Over on the Shimer.edu redesign blog (previously), there's some controversy about the tagline used on the mockups of the new website: "Dangerously Optimistic Since 1853":
A lot of people don't like it, and I can understand why. It doesn't seem to say anything about Shimer's core product—whether you call that dialogal education, Great Books pedagogy or what have you. On top of that, it lends itself to unfavorable interpretations. Can Shimer really afford to emphasize its own precariousness in this way? Even the old and thoroughly-reviled tagline "the Great Books College of the Midwest" at least suggested stability.
But even though I'm the sort of person who normally hates everything, this new tagline really appeals to me. I'll try to explain why (see also Adam O.'s eloquent comment).
As much as Shimer stands for the great books (and for smallness, intentional community, dialogical pedagogy, and various other good things), it stands also for a certain glorious bloody-mindedness without which the school's existence—beyond 1853, or 1855, or 1857, or 1895, or 1898, or 1906, or 1927, or 1949, or 1957, or 1973, or 1977, or 1979, or 1990, or 2010, inter alia—would be unthinkable.
There is a reason that Shimer's people have always kept going, in the face of challenges that would have made any well-adjusted institution decide to meekly curl up and die. Putting that reason into words can be challenging, but it's there all the same.
"Dangerously Optimistic" wouldn't have occurred to me as a way of summarizing this, but I think it works quite well—and certainly better than obvious alternatives like "Telling the World To Go Fuck Itself Since 1853," which for one thing is a bit too long.
For a long time, there has been an understandable desire to keep this crazier side of Shimer safely tucked in the attic—when that craziness isn't needed to repel the latest existential threat, of course. But this has left me and many others with a strange sense of contradiction between the community that we identify with and the school's outward face (which is also the face presented to alumni). Some contradiction between the inward and outward faces of Shimer is inevitable, but there's been something strangely bloodless about the way that Shimer has presented itself for many years, as if Shimer were trying to pretend that it had become a scaled-down version of an otherwise normal college.
This isn't good for Shimer or its people, and least of all for students who come to Shimer expecting something completely different from what they find.
Does the "dangerously optimistic" tagline emphasize precariousness, even foolhardiness? OK, sure. But Shimer has tried over and over to try to pretend that it hasn't spent 1.6 centuries dancing (flawlessly) on the volcano's brim, only for this pretense to be given the lie when the music starts again. This is stupid and self-defeating. We need to find ways of more effectively integrating this underlying strength in the outward-facing version of Shimer. We cannot afford to keep turning Shimer's strengths into weaknesses.
In the end, I trust that the choice in this matter rests with the people of Shimer College, as it should.
But for my part, I think this is a good tagline.