Bennington College was founded in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, with the explicit charge of conducting an experiment in higher education. This experiment was to test whether the principles of progressive education (as conceived by Dewey, Kilpatrick, and others) could be successfully applied at the college level–and at a college for women. This had never been tested before; the vast majority of American colleges, Bennington’s founders believed, were bound by calcified traditions that both limited opportunities for learning and separated learning from the regular activities of life (social, political, and economic). Progressive education, by contrast, emphasizes active, engaged learning in every sphere. At Bennington this has meant that students are the agents of their own learning; students take with them both what they have learned and how they have learned it. As a result, internal sources of order come to replace external templates, and their education prepares them to direct their lives toward self-fulfillment and constructive social purposes–goals which are central to Bennington’s founding vision.
This approach–this continuing experiment–has entailed some unusual institutional structures, a few of which are listed here. Each student designs an individual course of study in consultation with faculty who serve as mentors. Each academic year students must complete a seven-week-long field work experience, often tied directly to their area of inquiry. The faculty is comprised of teacher-practitioners who do not belong to departments but rather associate with more general disciplinary groupings. The College’s living-learning residential experience encourages student agency at every turn. And, finally, faculty compose a responsive curriculum anew every year, reflecting the interests, concerns, and needs of students, faculty, and the world at large. It is this last curricular piece, along with the pedagogy and the pliable administrative structures that enable it, which we hope will prove a fruitful subject of discussion and debate for members of the consortium. We also hope to discover anticipatory and responsive pedagogical models that other institutions have successfully pursued.
Bio: Duncan Dobbelmann currently serves as advisor to the president of Bennington College. He has previously served as associate provost and dean of studies at Bennington. Prior to Bennington, he was director of the Learning Center at Brooklyn College and has taught literature at Brooklyn College, Baruch College, and New York University. A graduate of Vassar College, he earned a PhD in English from the City University of New York Graduate Center and has published literary translations in journals such as Boston Review , Grand Street , Harper’s , and Provincetown Arts ; fiction in Conjunctions ; and a chapbook of prose poems called Tronie . He has written about the poet George Oppen and co-authored (with Isabel Roche) an essay on the Bennington College curriculum for The College Curriculum (Peter Lang).