When I was at Shimer College, I was one of the weaker students. I was constantly struggling academically in the same way that Shimer College was struggling financially. But whenever I listened to the rhetoric of Shimer College, I was told that I am responsible for my own education, that I should be self-reliant, that if I continue reading carefully and participating actively then my writing will improve, that if I am not successful it must be because I am lazy, because I am "intellectually inferior" (a sophisticated way of saying "stupid"), because I don't have the talent, because I am not very good, because I am not trying hard enough. But I know that I tried very hard, because I was intellectually exhausted ("devastated" would be a better word for it) by my experience at Shimer College, a tiredness that I suspect many members of the Shimer faculty and administration are feeling because of the relentless financial issues and problems. In all four years, from IS2 in my first semester to Nat Sci 4 in my last semester, I could not intellectually handle the curriculum, although I always enjoyed with a genuine enthusiasm the great books discussion groups. At some point, I began to try different strategies, not unlike how Shimer College tries to solve its financial problems, but I still feel like I failed to be successful with my education. Shimer College was really, fucking hard academically--and it must be fucking hard to financially sustain as well.
Now, I am in a situation in which I can sense the financial crisis of Shimer College deeply, and I am not sure how to respond. I am responsible for at least three full-time students at Shimer College, including one member of the current board and one current student, because of my referals, which may be worth over 200,000$ to the college. I have also made significant official donations of half-page advertisements, even before I graduated, in an Education Guide of a Chicago newspaper to the college, in order to address the problem of how to increase enrollment at Shimer College. This year, my donation was more directly concerned with the problem of the current job market for liberal arts graduates. I, therefore, subscribed to a national current jobs in the liberal arts bulletin that could hopefully inspire students to start considering how they are going to transition from Shimer College, a problem that I have temporarily solved like many, many other liberal arts graduates by enrolling in graduate school, although like Shimer College, I run a small mom and pop stand of a massage therapy company, which barely pays our bills each month. But how can I help the college financially, and, more philosophically, should I help the college? Is it my responsibility to help the college? What is our response-ability as alums to generate money for the college?
My initial follow-up questions are controversial, but they directly address this question of responsibility.
If a Shimer College student is drowning or at risk of drowning, should the Shimer College professor a) prevent the student from drowning by offering the student private swimming lessons in addition to fulfilling the obligation to show up for class and grade the paper; b) get his or her clothes wet by leaping in to save the student; c) hold up a sign that states "swim"?
If Shimer College is drowning or at risk of drowning, should the Shimer College alum a) prevent the college from drowning by offering the college financial assistance in addition to paying for the high cost of a liberal arts education; b) sacrifice his or her personal desires and needs in order to save the college; c) hold up a sign that states "swim"?
The problem then is a question of mutual responsibility. I could say, well, since Shimer College's academic philosophy is to tell the student to swim when he or she is in trouble, then I should, as an alum, tell Shimer College to swim in its predicament. This sounds harsh, but I am sure that there is more than one alum who is thinking the same thing, especially as they struggle to pay their student loans or work a less-than-ideal job, especially as they struggled to transition from Shimer College to the real world without support from the college or a network of alums, especially as they struggled academically while at Shimer College. On the other hand, this could be a reminder to the faculty that we are in this together, and that in time of academic need, the doctrine of placing the entire burden of academic responsibility on the student is easy on the professor, but harsh on the student (the question of whether it is for the student's own good is also metaphorically strained when compared with a real financial crisis). Forgive me for investigating an issue that deeply concerns me--the quality of education at Shimer College--at a time of crisis for the college, but I do have an appropriate point and message.
I have been asking for a long time for Shimer College to adopt various academic proposals in order to improve the quality of education at Shimer College--and consequently attract and retain more students. Now, I am going to suggest that perhaps it's our responsibility as alums to reach into our pockets and donate substantial money to the college, even if the college decides to stay in Waukegan, if nothing else as to set an example that we can recognize when there is a need and begin to consider an appropriate response to that need. But this is easier for me to say than do, since I am living on student loans and occassional massages. Regardless, the tough question for us--I would like to propose--is not necessarily whether or not Shimer College should stay in Waukegan, because the board and the administration are most likely going to make that tough decision, a decision that I would not want to make after considering the pros and cons of both options; the tough responsibility that the alum Young Kim seems to have taken on. The tough question for us is how do we go about creating a fund-raising campaign, regardless of whether we stay in Waukegan or move to Chicago. Although very few people want to admit their weaknesses, such as my chronic academic failures to understand one of the great books, the underlying issue in this case is, I would venture to guess, lack of money, the long-term effects of lack of money on the quality of education, and the problem of whether the college can make more money by relocating to IIT--and thereby improve the quality of the education. If more money will improve the quality of the education and renew the spirit of the faculty at Shimer College, and if moving to IIT will solve that problem, I am in favor of the move to IIT.
If my thinking is problematic, don't hesitate to point it out to me, and I will edit this message accordingly.
Michael Dubensky '03