Friday, May 9, 2008

Bennington Holds a Culture War

Lack of experience and limited knowledge of the local dynamics made my first news stories for the Bennington Banner in 1968 less informative than they might have been. But after attending several tense school board sessions and getting the back story from off-the-record sources, I at least had some sense of the situation. At the center of it were the Sleemans, the most influential family in the Village of Bennington.

Assistant School Superintendent George Sleeman’s brother Richard was an arch-conservative who chaired the Elementary School board, held an administrative job at a local college, and supervised local property assessments. The family, which owned more rental property than anyone else in the area, had strong support among the local working class. But the village was surrounded by another legal entity, the Town of Bennington, a growing suburbia populated by liberal professional types. I was witnessing a struggle for power between two hostile factions – working class traditionalists and middle class modernists.

Beyond their resentment of Bennington College, the traditionalists disliked the modernists because of the “progressive” agenda they had imposed in the construction and curriculum of the new high school. Still, their deepest antipathy was reserved for the state’s bureaucratic establishment, particularly the commissioner of education, Harvey Scribner.

A non-nonsense teacher from Maine, Scribner had come to Vermont after presiding over the integration of Black children into white schools as Teaneck, New Jersey’s school superintendent. In the 1970s, he went on to become chancellor of New York City's school system during its turbulent shift toward local control. But to local Vermont conservatives in the late 60s, Scribner represented the heavy hand of the state. During my second week on the job, he made a fateful decision that turned the traditionalists’ simmering hatred into an open feud with bitter long-term consequences.

To break the local stalemate, Scribner – usually a proponent of local control – exercised his authority to merge Bennington’s Supervisory Union with an adjacent board and appoint its superintendent as head of the new “super district.” George Sleeman could keep his job, but his promotion had been blocked by a state dictate. His allies were stunned and his brother was hopping mad. For Richard Sleeman, the decision wasn’t merely a slap in the face but a sign of things to come. With a superintendent selected by Scribner, the next step would be “open classrooms” and other "dangerous" reforms proposed in the commissioner’s Vermont Design for Education.

At an elementary school board meeting held after the announcement, Richard puffed on his pipe as he complained about the decision. “Didn’t Dr. Scribner write a letter to us a few weeks ago and say our situation hasn’t changed? And haven’t we now got this man telling us local puckerbrushers what to do? Ordering us? Chaos! I see chaos,” he said.

Turning to his real target, Scribner’s Vermont Design, he proclaimed it “an affliction being imposed upon the education system of our fair state. Read it and decide for yourselves. The format could be titled Harvey Scribner meets Matty Mouse. But since use of the Design is voluntary, we can save ourselves and our teachers a lot of spare time by burning the Design for Education on the front lawn of the elementary school. Then we can begin the great work of drawing up our own design forthwith.”

He never got around to burning Scribner’s plan. But Sleeman’s cadre of “concerned citizens” did proceed to organize a witch hunt that put progressive education on trial. As the reporter covering school affairs, it reminded me at times of Inherit the Wind, the classic dramatic reworking of the Scopes Monkey Trial. But Bennington had no Clarence Darrow to defend it against this assault on reason.

The first flashpoint was a musical production at the high school, an experimental adaptation of Brecht on Brecht, George Tabori’s innovative sampler of the German artist’s plays, essays, poems, aphorisms, and struggles. Students and teachers were attempting to challenge the limits of what high school drama could be, just as Brecht had challenged Broadway’s theatrical conventions. They were doomed before the curtain went up. As I explained in a front page article on February 1, 1969:

A poster advertising Mt. Anthony Union High School’s upcoming production of “Brecht on Brecht” has become the center of a controversy involving the U.S. flag, Nazism, advertising and censorship.

That considerable accomplishment was the result of the sign’s use of a swastika juxtaposed with sections of Old Glory, symbolizing America’s victory over fascism to some – and U.S. police-state inclinations to others.

Shortly after the show’s poster appeared, complaints were lodged with the state police. According to the cops, it was illegal under the “uniform flag code” to use the flag or any part of it for advertising. The posters had to come down. Aside from a few that became collector’s items, they were never seen again. When the show finally opened, the house was half-full and the audience reaction ranged from nervous laughter to stunned silence. An attempt to dramatize concerns about the state of society had instead exposed the gap between the school’s avant-garde leanings and the community’s growing discomfort.

Not long after that, two English teachers made the mistake of teaching a lesson about language with examples that includes a few sexual phrases. The outcry was immediate and overwhelming, further deepening the rift. This time “concerned citizens” packed the high school cafeteria, heckled the school board and demanded action. At one point, a parent sitting next to Richard Sleeman actually argued that Broadway plays shouldn’t be performed in small towns.

“If we censor what students do, we are in a sensitive area,” a board member replied. Once the booing died down, someone shouted, “Why? What about parents who have kids in this school? What about poor people? Rich people make all the decisions.” Feeding the resentment, another ally of Richard’s pointed to the row of board members facing them and charged, “This is merely a group of merchants and business people. It isn’t representative.”

The opening shots of a "moral majority" curriculum war had been fired. What I saw in the following months was depressing but instructive. Unwilling to counter the assault, the area’s spinally-challenged liberals capitulated, leaving Richard Sleeman's lieutenants free to wrest control of the high school from the "open education" crowd. After brother George became superintendent, the Sleemans and their crew were free to re-staff the local education system. By the early 1970s, the school’s football coach had taken command as principal. Outside, a fence went up to discourage "loitering." Inside, a hard-fisted crackdown began. It was back to the "basics" and goodbye to “the Bennington College influence.”

Even Ms. Magazine was banned.

Part two of “Fragile Paradise: A Vermont Memoir.”

Next: From Observation to Advocacy

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