Eric Nicholson responds to the questions posed:
The Future of Shimer's Best
"So, what do you think? 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?"
What do I think? No. How do I think? How do I conceptualize the manifold sensation of what we intuit as Shimer as an act of will worthy of reasonably willing all rational beings to will?
Shimer is us. Saints preserve us, they write great books and intercede for us with almighty questions to keep us thinking. Who are we? We read, and while we read the distinctions we discover take hold of manifold memories and sensations and gather them together in more or less coherent clusters of idea. We gather together at more or less regular intervals to share the ideas with which we've gathered what we've read and through our interactive dialog reopen those ideas, exchange and rearrange the memories and sensations gathered in them. In our interaction we begin to sense the form and function of our ideas and remember they reappear in highly varied contexts with quite diverse contents of memory and sensation. We begin to read our memories and sensations in concert with the books of saints and the conversation of our peers and to write our reasoned wills in our interaction with the world of sense and memory around us.
How does any of this distinguish Shimer from any other gathering of literate scholars? The idea of Shimer as a specific location, however nomadic, contains a notion, through time, of who we are. Those specific times and places in which we gather to carry on the conversation in Shimer's name provide occasion for our preservation, but we distinguish ourselves by how we occupy those occasions. The books we read and their authors are read by others in other places at other times. The canons, too, by which we gather them for beatification according to their greatness are shared in common with others, as are forms and functions of ideas developed through our reading in which we comprehend manifold memories and sensations that we also share with others. I think what distinguishes us is how we question everything and everybody.
We question everything as a whole and each thing's part in that whole through the curricular arrangement of the times of our readings of great books and our meetings to discuss them. We recognize in our experience questions concerned with the natural world that contains and constrains us, others that relate to the ways we contain and constrain one and other in our social institutions, and still more with respect to the contents of and constraints on the productions of our imaginations. We question also the forms and functions of the questions we ask.
We question everybody in ourselves, in each other, in the saints whose relics we read as great books, in God who created this world and gods holding sway in it, and we regard our questions as the same as those confronting all of our fellow denizens of this planet. But here's the thing.
Shimer's curriculum is a distillation of the fundamental core of explicitly Western Civilization. This combination of ideas and methods was concocted over the course of the first half of the Twentieth Century by great minds gathered at the University of Chicago for the purpose of training the best minds drawn from the American public to assume roles of leadership as citizens in business, government, the professions and academia. Given the time and place of its creation, it is not surprising that that curriculum would show signs of use as an instrument of oppression of the underprivileged, minorities and other peoples with exploitable resources.
There is in the American offshoot of the British branch of the Western Tradition a continuing critique of the ruling of elites that showed up in William Rainey Harper's attempts to put the power of a college education within the reach of ordinary citizens. The affiliation of the University of Chicago with Frances Shimer's Academy in the middle of the last century was a product of this impulse. F.A.W. Shimer, of course, was all about putting the power of the intellectually elite into hands of an underprivileged class: women. Mrs. Shimer's endeavor was also forged as a community based on intimate personal relationships tightly woven into what she clearly considered her family. The marriage of Shimer's community with Hutchins' curriculum, freed from the centrifugal forces of divisions of advanced disciplines by Mount Carroll's rural isolation created a unique combination of intellectual rigor and intense interpersonal attachment.
I have more to say about the urgent need for this particular institution to reach out beyond the elite tradition of modern globalization and read together with these, the works of saints of other traditions together with members of all underprivileged races, genders, classes and nationalities in order to gather ever more manifold memories and sensations into distinctions with which to truly question everything and everybody, but I have no more time.