Crossing the Border: The Williams-Bennington Experience in late 60s
What was it about Bennington College?
The 17-mile ride up to Bennington was transformative. But it was not always an easy journey for the Williams student of our day. One classmate, quoting James Joyce’s Ulysses, mentions understanding first-hand what Joyce meant by the “scotumtightening sea,” as he would sign in at the small guard’s office, manned by stolid Vermonters whose tacit disapproval he interpreted as directed toward him, but was maybe aimed in a more general way toward the entire permissive and doubtless sinful lifestyle that lay beyond the gates. Bennington could be intimidating, and it took some courage to endure the disapproving looks that were often directed at the foreigners from the south, who, more often than not, were more comfortable with the more conventional social patterns found at Skidmore or Smith. Those who persisted and learned to adapt, or were already hip to the Bennington ethos, found that they could become untethered from our structured academic life, and enjoy a countercultural experience that was already in full bloom during the 60s while Williams was playing catch-up. There was Bennington, virtually next door, ready to set us free!
The allure of Bennington fit perfectly with our times – the rebellion against structure and authority, including protests against national institutions that supported the Vietnam War and oppression of minorities, engulfed us (although not nearly so much as in larger and more urban campuses). The heritage of Martha Graham, the avant-garde theater productions, the happenings, the impromptu appearance of Thomas Pynchon in disguise in a creative writing class, readings by visiting authors like John Barth (whose daughter was a student), the San Francisco Mime Troupe (in all fairness, they visited Williams as well), a two-day fair (called the North Country Fair): these were not readily available in Williamstown.
Bennington had its rock stars, too. Writer Bernard Malamud enjoyed a worldwide reputation; Ben Belitt’s poetry and translations of Neruda and Lorca earned universal respect. Jackson Pollack, Buckminster Fuller, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Howard Nemerov, and W.H. Auden all did teaching stints at the college. It boasts among its graduates actress Carol Channing, novelists Donna Tartt and Brett Easton Ellis, social critic Michael Pollan, and actor Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones)
Thus Bennington reveled in its nonconformity, its otherness. While most colleges and universities had their own identities separate from their surrounding communities, Bennington’s separation was even more distinct. A map of the campus demarked the outer campus boundary with “the end of the world.” Now, that’s a bubble. Its educational philosophy was more self-directed and experiential. Its academics mostly emphasized the humanities, including studio and performance arts. At Williams, we adhered to a broader and more traditional set of academic disciplines, with no studio or performance arts (although we had a lively set of student-run theater productions). The major overlap was in humanities studies.
So how convenient that we were located so close to each other.
Given that, and knowing that we were critically complementary – Bennington lacked men and we lacked women; they had dance, art (creation, not history), and theater classes way beyond what Williams could offer; we had political science, economics, and art history — could there not be a more formal partnership, perhaps beginning with some form of academic exchange?
What may be less known, given the power of the “Bennington mystique,” which for many was the only awareness of the college they had, was that Bennington had a large number of students who took a vital interest in the course offerings of Williams. A cursory scan of the Williams Record from 1961-1968 reveals reports of numerous attempts of Bennington women who tried to enroll in classes at Williams, but were not always received with open arms.
It turned out, finally, that Bennington was more interested than we were. In 1966, its President, Edward Bloustein, proposed formal discussions with Williams to explore academic cooperation. He was totally rebuffed by Williams’ leaders. Too much on our plate, they said. Indeed, our plate was quite full, being in the midst of transitioning away from fraternities and our serious consideration of a “coordinate college for women,” a rather odd turn of phrase.
And so it was left to the spirited efforts of a few students from each campus to develop an informal relationship. In April, 1967 students met at both Bennington and Williams to form a Bennington-Williams Committee, or, if you were from Williams, a Williams-Bennington Committee. The objective was to encourage intellectual exchange through co-produced events and mutually publicized calendars. Several events were held over the next year, including a poetry reading at Wood House and a performance of the Bennington dance troupe at the AMT. The formation of this partnership was eased in part by the increasingly permissive atmosphere of the late 60s, and was complemented by other informal areas of “cooperation” – political demonstrations, purple haze-filled parties, skinny dipping in the Bennington reservoir.
We know the end of this story. Both institutions came to the same conclusion at the same time: co-education was the way to go. The year after we graduated, Bennington admitted men and we soon started admitting women. And so, the fundamental driver of cooperation soon receded in importance and the two institutions remained in separate orbits.
Bob Snyder & Alexander Caskey