Friday, May 10, 2013

The Founding of Shimer College: A Tale of Two Tales

Frances Wood Shimer and Cindarella Gregory in 1869
 To anyone who has been associated with Chicago's Shimer College, the story of its founding is probably familiar: in May 1853, two young teachers, Frances Wood and Cindarella Gregory, came out from upstate New York to the tiny frontier town of Mount Carroll, Illinois, to start a "seminary" (not entirely unlike a high school) that had been chartered by the state legislature the year before. Nominally governed by a Board of Trustees but effectively run by the two teachers, the school moved into its own building in 1854. A few months after that, the struggling school was given up for dead by its Trustees, and placed fully into the hands of Misses Wood and Gregory.

That is the well-worn tale of how this plucky little college got its start. It is not wrong, and can be verified by consulting contemporary newspaper accounts, as well as the letters and journal of Miss Wood herself. But it isn't the only story.

The second story of Shimer's founding varies a bit, but goes something like this: The overambitious townspeople of Mount Carroll started a seminary in 1852, but were unable to get it off the ground -- a common pattern across the Old Northwest at this time. In 1853, completely independently, Misses Wood and Gregory arrived in town and started a private school. Their school prospered, and observing the teachers' administrative prowess, the despairing Trustees asked them to take over the Trustees' stillborn school; the teachers graciously accepted the charge.

To be sure, this second story is wrong. Wood and Gregory were part of the Mount Carroll Seminary from the very day (May 11, 1853) when they taught their first class. Yet we can find this story as far back as 1857, signed by none other than John Wilson, who had chaired the Board of Trustees during the school's difficult first months of operation. And we find it again, in 1869, in a report submitted to the Illinois Superintendent of Public Instruction-if not directly from the pen of Mrs. Shimer (née Wood) herself, surely at least prepared under her close supervision.

So, why is this utterly nonfactual story coming from such reliable sources?

We may find the beginning of the answer in a key distinction in 19th-century private education: between "venture" or "select" schools (often little more than one or two teachers hanging out a shingle) and "proper" state-chartered institutions overseen by boards of trustees. (For discussions of this, see e.g. Tolley 2002, Katz 1975.) Agency and gender come into this distinction as well: a select school would naturally be governed by its teacher or teachers, often female; but a proper seminary or college was governed by its almost invariably male trustees.

Thus, when the Trustees relinquished control in 1855, the Mount Carroll Seminary found itself in a treacherous position. Abandoned by its Board, it could only move forward under the direct governance of its teachers. Yet if it was perceived as merely a teacher-run school, it would soon lose the prestige it needed to survive and grow. It needed to somehow be both things at once: a joint proprietorship and a "proper" school working to the highest standard.

Understanding this contradiction, we can understand the two contradictory stories of Shimer's founding: if the narrator wanted to emphasize the prestige of being a proper state-chartered institution, the simple factual narrative served just fine. But when emphasizing the agency and authority of Misses Wood and Gregory, the second narrative served better - and for good measure, captured the real power dynamics of the first years much more accurately.

It is thus unsurprising that the second narrative first emerges in 1857, when the town was wracked by scandalous accusations against Wood and Gregory, and the Seminary's supporters needed to shore up their moral authority (for more on this, see Malkmus 2003).

There is an underlying tension here, between Shimer as an institution (embodied by the first narrative) and Shimer as the work of its people (embodied by the second narrative), that can be traced through all of the school's 160 years. From time to time - as in 1967, or 2010 - when things have become a little bit unbalanced, a crisis has ensued. In the present day specifically, the Trustees' legal authority stands in tension with the "moral suasion" exercised by Shimer's radically democratic Assembly. And just as with the two contradictory tales of Shimer's founding, we could construct two entirely contradictory (but equally accurate) accounts of the college as it exists today.

This suggests that Shimer's ability to strategically balance between two contradictory identities has played a key role in this tiny school's improbable 16-decade run. This may also help to explain why Shimer has also remained so very small for all these years: this kind of ambiguity becomes harder to sustain when expanding beyond the human scale.

Works mentioned

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