Monday, November 28, 2005

dual diagnosis

I'm one of those rare birds with Mt. Carroll-Waukegan Shimer experience. I will never forget moving the library. It snowed -- a lot that year. (I graduated 1975, taught 1978-80). I also attended an informational meeting at the college 11/27. I am disposed toward the move to Chicago as a means to keep this 152-year-old institution alive because:

-- enrollment has flattened at 110 students. (Don Moon cited this figure at meeting). That's really not a whole lot of people with which to have a college experience nor is it a good way to increase visibility or a base of alumni financial support.

-- the future is not good for liberal arts colleges in general unless they are distinctive, a word Bill Rice used that made sense. Shimer's Great Books curriculum & discussion method is distinctive but it doesn't mean anything if no one knows about it. The pairing of liberal Shimer & techno IIT is unorthodox, which certainly boosts the distinctive factor.

-- most idealistically, Shimer shaped my life forever. I met at Shimer five of my closest friends, whom I have known for more than 30 years. I would like other people to have this unique developmental opportunity, particularly because our country and world need people who know how to think, see interrelationships and analyze. Plus everybody needs loyal friends.

Count me in.


mikeyd723 said...

I know I am sounding like a broken record here, but forgive my little extra time and energy this morning to say briefly once more that I do not believe "distinctive" is an appropriate word. I actually think that if Shimer were (merely) distinctive, it would (or could) be thriving as judged by economic standards and recruitment rates--as Eugene Lang College (see my main post) is. Distinctive implies a marketing niche, where you are part of a small but clear target market, and you have "competitors" against which to measure yourself. Lang (to keep that example) does this in its recruitment efforts for example, knowing that it is in a loose league/rivalry with places like Bard and Sarah Lawrence.

But Shimer is not (merely) distinctive. It is unique. This makes its life much more precarious. When we tell folks about where we went to school, we always have that moment of "huh?" We cannot then say, well you know "x" place or "y" place? and then when they say yes, we say "well it is like that." Shimer just isn't like any other place. This makes it difficult to find our target market, because it doesn't exist as such--it is a small and very difficult to determine set of folks from radically different backgrounds who just somehow fit. Some of us might have otherwise ended up at a place like Lang or Bard or Sarah Lawrence; some at places like Swarthmore or Amhrest; some at community college; some at local branches of state universities; some not at college at all. (And here I am thinking just of the Weekday program, frankly.)

At least this is how it seems to me. And why this tells against the move from where I am sitting is that the only way that moving to Chicago will increase recruitment is precisely by giving up uniqueness for distinctiveness. Maybe the College must make the move from unique to distinct in order to ensure long-term survival. But if we do, we should do so knowingly and openly (and lovingly, as Martin Luther King famously added)--and not by having this slippage in the discussion where we agree that what Shimer is is "distinctive."

Alan said...

Shimeris not completely unique. St. John is a catholic run Great Books school whihc while different is also similar in it's curriculum. The UofC has watered down their core a bit but they still have the undergrad "Great Books Program".

mikeyd723 said...

I am definitely loathe to be on the other side than you in argument Alan--for a great many reasons--but I do believe that Shimer is different from its closest cousins (like St. John's above all) in a qualitatively, and not just quantitatively, different way than "distinct" places (like Eugene Lang College) are different from their closest cousins. This is why I want to reserve a term like "unique" for a place like Shimer (or St. Johns for that matter). It is not to say that they are better than everything else, just that the academic and interpersonal experience at a place like Shimer is really that different from what is on offer elsewhere. (I think.)

D. R. Koukal said...

Not to nit-pick, but I'm pretty sure that St' John's isn't (and never was) Catholic.

Interesting distinction between "distinctive" and "unique" . . .