Friday, July 26, 2013

Finding new Shimerians

I would imagine this tweet is pretty close to the ideal response to Shimer College recruiting materials:

That's a momentary response from a sample size of one, to be sure. But as a longtime watcher of Shimer-mentions across Twitter and the web, I can say that even one such response is quite rare.

I was reminded of this tweet by Alfred Lord Tenniscourt's objections to "Dangerously Optimistic" in the comments to this post, which -- to paraphrase -- accused that slogan of fighting the last war by presenting a Shimer identity that would have appealed to the intellectual misfits of previous generations rather than the present one.  This objection is well-taken, but it raises the question: how do we present Shimer in a way that will actually connect with the Shimerian splinter of the millennial generation?

Potential Shimerians are out there, waiting for their signal, in numbers far greater than Shimer could accommodate.  I would venture that every high school in the country has at least a few.  But reaching them in sufficient numbers has proven over the years to be an almost insuperable challenge, rendered even more challenging by the constant changes in the recruiting landscape. Shimer has had to adopt ever-more-sophisticated techniques and software just to keep pace, without really addressing the basic problem that there has never been much overlap (in either direction) between potential Shimerians and the kids dutifully standing on the college-prep conveyor belt.

Yet there is one common thread that unites many who are drawn to reading as an escape from the socioeconomic conformity and intellectual pablum to which they are subjected (even more in this generation than the past) in high school classrooms and university lecture-halls: the literature of speculation and escape, aka science fiction and fantasy.
The ever-helpful Adrian Nelson of Shimer admissions was kind enough to provide me with the email referenced above. It was composed by current student James Eastling and sent out to prospectives under the title "Is Gene Roddenberry a Shimerian?":
Gene Roddenberry, the brains behind Star Trek, Andromeda, and a few lesser known television shows, would be an honorary member of our community. From the Original Series back in 1968 with the first televised inter-racial kiss to The Next Generation which featured a blind man at the helm of Starfleet's flagship, the U.S.S. Enterprise-D, Roddenberry pushed the envelope of the social and cultural status quo. He dared to dream of a universe where problems were handled with words rather than violence. He created a government structure, the United Federation of Planets, which brought people of different species together for the sake of interstellar cooperation and exploration. He dreamed of humanity being fixated on exploration & discover y rather than intrigue and war.
Though people chuckle at Star Trek for its cheesy effects, Shatner's over-the-top acting, and iconic redshirt trope, Star Trek encouraged real-world change. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in The Original Series, almost quit the role until Dr. King told her just how important it was the African American community to see an African American woman on the bridge as an officer on television. John Cho, who played Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu in the J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise, recently articulated just how important it was for him when he was a young child to see an Asian man on television (referring to George Takei in the same role on The Original Series).
At Shimer College, students read ancient books discussing ideas like justice, liberty, and equality. Rather than being told what these ideas are, students are encouraged to imagine what these ideas mean for the world today and for the future. Students examine and challenge the current interpretations of concepts brought up and debated throughout history. Roddenberry would have fit right in as a Shimerian, constantly pushing peers to think outside the accepted beliefs about the world, and that is why he would be an honorary member of our community....
N. James Eastling, class of 2014
Shimer - The Great Books School of Chicago 
    Shimer College 
    3424 S. State St.
    Chicago, IL 60616
            Tel: (312) 235-3555
Credit for header image: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScl/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

In my opinion, that's pretty awesome. 

One could, I'm sure, take all kinds of issue with the above email (as with any other single way of presenting Shimer). It is certainly not the be-all and end-all of recruiting materials.  But it seems to me that it is fundamentally on the right track: both in terms of being written by a student (which is quite important if we are to avoid the generation-blindness that Lord Tenniscourt warns of), and in terms of finding a way of talking about Shimer that will actually reach potential Shimerians.  

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