Of Colleges and Cohorts (Part 7, final)

All quotations are taken from the ‘Whole Movement of Life is Learning’ by Krishnamurti.

18th March

“So the first thing to realize is that thought can never bring about order, do what it will, through legislation, administration or compulsion.”

On the drive to Bennington I listen to public service radio and there is an item about the number of young adults having to remain in their parents homes because of the credit crunch and the lack of employment. In the last year a further 30 million people have been added to the population of the US, but the number of house sales is the same as the previous year. The generational differences are also considered not to be as great as they once were and, so the argument goes, it has become easier for young adults to remain in the family home and have the kind of freedoms which would not have been possible some years ago.

Arrive at Bennington College and miss the turning for the Admissions Office. I only know one person here, former Brockwood student Joel, who is a freshman. I am due to meet him this evening but have an appointment with the Admissions Officer prior to that. After driving around for some time in search of the right turning, I pull over and begin to rummage for the campus map. I look up; I’m being watched by a young man at a distance. He approaches, it is Joel, but neither of us can quite believe our eyes.

Perhaps this has happened because Bennington, with under a thousand students, is the smallest of all the colleges I will see, it is also the one with which Brockwood has had the strongest ties over the years; there having been probably around 10 former students pass through here, most of them attending in the early 90’s. Joel is the first of a possible new wave, which the folk at Bennington are keen to see happen. So I am treated like minor royalty, given a comfortable room for an overnight stay and a personalized programme for the remainder of the day.

This starts with lunch taken with a current student and two staff from the Admissions Office; continues with a personal tour given by a student from Pakistan – neither of us going backwards – then a meeting with a Philosophy professor; attendance at one of his classes and finally a meeting with the Dean of Admissions to discuss Brockwood and the profile of students attending Bennington. It is a human scale college with a good feeling to it, from the intimate dining spaces to the boarding houses with open log fires and the practice of placing faculty offices right next to teaching spaces, everything suggests thought has been given to promoting good contact and relationships on campus.

Along with Hampshire, this is the most radical of the colleges I’ve seen, with no distribution requirements (subject areas students must select from), and no exam entry requirements. Students at Bennington work closely with faculty advisors to create individual academic plans – reminiscent of Brockwood – with the aim being to integrate different areas of the curriculum around the students own creative and intellectual inquiries. A further attractive feature of the college is that during the winter, every student spends seven weeks working somewhere in the world on an internship which complements their studies.

Joel and I go for pizza in the evening and I bombard him with questions about his college experience so far, all of which he responds to thoughtfully. He had not given a lot of consideration to US colleges prior to making a late application to Bennington, but he is delighted with how things are going and his experience of the college is overwhelmingly positive. He acknowledges the disadvantages of its relatively small size and geographical isolation, he recognizes there are those amongst the student body who are too spoilt or too prone to partying, or both, but he has managed to strike the right balance between the academic and social demands of college life, is taking full advantage of all that it has to offer and has already made quite an impression on the faculty – their words not his!

Joel outside his boarding house at Bennington
Joel outside his boarding house at Bennington

19th March

“Thought cannot put together order: the more it attempts it the greater the confusion.”

Middlebury, closer to Montreal than Boston, is the last college on the list and requires an early start for the two hour drive north through rolling farmland. The Middlebury website shows photos of imposing buildings surrounded by trees in New England autumn colours and encircled by striking mountains.

The location has no doubt helped Middlebury become known for its leadership in the area of environmental studies and solutions. It created the countries first undergraduate environmental studies (ES) programme, has gone on to develop a programme for ES involving 26 disciplines and 50 professors, and boasts of plans which will ensure it is carbon neutral by 2016. It is a 200 year old institution with two and half thousand students, a 9:1 student to faculty ratio, and an impressively large campus. It has the feeling of Amherst, Wellesley and Vassar in terms of its wealth, reputation and abundant resources.

I am feeling a little out of sorts today, perhaps tiredness, perhaps a surfeit of impressive college buildings and mind-boggling statistics, so when we get as a tour guide a young man who talks fast and walks backwards as though god had meant it that way, I am inclined to fall to the back of the large party of parents and budding Middlburians and tune out. There is plenty to look at in the attractive surroundings without the commentary and when I occasionally tune in to snippets of the superlative laden sales pitch, I’m prompted to reflect on how it is possible to get such a ‘wonderful education’ and still remain a blockhead?

The woman responsible for International Student Admissions – with students attending from more than 70 countries – takes me to lunch and we talk about Middlebury and all aspects of the admissions procedure. She acknowledges that there is not as much money available for funding foreign students as there once was and confides that Middlebury has been hard hit by the economic downturn: its endowment fund has been reduced from one billion US dollars to a little over seven hundred and fifty million. Reflecting on how this is the kind of problem I wish we were faced with at Brockwood, I then follow her as we walk back to the offices through the impressive sports facilities: ice rink, gymnasium, basketball courts and swimming pool with of course the added attraction of college ski slopes during the winter season.

I get back in the car and begin my journey south. This tour of colleges has been fascinating but I’m glad it is now at an end. There is no doubt that many of these colleges would be excellent destinations for Brockwood students, especially those who are still unsure about the what they wish to do with their lives and are keen to be able to have a broad and flexible programme of studies as undergraduates. Given the nature of the education Brockwood offers I would expect a hardworking Brockwood student stands a good chance at being offered places in these colleges and in some cases considerable financial aid would be available. I see that this also presents us with the opportunity not to allow our curriculum to be always driven by exam classes that are not recognized and not needed for US colleges.

20th March

“Thought is capable of seeing the order of mathematics but this order is not the product of thought.”

Bennington kindly offered me the use of a room for a second night, so having stopped there on my return from Middlebury I collect Joel early and we go to the Blue Benn, an authentic US diner, for breakfast. It is almost empty when we arrive and packed when we stagger out half and hour later, following a serious breakfast of eggs, hash-browns, toast and coffee. We set out together on the three hour drive to Boston and the final gathering of alumni planned for this US visit. A brilliant spring day unfolds as we depart Vermont and enter Massachusetts and by the time we reach the suburbs of Boston and Rajesh and Lisa’s house it is warm enough for us all to take lunch outside on the deck.

By mid-afternoon four more ex-Brockies from different corners of New England have made their way to the door, most of whom are strangers to each other and everyone else. It does not take long to overcome the initial awkwardness of the group and to begin sharing the many common reference points we have when it comes to talking about our time at Brockwood. Whether it is the identity of the student who bugged staff meetings many years ago, or the significance of time spent talking with Krishnamurti, we all have something that is of interest to share. After the slide show our long conversation continues outside in the sunshine, where the group photo is taken, and once the sun goes down, at a very good Indian restaurant where we stay until it is time to say our farewells. Those present for the gathering were:

Frieda Gillespie                      1971-1972

Veronique Rignault                 1974-1976

Liz Arthurs-Dyer                    1979-1981

Darien Fitzgerald                    1979-1982

Lisa Pawley                            1986-1992

Rajesh Ranganathan               1988-1991

Joel Vall Thomas                     2006-2009

The Boston Alumni Gathering: from left to right front row: Lisa, Frieda, Veronique, Rajesh. Back row: Bill, Joel, Liz, Darien
The Boston Alumni Gathering: from left to right front row: Lisa, Frieda, Veronique, Rajesh. Back row: Bill, Joel, Liz, Darien

21th March

“Order has no cause, therefore it is everlasting; but disorder has a cause and that which has a cause can end.”

Departure day. I begin sorting and packing my belongings, knowing my disorder has a cause, but will it ever end? I’m also wondering if I’ll be hit with an excess baggage charge as I was on the way over; then it was due to the Brockwood material I was carrying for colleges and alumni, now, if it happens, it will be due to the pile of prospectuses and admissions papers colleges have given me.

Everyone is up and the kids have made sure Joel does not sleep in too long on the dining-room floor. We breakfast together on Rajesh’s excellent pancakes and Lisa’s eggs. Throw Joel’s gear into the boot and take him to rendezvous with his ride back to Bennington. Then, as my flight is not until the evening, Rajesh, Lisa, kids and I head downtown to see Boston. We spend hours wandering, as people do on a Sunday in a city made new by spring sunshine in the midst of parks, markets, cafes, old streets and monuments.

In considering the last of these the most striking seen on this occasion is the holocaust monument. It is a series of tall chimney-shaped towers, one for each of the major concentration camps, all constructed with steel and glass panels; each chimney reaches 50 feet into the air and every panel is engraved with endless columns of serial numbers of victims of that particular camp. One can walk beneath the chimneys, where steam rises through a grill at your feet as if it were smoke, and on the walls around you are engraved personal accounts of survivors of the camps. It is a monument which succeeds fully in conveying the magnitude and horror of the event it commemorates and in chilling your heart on a sunny day.

There is time enough to return, collect the luggage, say my goodbyes, load the car and get to the airport with ease. There is a charge for excess baggage and a bigger charge for the duty-free chocolates; probably available for less on the High Street at home. This has been a trip unlike any I have made before and it is going to take some time to see exactly what it has all meant, and what might flow from it.

The benefit of seeing and connecting with the colleges is fairly straightforward, but I wonder what it may have meant for the many alumni that have gathered over the past few weeks, meeting each other for the first time or in some cases after many years? Perhaps the enthusiasm of the moment will be soon forgotten, or perhaps they will give some thought to the part in the presentation where I talked about how they might ‘Get Involved’ again: by recommending the school to friends; writing something for the Observer or the Brockwood Blog; coming to visit us to offer a workshop, or perhaps even considering a year or two as a staff member. And not forgetting the ever-present need for donations to help with Bursaries, or big school projects such as our new Pavilions. There is only so much any one of us can do when it comes to caring for Brockwood and its intentions, but if those of us who have benefited from our time there and feel its importance remain connected, think about it occasionally, express our concern in actions, then Brockwood has a good chance of outlasting all of us and illuminating the future with an order that is everlasting.

The flight is called. I get a window seat and watch the lights of Boston recede as we lift off right on time.

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