Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Where does Shimer need to innovate and improve?

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

David Shiner asked:

Where do we need to improve, and how might we go about doing that? Where should we innovate, and why? 

Shimer's core product -- the Shimer education -- is in my opinion extremely sound, and does not need to be substantially reworked. The more radical improvements and innovations are needed at the margins and in the support structure. 

In terms of improvement, I think that above all, Shimer needs to do a better job of making the case for itself.  I don't mean this in a marketing sense  (though we can take it as given that Shimer will always need better marketing), but in the sense of being able to explain and justify to a skeptical observer exactly what Shimer does and why. 

This is particularly the case when it comes to assessment of Shimer's learning outcomes.  In particular -- although this is only one aspect of the problem -- it is frankly unconscionable that the last (and really only) independent review of Shimer's academic performance is a Harvard Educational Review article now 50 years old.  The GRE data and Ph.D. completion rates that provided some ongoing objective validation of Shimer's academic quality are now both substantially degraded: the GREs by the fact that they are no longer mandatory for all graduates, the Ph.D. rates by the devaluation of the Ph.D. in many fields. 

If the old metrics are out the window, Shimer needs to replace them with something else.  There are any number of well-validated quantitative tests that might be used for tracking academic progress; in my opinion, Shimer needs to pick one and use it. (This seems like the sort of thing there should be grant money for, especially if Shimer can team up with a friendly psychometrician.)  And if the results turn out to be not what we expect, we'll know that it is in fact time to take a truly unsparing look at the Shimer curriculum and pedagogy.

It is precisely because I have no doubt in the quality of Shimer's academics that it pains me that I have so little with which to make the case for Shimer -- really nothing but my own subjective impression and a handful of anecdotes.  I will continue using those wherever I can, but in the end, nobody but Shimerians will ever care what Shimerians think about the quality of their education. On the other hand, if we can show that Shimer is still achieving world-beating levels of student academic progress, the world will take notice. 

Where Shimer most needs to innovate, I think, is in dealing with the creeping rot in its foundation: the community and governance structure.  There do not seem to be any easy solutions for either one.

Where community is concerned, the sample of "tiny liberal arts colleges in very large cities" is essentially 1, so there also aren't a lot of useful lessons to be drawn from other schools' experiences.  The "Shimer Street" and similar proposals that are floated from time to time are, I think, worth a closer look: where and how can Shimer make a concrete mark on the city it now calls home?  Can we do so in a way that does justice to the uniqueness of Shimer itself? 

Where governance is concerned, there may be lessons to be drawn from other self-governing schools, and from other experiments in participatory democracy (such as participatory budgeting). Here too, with the growing hunger for meaningful alternatives in academic governance, there is a chance for Shimer's unique approach to catch the world's eye.  But that will only be possible if we can make a stronger and more unambiguous case for it than we currently do.

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