A recurrent problem in understanding the early history of Shimer College is identifying the things that were actually unusual about it at the time. Many of the things that have often been held up as unusual – e.g. its coeducational character – or that strike the modern ear as peculiar – e.g. a "non-denominational seminary" – turn out on closer inspection to have been fairly unremarkable in their time and place. And because the seminary movement has suffered from a remarkable lack of scholarly attention – the most recent thorough studies are now approaching their hundredth birthday – it requires a lot of original research to even provisionally identify the attributes that distinguished the Mount Carroll Seminary from the hundreds of similar institutions that once dotted the Old Northwest.
Fortunately, a document that has recently come to light sheds some fresh light on this question. An examiners' report from 1859 – prepared, as was the practice at the time, by the committee of local notables who had overseen the quarterly public examination – attempted to spell out the differences between the Seminary and other schools of its type, as they were perceived by the committee:
There are some marked peculiarities as to the mode of instruction adopted at this Institution, as shown by this examination, about which the undersigned desire to say a few words. The committee call them peculiarities, because in all the schools which the committee now have, or ever had any knowledge, they form the exception, and not the rule. The pupils are here taught self-reliance, in the broadest sense of the term. The teacher suggests a topic, and the pupil rises to his feet and enters upon a full discussion of that topic in all its bearings. He defines it, he explains it, he shows its advantages or disadvantages, and, if susceptible of proof, he proves it to a mathematical certainty. There is more in this mode of instruction than one, at first, might suppose. It relieves the teacher of a vast amount of hard mental and physical labor. It teaches the pupil the art of expressing his ideas in the clearest manner, and in the best of language. It teaches him to reason, to compare; in short, to think. It makes him ready in conversation and in debate — two important acquisitions for an American youth. Another of these peculiarities is thoroughness. Superficiality has not the ghost of a chance here. The pupils all know the why and wherefore of every proposition introduced to them, before they are allowed to go beyond it.
To be sure, the pedagogy of this period in Shimer history, dominated by the object-lesson methods of Page and the intellectual arithmetic of Stoddard (to say nothing of the rigid regulation of student life), would probably not sit very well with any present-day Shimerian. But this report from 1859 allows us to see that even in its first decade, Shimer sought to be a school that taught its students "not what, but how to think" – at a time when this was far from commonplace, especially among institutions of Shimer's type.
The examining committee concluded its report with these words:
The citizens of Northwestern Illinois ought to be proud that such an Institution exists in their midst. A majority of the best public school teachers this county received their instruction at this Seminary, so that its influence extends to hundreds who were never within its walls, and will be felt, if not acknowledged, for years after it may have ceased to exist – an event which the undersigned sincerely hope may long be delayed.