Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Eric Nicholson on "The Future of Shimer's Best"

Eric Nicholson responds to the questions posed:

The Future of Shimer's Best

"So, what do you think? What is most important about Shimer? What do you think we should preserve – that is what are the key elements of what you value about Shimer? Where do we need to improve, and how might we go about doing that? Where should we innovate, and why? In short, what is it that, in your opinion, matters most about Shimer, and especially about Shimer’s future?"

What do I think? No. How do I think? How do I conceptualize the manifold sensation of what we intuit as Shimer as an act of will worthy of reasonably willing all rational beings to will?

Shimer is us. Saints preserve us, they write great books and intercede for us with almighty questions to keep us thinking. Who are we? We read, and while we read the distinctions we discover take hold of manifold memories and sensations and gather them together in more or less coherent clusters of idea. We gather together at more or less regular intervals to share the ideas with which we've gathered what we've read and through our interactive dialog reopen those ideas, exchange and rearrange the memories and sensations gathered in them. In our interaction we begin to sense the form and function of our ideas and remember they reappear in highly varied contexts with quite diverse contents of memory and sensation. We begin to read our memories and sensations in concert with the books of saints and the conversation of our peers and to write our reasoned wills in our interaction with the world of sense and memory around us.

How does any of this distinguish Shimer from any other gathering of literate scholars? The idea of Shimer as a specific location, however nomadic, contains a notion, through time, of who we are. Those specific times and places in which we gather to carry on the conversation in Shimer's name provide occasion for our preservation, but we distinguish ourselves by how we occupy those occasions. The books we read and their authors are read by others in other places at other times. The canons, too, by which we gather them for beatification according to their greatness are shared in common with others, as are forms and functions of ideas developed through our reading in which we comprehend manifold memories and sensations that we also share with others. I think what distinguishes us is how we question everything and everybody.

We question everything as a whole and each thing's part in that whole through the curricular arrangement of the times of our readings of great books and our meetings to discuss them. We recognize in our experience questions concerned with the natural world that contains and constrains us, others that relate to the ways we contain and constrain one and other in our social institutions, and still more with respect to the contents of and constraints on the productions of our imaginations. We question also the forms and functions of the questions we ask.

We question everybody in ourselves, in each other, in the saints whose relics we read as great books, in God who created this world and gods holding sway in it, and we regard our questions as the same as those confronting all of our fellow denizens of this planet. But here's the thing.

Shimer's curriculum is a distillation of the fundamental core of explicitly Western Civilization. This combination of ideas and methods was concocted over the course of the first half of the Twentieth Century by great minds gathered at the University of Chicago for the purpose of training the best minds drawn from the American public to assume roles of leadership as citizens in business, government, the professions and academia. Given the time and place of its creation, it is not surprising that that curriculum would show signs of use as an instrument of oppression of the underprivileged, minorities and other peoples with exploitable resources.

There is in the American offshoot of the British branch of the Western Tradition a continuing critique of the ruling of elites that showed up in William Rainey Harper's attempts to put the power of a college education within the reach of ordinary citizens. The affiliation of the University of Chicago with Frances Shimer's Academy in the middle of the last century was a product of this impulse. F.A.W. Shimer, of course, was all about putting the power of the intellectually elite into hands of an underprivileged class: women. Mrs. Shimer's endeavor was also forged as a community based on intimate personal relationships tightly woven into what she clearly considered her family. The marriage of Shimer's community with Hutchins' curriculum, freed from the centrifugal forces of divisions of advanced disciplines by Mount Carroll's rural isolation created a unique combination of intellectual rigor and intense interpersonal attachment.

I have more to say about the urgent need for this particular institution to reach out beyond the elite tradition of modern globalization and read together with these, the works of saints of other traditions together with members of all underprivileged races, genders, classes and nationalities in order to gather ever more manifold memories and sensations into distinctions with which to truly question everything and everybody, but I have no more time.

1 comment :

Ron Partridge said...

Writing in response to an earlier comment that various elements of the Shimer experience were dispensable, I'm afraid that I couldn't quite see the coherence of a view that involves setting aside all the aspects of what has made Shimer distinctive, effective and strong, one by one, retaining only this "boot camp" image. It's a little like saying that we could retain the Formula One racing car, even while replacing the wheels by skis, the engine by sails, and the body by a raft, as long as the driver still wore a crash helmet.

To appreciate and understand the history of thought, as well as the currently impactful, and to get inside the minds of the great originators and reformers of Western (and other) civilization(s), to see where we going as well as where we have been - how is any of this dispensable?

As vital as on-line communication can be, and as impactful on people's lives, ultimately we bond into community by being around each other and sharing each other's lives and struggles face to face. It is the overlapping, ongoing circles of friends that have kept this small, vulnerable, precious experiment going through crisis after crisis, and have generated the on-line communities that continue to feed back into the life of the future of the Shimer community.

Small group discussion, contention for one's ideas and insights face to face in living dynamic interaction, challenging each other in the depths of the text, not simply in some superficial familiarity with the main themes - all of this has been the essence of the Shimer experience, the heart of the method, the core of the identity. Until we have holo-decks, we can only do this by actually gathering together in this common struggle with the meaning, the thought process and intent both of the writers and of each other.

The question should be understood in a broader way to take into account all that actually promotes what is most important. We have labeled ourselves "a community of scholars". Without the dynamic interplay of ideas and analysis, as conducted within a social setting and exercised in debate and discussion, there is no such community. Without reliance on original sources, how do we go about developing independent judgment?

I think that it would only be helpful to consider which elements could be dropped, if there were some indication of what could replace them. In the absence of suggested alternatives, what can it mean to imagine Shimer without these things? What would actually serve the same ideals, aims, and values?

Many things have changed as Shimer has striven to survive and preserve its essential character. We moved from Mt Carroll, to a collection of buildings in Waukegan, then on to a few rooms in IIT. We developed a system of self governance that helped us revive, survive, and defend ourselves from takeover, then we allowed that governance to be partially set aside and redefined once survival and stability were more assured. We have continually revised and updated what we mean by "Great Books" to include seminally significant later works, and are exploring whether we should broaden our scope to looking at other cultures than Western European / American.
Shimer is about a broad understanding of our culture as a whole, across all the major areas of intellectual endeavor. It is about using an approach that involves us in an intimate interaction with those who have shaped that culture, by starting with their own works and words. It is about sharing that exploration and testing our understanding in confrontation and cooperation with each other in community. These things define Shimer and are not dispensable without Shimer ceasing to exist.