Why I Didn’t Go To Bennington College

Photograph of Bennington College Jennings Music Building, by Jared C. Benedict, used via Creative Commons.

I read the Esquire profile of Peter Dinklage this morning, and it noted that Dinklage is a graduate of Bennington College, class of 1991. Which made me think, huh, I could have been a classmate of Peter Dinklage’s, because I was also class of 1991… and I had also been accepted into Bennington. Indeed, when it came time to choose colleges, my final two choices were Bennington and the University of Chicago. There is an alternate timeline in which I zigged instead of zagged, went to Bennington and, possibly, hung about with Dinklage in the New England wildernesses of Vermont.

I’ve told people before that I almost went to Bennington, and when I tell them that — to the extent that they know about Bennington College at all — some of them wonder why I didn’t go there. On paper at least, it seems like a better fit for my personality, at least when I was a teenager: It’s an arty, freeform school that has spit out excellent writers and novelists with regularity, including Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem, Kiran Desai and Bret Easton Ellis (whose writing I’m not hugely in love with, but you can’t say he’s not successful in the gig), as well as scads of other creative folk.

So I would have spent four years with a bunch of kids very much like me in an atomosphere of unfettered creative ferment. Plus, at the time there was something like an 8 to 1 female/male ratio, which to a seventeen-year-old straight boy was a definite plus, in theory at least. I was all for it. And Bennington was all for me, it appeared — halfway through my interview for the school, the alumni stopped saying “if you go” and started saying “when you go,” and Bennington itself offered me flat-out the best amount of scholarship money of any school I was accepted to.

So why didn’t I go? Because as attractive as Bennington was, and it really was attractive, at the end of the day I knew myself. I was creative and artistic and full of big ideas, but I was also madly, deeply, truly unstructured. Bennington was similarly unstructured, by intention. Which was attractive but also not really what I needed. Left to my own devices, I would devolve into a puddle of inertia. The University of Chicago is many things, some positive and some negative, but the one thing it is not is unstructured. It could provide a pedagogical spine I could slop my unstructured, creative self around.

There were other ancillary reasons as well (Bennington has only 600 students, and coming from a high school with 360 people, I wanted something a bit less intimate, for one; U of C had a worldwide reputation and deep resources; Chicago is a hell of a town), but at the end of the day, it came down to structure. I didn’t have it, so I needed a school that did. I picked U of C and have never had cause to regret it.

(I am, I would note, still largely unstructured; that I have achieved as much in my life as I have is in no small part due to having a wife who aside from every other amazing quality she has is super organized and gets things done, including for me.)

Still, my choice of Chicago over Bennington should not be read as a criticism of Bennington; it was a tough choice and for good reason. Every once in a while I think about how my life would have been different if I had took the leap and gone Bennington. It’s impossible to say, but I suspect among the several differences might have been that I would have become a novelist sooner, probably wouldn’t be writing science fiction (I see myself becoming more of a Sam Lipsyte or Gary Shteyngart sort of writer — or at least wanting to be a writer like them), and I suspect would be doing the Park Slope thing or something very close to it. I would hope I would have had the sense to marry someone like Krissy, as I don’t suspect I would have met her in this particular timeline.

And, hey, I probably would have partied with Peter Dinklage a time or two. There would be worse things to have in one’s memory banks.

53 Comments on “Why I Didn’t Go To Bennington College”

  1. Bennington makes me think of The Secret History. You might have been taking Greek with Peter Dinklage…and then accidentally shot a farmer during a successful bacchanal….!

    I have a similar relationship with Swarthmore. It was my top choice, but they gave me nothing in comparison to the free ride Wellesley was offering. And it’s not like Wellesley was any kind of slouch, academia-wise. On this side of it, I’m so glad I went to Wellesley, but I still have heart-twinges about the alternate timeline. People I didn’t meet and never will…

  2. And Kathleen Norris, whose writings I very much admire. Good reasons for making the choice you did make.

  3. I think Bennington was one of the possible colleges I considered back then (when one requested a catalog by mail instead of checking out the website); probably lucky for the administrators as well as me that I didn’t go.

  4. I went to Marlboro College, an even smaller college about 10 miles away from Bennington. They played soccer in a friendly manner every once in awhile.

    Marlboro possibly even more unstructured and super self directed. It was there or Northeastern in work. I chose Marlboro because I thought “no distractions!” from academic work.

    Unfortunately I haven’t graduated, but I didn’t necessarily drop out, either. I finished course work but didn’t have the discipline or enough self-directed knowledge to complete the additional requirement of thesis. Very strange situation to explain to people. . .

    I wonder what my alternate timeline version would be like.

  5. Chicago classes and curriculum are notoriously structured; but by the same token, in my day (would have been class of ’76) Chicago was also notoriously unable or unwilling to give any personal support to freshmen, expecting them to sink or swim. I was a country boy completely out of his depth without a family to lean on, and Chicago turned out to be the worst possible place for me. It took me a decade to pay off the school debts I incurred from my one year there, and 33 years to finally get my Baccalaureate (at a large public university).

  6. Interesting, because from 1985-92 I was about 15 miles south of Bennington and often headed up to the Apple Barn for fresh cider donuts. I still order apples from them every fall as my mom is still convinced that *true* apples can’t grow here in the midwest. Unfortunately, she may be correct. Oh, and there were always some interesting parties at Bennington. They were a tad less uptight than Williams, but that’s best left in the wayback.

  7. Another class of ’91 here. My parents went to University of Chicago, but for whatever reason I never really considered it. I spent a lot of high school dithering over where to go, only to make up my mind firmly about two minutes after I set foot on the Wellesley campus. Applied there early decision, got my acceptance about 2 days before I would have had to send in my next application (Johns Hopkins), and never looked back. The only other place that really crossed my radar was Carnegie Mellon, which offered me a free ride – but my brother had gone there, and I was not interested in what I had seen of how they treated their students.

  8. You still exist, Peter Dinklage still exists, as you move farther into movie/TV territory the chance you will party with him increases…

  9. I was accepted to a number of schools like Bennington but chose public ivy schools both for cost and because I didn’t want to be too exclusive. A better fit, as you say, for some of us.

  10. I know how you feel, John. I could’ve been a classmate of Weird Al Yankovic at California Polytechnic U., San Luis Obispo, but at college-age, I was uncomfortable with going that far outside of Los Angeles. (So much for adventurous youth from me). Considering my college experience at two L.A. schools (neither of the two biggest), I’ve been regretting that decision ever since, and not just for the Weird Al connection. (I did meet Dr. Demento a few months before he started playing Al’s songs…)

  11. I could have gone to Boston U or Washington University St. Louis, but I don’t know that I would have wound up interacting with anybody who is now really well-known. I’m supremely glad I didn’t go to WUSTL; the degree wasn’t what I was looking for and I don’t know if I could have handled St. Louis in the summer. If I’d gone to BU I might have done something with my degree, but wouldn’t be where I am now and I like that place. UCSD gave me a good five years and I did get to meet David Brin and have Kim Stanley Robinson as a freshman writing instructor. So I guess in that other trouser leg of time I’d be thinking, “Gee, I could have met…”

  12. I know people who decided against Hampshire for similar reasons. Places like Bennington and Hampshire are wonderful for kids for whom they work, but can be disastrous for kids who need structure (one reason I didn’t apply to them).

  13. Yep. I decided against Hampshire for exactly that reason. Also Reed.

    So much of my life was shaped by my college — it’s where I met my husband, for instance — that I find it really difficult to imagine the alternate timeline where I went elsewhere. (I went to Carleton College and graduated in 1995. The other colleges I was accepted at were Reed, Haverford, and Hampshire. The one thing I can say with a lot of certainty is that there is a particular Internet friend of mine from the right era who went to Reed, and if I’d gone there, we’d definitely have known each other due to MANY common interests.)

  14. I once heard Cindy Crawford started on a ChemE degree at Northwestern and that was the last college I eliminated. Not the same class, but in that alternative reality I’m more studious and advise incoming freshmen.

  15. I worked at the Hampshire switchboard for almost 30 years. I’ve often thought it was a terrific model for graduate work. For myself,I was absolutely convinced in 1972 that I should attend Goddard. My parents refused, citing finances, and I wound up at UMass/Amherst. In retrospect, I don’t know that my19-year-old self would have survived Goddard.

  16. My choices were Harvard, Princeton and Columbia. Columbia turned me down. Picked Harvard.

    Most of a lifetime later, I guess I’m okay with that choice. Probably should have widened my options, though. My classmates included Ted Kaczynski, Howard Phillips, Saul Kripke and Larry Tribe (fortunately, I knew only the latter two). I was not an academic star, as I had imagined I would be, but I didn’t flunk out either.

    Harvard doesn’t get any contributions to its alumni fund from me. I give to Berea College, which needs it.

  17. I went to college in the NE, and I kind of think that if you go up there, it doesn’t matter which school. The density of academia is so high that one ends up saturated in the culture. I chose Mt Holyoke over Northwestern, due to both having a single-sex college as my preference and the financial aid package.

    I am so happy I did so. I got to take classes and participate in projects at many schools, through various programs, including the Pioneer Valley schools alliance, which include Hampshire, Smith, and Amherst; through the 7 Sisters; and through STEM programs with MIT, etc. I went to college looking for “the olive grove of academe,” and I found it in the NE. I love Chicago, but I would not have been happy there, as an undergrad.

  18. In the mirror universe, Peter Dinklage, U of Chicago graduate, would be writing SF novels and John Scalzi, Bennington graduate, would have a leading role on Game of Thrones. (Probably not Tyrion, though.Maybe Littlefinger?)

  19. In this timeline, I went to New College, which at least at the time was even less structured than Bennington. I didn’t realize, until I’d frittered away enough of my first year there for it to be my last year there, how much I needed structure. I don’t remember what my alternatives were, but in the timeline where I picked one, maybe I made something of my life. Besides what I’ve made of it on the internet, that is.

  20. Sometimes you look back on a decision and think, “yes, that’s exactly what I needed.” I have thought that about many decisions in my life, and that’s a much better thought than regret for lost chances.

  21. Funny that this is today’s Whatever. I was just talking with someone, wondering how you got from “Being Poor” to UofC. Not that I don’t know any number of people who have had similar journeys, but each one is interesting and unusual.

  22. Man, it’s a rare person who, at seventeen, knows himself well enough to say: “That’s just exactly what I am today, and while it would be a great fit, that’s not what I need to be for the rest of my life.

  23. I had to laugh when I read this because I went to Bennington. Graduated in 1990. (Yes, I remember Peter Dinklage — no, I never hung out with him or knew him well. Even when there are only 600 students you know who people are but you can’t claim to be BFF’s with everyone.) For some people, Bennington was a lifeline, for others, well, the unstructured academic and social life proved to be completely overwhelming.

    I have to say that I loved it there, Bennington was exactly the kind of environment I needed.

    I do have to say that Bret Ellis Easton cast a long shadow over students working on their writing at Bennington in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Still not sure after all this time if it was a good thing or not.

  24. MiLady and I read your blog posts pretty regularly (we catch up every day or three… we have stuff like jobs that don’t have computer access that get in the way) and have come to a conclusion…
    If we are ever so fortunate that you are going to be a guest at our local ‘con Norwescon out here in Seattle, we are SO there… just sayin’… and not only so I can get my copy of Old Mans War signed…
    You, sir, rock.

  25. My friend’s daughter was accepted at Reed prompting the same soul-searching about structure (from her parents, unfortunately… her response was more like, “Kewl!”)

  26. I graduated from the USAF Academy. Structure? You want structure? Let me tell you about structure…

    Academically USAFA had a huge core curriculum (110 semester hours of academic courses, required by all), spread about evenly between math/science/engineering and the humanities. The fuzzy majors (poli sci, English, history, psychology, etc) took the same math/science/engineering load and courses as the STEM people (no “math for poets”; everyone took the same partial differential equations), and the STEM people took the same English comp and lit, US/world history, etc classes as those majors did. It was unusual to be able to select a single class your first two years–everything was assigned core–and the last two years once you picked a major there was little opportunity to move beyond the core and required majors classes (allowing for the “pick one of these two classes for your major” selections). Everyone had large parts of the core they hated.

    But over the years I came to treasure the very diverse education I received. And as I’ve watched lots of kids struggle with the lack of structure in their college life I concluded that the lock-step I was forced into wasn’t all bad.

  27. I played softball at Bennington once, if I recall correctly. Might not, though. What I really remember is having a great deal of fun playing a very muddy game with a bunch of girls who were just as good as we were. I have no recollection at all of who won.

    I went to Simon’s Rock, in Massachusetts, about 60 miles south of Bennington. It, too, was very small: about 300 individuals all told, staff, faculty, students and the campus dog. There wasn’t much structure there, either, though there might have been more than at Bennington. At the time my options were limited: go to the Rock or stay in high school. I didn’t stay in high school.

    I started at the Rock, finished an associate’s degree, and moved on, a semester at BU (too big), a semester at MIT (too big and too intense), and a whole lot of time off, mostly spent being highly valued for my knowledge of the alphabet. By the time I went back to the Rock, I was heartily sick of answering other people’s phones. There wasn’t much more structure the second time than the first, but I had a powerful incentive to finish a degree, in any major I could.

    It was a good place for me: small classes, intelligent discussions, people who actually wanted to be there. I learned things such as how to do proper research and how to finish a paper by the deadline.

    I took my time getting it done. I started in January, 1980 and collected my BA in 1987. In bare feet, shorts and a t-shirt, much to my mother’s dismay.

  28. I had a coworker whose brother got accepted at Pepperdine. He decided it would be a bad idea for him to go there – it’s high on a hill in Malibu CA, just across the street from the beach, and he realized he’d spend all his time surfing and have to drop out. So he went somewhere back home around Chicago, where surfing was much less of a temptation.

  29. In a world where John Scalzi went to Bennington… an Empire would fall… and a Hero would rise. That hero’s name was …. Izlacs! [insert soundtrack with suitably heroic music here]

  30. Says volumes about you that you knew that much about yourself at, what, eighteen? Amazing. I wish I’d known that about myself then. If I recall I was much more obsessed with being something I was not. Good on you. Otherwise, we may never have known John Scalzi at all.

  31. Just met a nice young Reedie yesterday. Good looking, well-groomed, firm handshake, remembers your name, makes good conversation. He would be successful, I expect, no matter what’s on his diploma.
    The others? Well, Bill Gates was a dropout too…

    The Evergreen State College is patterned after Reed. IIRC, it was originally aimed at older adults who knew what they wanted, and just needed a school that would let them refine their ideas, learn what they needed, and then go Do Their Thing.

    These days, the straight-to-college thing means that a lot of incoming students haven’t worked out who they are or what they want (besides things requiring ready cash and/or members of the preferred sex.) Their undergrad coordinated-studies programs are great, though.

  32. @FL Transplant – I went to a state university, but my first Control Systems class was taught by someone fresh from Naval Academy. The Services know how to teach the heck out of a subject, because there isn’t time to do it any other way. It’s still the course that has stuck with me the best.

  33. I went to Marlboro College not far from Bennington as did another reader and it’s a similar type of school. Unstructured works for some people and not others. I think for someone who isn’t good at creating structure for themselves, which I certainly wasn’t at the time though I’ve improved since, it isn’t always the best environment. I’m happy with where my life is now, I probably wouldn’t be a self-employed artist if I’d finished college which would have been more likely at a more traditional college.

    Just a note, about the time I was at Marlboro (2001-ish) the joke was that the only difference between the two schools is was that Bennington had more public nudity.

  34. I was born and raised knowing I was going to go to Indiana University as an undergrad, and have never had reason to regret the choice, if indeed I can call it that– I never even applied anywhere else. Grad school was the University of Chicago or Harvard, and I went to U of C. I still think I made the right call, but I look longingly toward Boston every now and again anyway.

  35. Johnny, I’m not sure you would have been cut out for Bennington. The academics are rigorous and you may not have been able to keep up, sitting on your ass blogging all day.

  36. I couldn’t read the whole article – paywall – but did the interviewer strike anyone else as a *complete* douche? That question about distracting the man on the cycle – talk about how to scar someone.

  37. I thought about Bennington but never applied (I would’ve been a lowly underclassmen to you guys.) Hearing about the long shadow of Bret Easton Ellis, I think it’s just as well I didn’t.

  38. I’m amused at the idea that someone thinks the University of Chicago isn’t academically rigorous.

  39. I went to Vermont College, whose programs were modeled after Goddard College. Talk about your unstructured. One of these days, I’ll write up what starting a semester was like. It was a really interesting process. It was like live academic pitch sessions with consequences.

  40. I used to pass Bennington on the way up to Middlebury College where I attended from ’94 – ’98. The VT Trailways bus would stop, all the Bennington kids would get off, and I would wonder why I’d never even heard of the place, much less applied to go there. It would have been a much shorter bus ride from NYC had I known about it. Now you have me wondering, too, because it sounds like just the sort of college I would have excelled at. Not that I didn’t excel in and thoroughly enjoy Midd during those years, which ranks high as one of the best experiences of my life.

  41. Bryn Mawr offered me a full ride plus travel and spending money and I turned them down flat. I have never regretted it, particularly since I met Mr, Lurkertype at the school I went to.

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