Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What should be preserved about Shimer College?

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

David Shiner asked:
What do you think we should preserve – that is what are the key elements of what you value about Shimer?
I suppose the best answer to the question of what should be preserved is: as much as possible, starting of course with Shimer itself.

However, that isn't very helpful.  So to a second approximation, I would answer this as follows: The most important thing to preserve about Shimer is its status as a participatory and self-directed community of learners.

This answer is based on my answer to the first question: that what is most important about Shimer is that it is radical, rigorous, and unique. The things that are most important to preserve, therefore, are the things that keep Shimer radical, rigorous, and unique (and existing). 

The foremost of these things, I believe, is the participatory ethos, as manifested at Shimer both in learning and in governance. Without this, there is little to prevent bureaucratic drift; likewise, the lessons of the classroom become hollow.  Radicalism, rigor and uniqueness all depend in large part on the continued engagement of the student body in the school's affairs.

The other key thing is the community itself.  In another forum, alum Jonathan Goldman noted the importance of trust, particularly students' trust in faculty and one another, in enabling the kind of radical inquiry that is essential to the Shimer experience.  The close-knit community isn't just a happy byproduct of Shimer's size and history: it is integral to all aspects of the value that the college provides.  The combination of radical rigor and a "home-like" environment is another aspect of the niche that Mrs. Shimer carved out for this most peculiar of schools;  it has been central to Shimer's value proposition from the very earliest years, and remains so today.

As I wrote before, I think the community is ultimately a means to an end.  In practice, however, it is an indispensable means to that end.  Without a community that is both close-knit and self-directed, the iron laws of institutional gravity would soon have Shimer locked in its "proper" place -- shuttered altogether, or at best cranking out obedient drones alongside all the other interchangeable institutions in American higher education.
Unfortunately, the condition of Shimer's foundation appears, at least from the outside, to be deteriorating.  The lack of a real community outside of the classroom (a foreseeable consequence of the Chicago move) is a frequent complaint from current students. The Office of Student Life has made a dent in this problem, but evidently not a big enough one.   Students understandably flee the IIT dorms as soon as they are able, but their daily lives are then dispersed across the city.  No solution appears to be in view.

The recent shift in the Assembly's role from what was already an extremely abstracted one to an even more abstracted one is also concerning -- although at least it has occurred, thus far, by democratic means. The old structure of Budget and Administrative committees may have outlived its usefulness, but a more meaningful replacement seems to be needed; the sense of ownership in the affairs of the college is slipping.  Student input on "strategic planning" is a very good thing, but is no substitute for participatory governance.

It is conceivable that Shimer could survive (in a Shimer-worthy fashion) without the foundation provided by its close-knit, participatory community.   But doing so would require changes more radical than any the school's tumultuous 16 decades have seen. 

1 comment :

Unknown said...

Consider the experience of Deep Springs college. there is a necessity for a small academic community to reinforce itself. That institution has a very closed world.

My year and a half from 74-75 taught me many more things that did not take root for some time after I was kicked free. there was always a strong sense from my view that the academics were about learning information, but moreso about how to discover information. Whether it was a retread of old books or the ability to discern new stuff, it was about thinking to a new view, a new understanding and how to collaborate in small groups to figure it out.

In those days the campus was isolated, Televisions were not to be had and we students had opportunities to slip away for a day or weekend, but we worked with each other. Today the urban environment allows folks to walk away and see people with no connection to Shimer. There are many distractions from the internet to family and, I am guessing, real world jobs. all of these things limit the come-together of the old Shimer and hence a huge part of the Shimer experience as I saw it.

David and Danny (tell David Hello) were a very significant part of what stabilized my experience but my issues were mine and are manifest as a generational genetic anomaly. I wish I could have pulled myself together better, but I will say I learned more about learning there than at three other Universities I attended. I have credits out the wazoo, but i treasure the ability to think and compose as I learned at Shimer far more.

Dunno if it helps, but feel free to contact me and I can answer questions.