Saturday, July 27, 2013

What is most important about Shimer College?

This is the first in a series of posts in response to this request

Update: In retrospect, I cheated a bit here; I don't think coherence really belongs in the list, which I would boil down to this: the most important thing about Shimer is that its education is radical, rigorous and unique.  (That may technically be three things, but like the legs of a tripod, none of them is good for much if either of the others is removed.)

David Shiner asked:
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?

It's not clear whether these were intended as separate questions or a single one, but for the purposes of this blog, I'll treat them as separate. Let's tackle the first one: "What is most important about Shimer?"

My answer is this: The most important thing about Shimer College is that it provides a radical, rigorous, coherent alternative in undergraduate education. (This is more or less what I like to call the "intellectual boot camp" aspect of Shimer.)

Before detailing exactly what I mean by that and why I think it's the truly essential element of Shimer, I should probably explain why I'm leaving out all those other important Shimer things.
  • The Great Books are pretty great, but they could be replaced with other types of original sources -- and in my opinion this should be seriously considered for parts of the Nat Sci and Soc curricula -- without damaging the overall integrity of the Shimer education.  
  • The Shimer community is also pretty great, but ultimately it is a means to an end. As a practical matter, it is difficult to see how Shimer could survive without its dedicated and close-knit community, but if it were able to do so (perhaps due to a massive influx of funding), it could still make a valuable, unique and Shimerian contribution to the world.
  • Even the Shimer model of instruction through facilitated small-group discussion involving meticulous analysis of original sources is not, in my opinion, essential to Shimer. Shimer could continue to provide unique value to the world even if it were abandon any or all of these things ... assuming it could find an equally radical and rigorous alternative to replace them. (For example, although no online learning system has yet been put forward that is competitive with facilitated classroom discussion, it is certainly possible such a system could be devised, and that Shimer could benefit from adopting it.)
  • I can similarly imagine a version of Shimer that remains profoundly Shimerian but ceases to involve any meaningful amount of self-governance.  I don't want such an outcome, and am skeptical that it would actually be a wise move, but such an institution could still be viable, valuable and Shimerian, just as Shimer was before the 1970s.  Communal governance, like the community itself, is ultimately a means to an end.
  • Other important aspects of Shimer, such as the Oxford study abroad and early entrance programs, support the underlying Shimer value proposition in key ways.  If removed, they would need to be replaced by something else.  But Shimer could still be Shimer, and worth fighting for, in their absence.

(To be clear, as a practical matter, I think that all of the things I've listed above are very important, and perhaps even indispensable in the near term.  But I can imagine Shimer being Shimer without them.)

With that out of the way, let's get back to what I think is essential: that Shimer provides a radical, rigorous alternative in undergraduate education.  I believe that this sums up not only what Shimer should be (in order for it to be worth fighting for), but also what it must be as a matter of survival, since if Shimer ever ceases to be worth fighting for, it won't be around for very long after that.

Starting from  the head of the phrase:

  • Shimer must provide an alternative, and probably a unique one, because otherwise there will be no reason for anyone to go there -- or even to care if it ceases to exist.
  • The alternative Shimer provides must be a radical one, for much the same reason. Minor tweaks to conventional higher education are not enough to sustain such an improbable institution as Shimer.  Nor, for that matter, are minor tweaks to un-conventional higher ed.  Shimer has tried presenting itself as St.-John's-by-the-Lake, and it hasn't worked very well.  (Harry Truman's quip about "Republicans in Democratic clothing" comes to mind here.)
  • The alternative Shimer provides must be rigorous -- and radically so -- because Shimer's students will always have to succeed on their own merits.  A Shimer degree will never provide the sort of brand value or network capital that comes with a name-brand degree.  Ideally, a Shimer education should be so intense that the rest of life seems easy by comparison.  I am not convinced, however, that Shimer currently rises to this challenge as well as it can and should.
  • The alternative Shimer provides must be coherent -- "integrated", as we say -- because it is only in this way that Shimer can leverage its small size. Integration is actually something that small schools can do better than large ones, since there is no room for specialties to hive themselves off from one another.  Shimer's current four-stroke curriculum is one way of approaching the challenge of coherence; others that spring to mind include College of the Atlantic's focus on human ecology, or Marlboro's Plan of Concentration.
  • This alternative is necessarily within the field of undergraduate education; it must therefore remain a meaningful alternative in relation to what other colleges are offering right now, and not just in the past.  For example, if mainstream higher education actually does get rid of the lecture -- I won't hold my breath on that one, for various cynical reasons -- and replaces it with something more hands-on and dialogical, this would significantly reduce Shimer's relative value. The more similar other undergraduate schools are to Shimer, the less reason Shimer has to exist -- and by the same token, the less value it can offer to counterbalance all the obvious reasons not to attend such a peculiar school.

Getting back to my hobbyhorse of Shimer history ... Shimer has perhaps not quite fit the above description for all 160 years of its history -- in particular, radicalism and rigor both slipped considerably in the late Academy period -- but I believe that this more or less describes the niche that Frances Shimer carved out for the school in 1895, and which we have been more or less stuck in ever since. Mrs. Shimer understood that such a small and under-resourced school could not survive unless it had something unique and rigorous to offer.  For better or worse, I believe this remains the case.


Those, at any rate, are my thoughts on the first of David Shiner's questions.  Please direct your own thoughts on the matter to by Wednesday-- and please also consider contributing them to this blog, either as a post or a comment.  New authors are always welcome here.

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