In Chapter VIII of The Prince, “Of Such as Have Achieved Sovereignty by Means of Crimes,” Machiavelli offers this bit of advice: “In taking possession of a state, the conqueror should well reflect as to the harsh measures that may be necessary and then execute them at a single blow.” We were reminded of this helpful hint for despots and politically correct college administrators by some events that took place last June at Bennington College, the small, very trendy, very expensive school in southwestern Vermont. Pleading financial exigency, Elizabeth Coleman, Bennington’s president, suddenly fired a third of the faculty; she abolished tenure for newly hired faculty and eliminated all teaching positions in several disciplines, including art history, politics, economics, foreign languages, and the teaching of musical instruments. At the same time, she and her Board of Trustees outlined a new educational program that read more like a parody of clichés about progressive education than a serious pedagogical proposal.
These developments were duly reported and criticized in various publications, from Lingua Franca and The Village Voice to The Boston Globe and Newsweek. But the appearance of a cover story in The New York Times Magazine on October 23 about the situation at Bennington leads us to offer this brief recapitulation. Readers interested in the particulars of the story will want to consult the earlier reports; those with a robust appetite for pretentious academic rhetoric laced with New Age pedagogical nostrums will also wish to peruse the “Symposium Report of the Bennington College Board of Trustees.” This collector’s item will surely go down in American pedagogical history as one of the most embarrassingly jejune documents ever disseminated by an institution of higher education.
Most of those who are familiar with the situation at Bennington know that the college is finished as an institution of higher learning. Barring some radical reorganization of the administration and the Board of Trustees, the former home of such luminaries as Martha Graham, W. H. Auden, Kenneth Burke, Bernard Malamud, and Anthony Caro will soon either close up shop altogether or degenerate further into a kind of camp for well-heeled adolescents with vague “creative” yearnings and little talent.
What makes the Bennington fiasco an object lesson for those concerned about the incursions of political correctness into academic life is the authoritarian manner in which the college administration conducted its purge of the faculty—a manner which suggested to knowledgeable observers that old scores were being settled rather than that serious new educational programs were being instituted. For anyone who cares about the ideals of due process and academic freedom—not to mention intellectual standards—the authoritarian depredations at Bennington must stand as an ominous sign.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 3, on page 3
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