governance on campus, they donated 10,000 hours of volunteer work to local and regional organizations. And all this before they graduated in June.
As they go on to the next phases of their lives, entering the working world or continuing their studies at some of the top national and international graduate programs, I am confident that they will continue to hone their practices using the tools that they learned in their time here, living in the present and shaping every moment to come.
Building the Bennington Community
Bennington's relevance has never been more evident. We see this in the excitement among prospective students—as well as their parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and mentors.
This year, admitted students were invited to attend BenningtonWorks, a window into the work that students and faculty engage in here. They witnessed the moments of inspiration that happen on an almost daily basis, and experienced the process of thinking and doing—and rethinking and redoing—that push ideas into reality. And that experience inspired them in turn: an extraordinary number decided to join us in the fall.
Increasing numbers of prospective students are realizing that Bennington is the place for them. The class of 2019 will be one of the most robust in recent years, and comes exceptionally well-prepared to take on the rigors of the educational experience here.
The class of 2019 will also be most diverse class in the history of the College. The students hail from 31 states and 27 foreign countries; twenty percent come from minority, underrepresented backgrounds; and they come from a wide range of economic backgrounds. This, too, is part of Bennington’s commitment to fulfill the promise of our educational mission: we must inspire more voices, more experiences, and more points of view in the conversations that shape us all, and we must enable more talented students to pursue their life’s work.
The Curriculum: Always Innovating
Bennington has always prized an educational experience that learns from the world, responds to the world, and shapes the world.
In order to achieve this, the College is pursuing with renewed purpose the goal of creating a curriculum that is open, nimble, and responsive, and that reflects the College’s foundational belief that learning happens both in and out of the classroom and both within and beyond its gates.
A number of recent initiatives bolster this effort. The Mellon Foundation-supported Museum Fellows Term offers students the opportunity to work onsite at major cultural institutions in New York City, giving them an immersive experience in the art world; this year the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where alumna Holly Block ’80 is executive director, served as their home base. One-credit “pop-up” courses on topics including the release of the Ferguson report, the Nepal earthquake, the murder of the French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, and the measles outbreak in Orange County, respond to students’ desire to engage timely events too urgent to wait for the next curriculum cycle. Innovative course designs—such as Robert Ransick and Andrew Cencini’s “Future Studio” class, structured as a start-up that marries collaborative, inquiry-based methods, technology, and entrepreneurial thinking to generate creative approaches to socially constructive ends, or the Oslo Project, in which students collaborate with faculty members Jon Isherwood and Susan Sgorbati to create a site specific artwork for the U.S. Embassy in Norway—dismantle the boundaries between classroom and public realm.
Our Alumni: Passionate, Generous, Engaged
Last fall I wrote that it was time—past time—for the College to prioritize engagement with those who have experienced the power of a Bennington education firsthand: its alumni. That call to action has been embraced with creativity, passion, and purpose.
The newly formed Alumni Cooperative hosted launch meetings in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco/Bay Area. Participants shared their aspirations for the organization: engaging and supporting one another in their work; supporting admissions efforts; being a resource to current students; providing Field Work Term and career connections; and contributing to the long term financial strength of the College. The group has been planning next steps, including expanding to other regions.
This past January alumni staged the 24 Hour Plays, a one-night-only benefit where Bennington alumni writers, directors, and actors created, produced, and performed six short plays in just 24 hours. It was a tremendous success. The production—a tribute to former faculty member Nicky Martin—raised $50,000 in support of a scholarship in Nicky’s name, and engaged 65 alumni in the production; hundreds more attended in support of the effort.
Investing in Our Campus
Bennington College is an idea that extends far beyond the gates of the campus. But it is also very much a place, one that inspires its students and faculty to think and to create.
This year, we celebrated two of our remarkable thinkers and makers: naming the visual arts wing of our arts facility in honor of Helen Frankenthaler ‘49 (1928–2011), an extraordinary alumna who has long been recognized as one of the great American artists of the twentieth century, and dedicating a painting studio in the same wing to Paul Feeley (1910–1966), one of her teachers and a visionary who brought the U.S. avant-garde painting scene to the Green Mountains.
Honoring the groundbreaking work that has happened at the College also means readying our infrastructure for the teaching and learning that will happen in years to come. Thanks to a $5 million challenge from an anonymous alumna, a fundraising effort is underway to renovate Commons so that we might reestablish this building, which has stood at the center of Bennington student life for generations, as an educational hub once again. You’ll be hearing more about this initiative in the coming months—please stay tuned and support this essential work.
We embark on the Commons effort and all our initiatives with optimism and gratitude for all that you have done for Bennington, and for your commitment to its present and future. Our fiscal year ended on June 30, and while we are still receiving some gifts this week, to date we have raised just over $1.5 million for the Bennington Fund from more than 2,030 generous alumni, parents, and friends. Additionally, the Class of 2015 generated donations totalling more than $23,000 for their Senior Class Gift effort (including contributions from the majority of graduating seniors). Thank you for your support.
The passion and intention with which all of you engage in the work of this College is extraordinary. This place changes a person. I no longer make plans, I make Plans; I approach questions from different angles; I see possibilities opened up by everything this special place helps people to create, every day. You inspire the work here. You make it possible. You are Bennington. Thank you.
–Mariko Silver, President