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Vol. 4, No. 5 - July/August 1994 FOCUS: Labor and Tenure   

By Roger Kimball
Theme: Labor & Tenure

HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED. In June some twenty professors -- a third of the faculty at the small Vermont college -- were dismissed. Many had taught at the college for decades and had what Bennington called "presumptive tenure." That didn't ma tter. In one sweeping act of "restructuring," Elizabeth Coleman, the president, and her board of trustees abolished all academic divisions, thereby freeing themselves from the burden of honoring contracts tied to specific jobs within particular divisions. They abolished presumptive tenure for all future hires. They reduced the literature division -- once one of Bennington's most illustrious clusters of scholars -- to three people. They did away with the teaching of foreign languages. The list goes on. Stu dents of modern German history will recognize the term "restructuring": It means more or less what the authorities in 1930s Germany meant by Gleichschaltung -- bringing everything into line with the current ideology. The reason given, of course, wa s financial. Bennington's enrollment has dropped dangerously low, and the school faces an operating deficit of $1 million. In other words, mismanagement precipitated a crisis -- and the faculty has to pay.

There's a lot to be said against permanent tenure. At many institutions these days it is more a way to enforce intellectual and political conformity than a guarantee of academic freedom. Clever young professors soon get the message: If you don't go along with the latest intellectual and political fashions, don't expect a promotion. Tenure shifts burdens onto those who don't have it and inspires sloth among those who do. I am not sure that the faculty at Bennington was much better about any of this than fa culties elsewhere. Still, there are such things as due process and humane behavior toward people who have devoted their lives to an institution.

The human cost of the purge has been considerable, but the dismissal of faculty is only part of the story. There is also the plan that Coleman and her board have put forward for the college's future. Here we pass from the realm of personal disaster to tha t of extreme pedagogical frivolity. The purge was reported, sort of, in an anodyne article in The New York Times on June 23, a day or two after the ax fell. Entitled "Radical Answer to a Small College's Woes," the piece couldn't have put a sweeter spin on the story if Coleman had written it herself. The reporter described Bennington's "aggressive effort to remedy ills common to many small liberal arts colleges," and mentioned its plans to reduce tuition, eliminate tenure, and remake itself into a l iberal-arts college for the future. No dismissed faculty were quoted, nor were any students or alumni. The only Benningtonians quoted were Coleman and one faculty member, a biologist, who survived the purge. Mirabile dictu, both were enthusiastic. "A biology professor," the reporter writes, "said she believed that students would be well served by [the] change, because it would 'break down false barriers.'" You know, like the "false barrier" between poetry and biology.

The Times also reported that Coleman hopes to increase enrollment from the current low of 450 to 600, a high reached five years ago. But why would any serious student apply to Coleman's Bennington? The Times article spoke vaguely about Bennington's radica l restructuring. It did not quote from Coleman's "Plan for Changes in Educational Policy and Reorganization of Instructional Resources and Priorities," the six-page document passed out to the fired professors explaining the lobotomy that had just been per formed. Among other things, the plan states:

  • "All positions for the teaching of foreign languages/literatures will be eliminated."
  • "All faculty positions for the teaching of musical instruments will be eliminated."
  • "There will be no teaching positions in politics, economics, or sociology."
  • "There will be no teaching position in art history."

When I recited the list to a former teacher at Bennington, she replied, "So what's left, basket weaving?"

The plan's author displays a cunning knack for doublespeak. "There will be no academic divisions, in order to maximize the strength and importance of the faculty as a whole. . . ." Right. We "maximize" the importance of the faculty by reducing it a third . Planning to abolish the teaching of foreign languages and literatures? No problem. Just pretend that "abolish" means "increase." "To increase . . . the number of languages taught . . . all language instruction will take place in a regional context invol ving the collaboration of elementary and high schools in the area, the College, the business community and the adult learning community." Fabulous! For a mere $25,800 a year, students who want to read Rilke in German can go to Bennington and avail themsel ves of classes at the local elementary school. "The relationship between the sciences and other areas of human inquiry will become a paramount issue"; so it makes perfect sense that Bennington will henceforth "cease to offer the array of disciplines curre ntly provided by the Division of Social Sciences."

Otherwise, the plan reads like notes for some late-night cable show on higher education. The language is half unintended parody -- of fashionable "interdisciplinary" jargon (itself already self-parody) -- half farce, regurgitating as it does all the Dewey an clichés heard around Bennington since it was founded in the early 1930s. There's talk of exciting new programs in "film, video, and other multi-media work," and persiflage about transcending "traditional disciplines": "Special emphasis will be g iven to those curricular ideas which provide an opportunity for extending beyond the confines of the disciplines as currently constituted." (It never seems to occur to partisans of "trans-disciplinary" studies that in order to go beyond a discipline you m ust first have arrived at some sort of competence in a discipline. Otherwise, to say you've "extend[ed] beyond the confines of the disciplines as currently constituted" is just a fancy way of saying you're intellectually vapid.)

Bennington has always made a big deal about employing artists, writers, dancers, and composers, along with the usual complement of scholars. Nowadays everybody does it, but once upon a time it was daring to have a Martha Graham or a Kenneth Noland teac hing at a liberal-arts school. This was the heart of Bennington's "learn by doing" -- or Dewey-ing -- philosophy. It had its virtues. But like every good thing, it is difficult to do well. It requires good students and committed teachers, neither of which Bennington has had in abundance lately. The version of the Bennington Idea that the new plan offers is strictly comic-book: "The teaching of literature by faculty involved primarily in academic research and scholarship will be abandoned and replaced by teachers who are themselves active and published writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama. . . ."

Sound plausible? Sure. What it means is that instead of learning anything about (say) Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Goethe, Yeats, or T. S. Eliot, students will be battened on the "fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama" of w hatever contemporary writers Bennington is able to scrounge up. The three people currently employed to teach literature at Bennington are a short-story writer, a poet, and an essayist. A good introduction to literary study at the new Bennington can be fou nd by thumbing through the June issue of Esquire and stopping at the autobiographical piece by Edward Hoagland, the relentlessly middlebrow essayist. It rehearses in grisly detail scenes from Hoagland's marriage and his adulterous affairs. (It may be a mercy that his wife, from whom he was finally divorced, did not live to read her husband's article, but one wonders what his daughter thinks about it.)

The six-page plan outlining Bennington's new direction is, well, embarrassing. But it's nothing compared with the thirty-six page "Symposium Report of the Bennington College Board of Trustees." John Barr, the chairman, sets the tone in his introduction. W illiam Blake observed that an honest man changes his opinions but never his principles; Barr tells us that "Bennington lives by putting its principles continually to the question. Like a gambler or a poet, the place is in love with the risk. It is Benning ton's character to live on the edge." The edge of what? one wants to ask. Bennington, says Barr, gains stability "from a blur of motion." "Blur" is definitely the mot juste. The body of the report contains little illiteracies -- at one point we're warned about having a "disinterest in the quest for meaning" where "uninterest" was meant; it contains big illiteracies -- we're told that "all liberal learning . . . should be taught as a performing art"; and it contains eerily meaningless spoofs of Dewe y-speak: "Bennington should help its students compose 600 variations on a single major. That major is widely seen not as a set of subjects but as a set of capacities and dispositions: reflection, action, rigor, expression, independence, collaboration, exc ellence, resilience, and an impulse toward meaning and truth." Somewhere in Purgatory, windy educators are being made to recite this passage out loud fifteen million times.

You never know -- this country may just hold enough vacuous teenagers with rich, negligent parents to fill Bennington's classrooms (will it still have classrooms?). But what about the students currently enrolled? A letter now being circulated by distresse d professors to students' parents suggests that the decision to restructure had been made as early as April. But students were registering for the fall at the end of May -- which means they were signing up for courses the administration knew were not goin g to be offered. As this letter observes, "given decent notice, many students would certainly have taken steps to transfer to other colleges." What do they do now?

"A Bennington College that offers students the highest-quality education at a contained cost" -- this is what Coleman asserts her plan will yield. Enforced mediocrity at a huge price is more like it.

Roger Kimball, the managing editor of The New Criterion, graduated from Bennington in 1975.


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