Eve Mefferd '19, chair of the Student Educational Policies Committee, was the student speaker at Convocation 2018. She spoke about the "enormous potential for creating leverage points" for which Bennington's flexible curriculum and student-centered education allows.
Thank you all for being here and welcome, or welcome back to Bennington. I have been asked to speak about how Bennington College is defined by the people who live, work, and study here. In my time at Bennington, I have seen incredible lasting legacies as well as transformative changes from one year to the next. Bennington has taught me academic inquiry and creative expression, but even more profoundly it has helped me understand the powers we are shaped by and the power we have to shape the systems we’re in. Bennington’s system has an enormous potential for creating leverage points. Bennington students can be in the unique position of listening to the news on immigration in America one day and proposing a related pop-up class the next. We have the ability to generate community knowledge systems and shape the curriculum to shine light on our passions. This most crucial undertaking happens at all levels of life here at Bennington. It’s best when it’s shared. I should tell you one of the best moments to come out of a class discussion was when one student got up the courage to ask the definition of Neoliberalism, and about half the class sighed in relief. The work of learning is best accomplished when we ask questions and speak to be understood, not when we speak to demonstrate our own brilliance.
At the ecosystemic level, we shape Bennington by understanding that we are learning from everyone around us. Furthermore, we share membership in this community with students, faculty, staff, as well as Bennington residents. So I urge you to open up your spheres of interaction. I have spoken with incredible teachers, activists, students, and business owners from our community and learned so much from the experience. We also have a duty as members of this community to give back to our town. I have seen my peers develop incredible projects, from starting local radio shows and skill-shares to researching water pollution. Students have created a seed library that community members can use to grow their own fresh produce, organized for the rights of migrant workers through GANAS, and published research leading to local prison and justice system reforms. We may just be one small school, but as Howard Zinn says, “Would it be possible to declare boldly that the aim of [all] schools is to find solutions for poverty, for injustice, for race and national hatred?” This proposal may indeed be bold, but it starts when we look for the meaningful applications of our work in the greater world.
At the micro-scale, we impact our surroundings every day. We are shaped by the conditions here, but we are also active in shaping one another’s experience of Bennington. Students here have done incredible work through clubs and organizations to advocate for racial, socioeconomic, and ability justice, as well as organizing against sexual violence. I’m sure as you spend time here you, like the best of us, will find your own bones to pick. We are here because we chose a student-centered education, we chose a school that enabled us to shape our worlds for the better. I urge you to use that impulse to make a change, make a coalition, bring people together. Join a club or start your own. And, (a shameless plug) if you’re interested in academic policy, consider joining SEPC. Shaping Bennington can take many forms.
So I leave you with this: As you inevitably shape this place, understand our historical and institutional context. Consider what it might mean to be “in the university but not of it.” Question received wisdom, as scholar Roderick Ferguson says, “we should emulate those independent filmmakers and writers who knew that the ‘tools of their trade were colonized,’ artists who nevertheless put those tools to alternative uses so that other stories could be told.”
These acts of shaping are not confined to overtly political disciplines: Chicana artist and activist Gloria Anzaldua notes that “For many of us the acts of writing, painting, performing, and filming are acts of deliberate and desperate determination to subvert the status quo.” Don’t let diversity become bureaucratized and divested of transformative potentials. As Ferguson says, “When institutions say yes, that is also a moment of jeopardy.” Finally, care for one another and let that caring be radical.