Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Eric Nicholson on "The Future of Shimer's Best"

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.

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.

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. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Comments from IIT students about Shimer College

Just came across this (PDF) in a bit of casual Googling; seems like something the readers of this blog might enjoy:

 The experience I had at Shimer College was awesome. Being able to be in a small classroom of only 7 students and to be encouraged to discuss differing opinions and views was great. While the professor did prod the conversations and sometimes had to ensure that everybody got a chance to speak the class was largely student run. The opportunity to openly discuss current issues and to learn about how an organization might deal with them was very interesting and insightful for a student of Biomedical Engineering.

While IIT has a diverse student population, meeting and working with students from Shimer College also opened me up to new experiences. While engineering students are often taught how to master logic and the working out perfect solutions; Shimer students are taught to take any idea, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, and run with it to see where it might take them.

I am very happy to have received my degree from IIT, however, the opportunity to work with Shimer College faculty and learn in their classroom environment made my education more valuable because learning will never stop and if you only have one way to learn then you will be severely limiting your growth in the future.

 I took a film class at Shimer, which I would highly recommend. There were never any lectures like in most IIT courses-- all discussions were student-led. The small class size led to very thoughtful discussions. Also, I got to meet a new group of students I would otherwise have never met, and have remained friends with some of them.
Shimerians are completely different from most IIT students, and I wanted to meet them. I also wanted to experience a rigorous and discussion-based approach to literature. I understood before taking the class that there would be a lot of reading, a lot of writing papers, but most of all a lot of talking in class, and I wanted to expand my worldview in this way. When I took this class, I realized that the Shimer floor was very home-y and that students not only took classes there, they could recognize by sight and name everyone in the building, which was a completely foreign experience to me, and very pleasant.

The Shimerian approach to discourse is sometimes abrasive and very often goes off on diversions that I would never have thought of. I developed my skills of argument to a much higher level than I ever would have without that class. I also read some interesting works by ancient writers that I had never heard of before. During the paper revision process, I learned the Shimerian way of improving a paper- i.e. to completely demolish it and then build it back up again with a much better understanding of what it should be.

Shimerians are aggressively literate and they in general enjoy examining concepts from all sides, playing devil's advocate, and making elaborate logic structures in order to make points. I believe that taking a Shimer class can help IIT students to open their minds to the concept that the war of words is challenging, and not just what people who can't do engineering have to resort to.

(Also relevant.)

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.

Shimer seeks your input on the future of the college

Input from alumni on the future directions of the college is sought by the end of this month (July 31, 2013). 

Quoting the original letter from David Shiner in full, since I don't think anyone will mind:

This is the second article I’ve written for alumni on the issue of planning for Shimer’s future.  Since some of those reading this article might have missed the first one, I’m going to briefly repeat some of the points I made earlier.  Then, in true Shimerian fashion, I’m going to propose a topic for discussion and to ask you to contribute to it.

Every so often, we at Shimer take a deep breath and plot our course for the future.  This is one of those times.  Shimer’s 10-year strategic plan is about to expire, and we need to prepare for Shimer’s future.  As part of that preparation, the Assembly has approved and elected a new committee, the Institutional Goals and Assessment Committee (IGAC), which I am chairing.  That committee will contribute to the work of the Strategic Planning Committee, a broad-based group that will be appointed by Board of Trustees Chairperson Sally Brown later this summer.  Both committees will work on a new Vision Statement – that is, a statement declaring Shimer’s aspirations for the foreseeable future – and will propose goals for the College to achieve during that period.

It’s important that alumni be included in this process.  The Board consists primarily of alumni, which allows for a certain degree of representation.  However, we don’t think that’s enough.  So we’re inviting all Shimer alumni to offer their views on the direction of the College over the next few years. 

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?

Think on these things.  Once you’ve clarified your thoughts, send me your reply at  I need to hear from by the end of this month (July 31, 2013). Your missive can be as short or as long as you wish, but whatever you do, be sure to send something.  It really matters.
 For those who might like to post their thoughts in a more public forum as well, this blog is at your service.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Letter from President Henking: alumni gifts up 40%

Susan Henking's latest missive to the external community is worth reading in full, but of particular note is the announcement that Shimer's alumni giving rate is up from 10% to 14%.  Given the unique characteristics of the Shimer alumni community -- particularly its many fractious subsets and Shimer's high historic rate of attrition -- that's quite an achievement.  (And you can be a part of it by donating to Shimer now.)

Among additional highlights, the good Dr. Henking's letter includes an overview of recent personnel changes, which will be of interest to all followers of les affaires Shimeriennes:

[W]e've reconfigured four positions and created two new ones.

  • Janet Henthorn's position has been expanded to include additional admissions support.
  • Marc Hoffman's position has become more focused and is now renamed Director of External Relations & Chief Information Officer.
  • Isabella Winkler has moved into the President's Office; her position has changed to Director of Strategic Communications & Special Assistant to the President.
  • Joseph Fitzpatrick has taken on some urgent organizational and managerial tasks and is now Chief Operations Officer as well as Dean of Students.
We've also added an Executive Assistant to the President to handle my travel and calendar as well as to support Development, and will be hiring a full-time staff member responsible for payroll, AP, and parts of HR.


Finding new Shimerians

I would imagine this tweet is pretty close to the ideal response to Shimer College recruiting materials:

That's a momentary response from a sample size of one, to be sure. But as a longtime watcher of Shimer-mentions across Twitter and the web, I can say that even one such response is quite rare.

I was reminded of this tweet by Alfred Lord Tenniscourt's objections to "Dangerously Optimistic" in the comments to this post, which -- to paraphrase -- accused that slogan of fighting the last war by presenting a Shimer identity that would have appealed to the intellectual misfits of previous generations rather than the present one.  This objection is well-taken, but it raises the question: how do we present Shimer in a way that will actually connect with the Shimerian splinter of the millennial generation?

Potential Shimerians are out there, waiting for their signal, in numbers far greater than Shimer could accommodate.  I would venture that every high school in the country has at least a few.  But reaching them in sufficient numbers has proven over the years to be an almost insuperable challenge, rendered even more challenging by the constant changes in the recruiting landscape. Shimer has had to adopt ever-more-sophisticated techniques and software just to keep pace, without really addressing the basic problem that there has never been much overlap (in either direction) between potential Shimerians and the kids dutifully standing on the college-prep conveyor belt.

Yet there is one common thread that unites many who are drawn to reading as an escape from the socioeconomic conformity and intellectual pablum to which they are subjected (even more in this generation than the past) in high school classrooms and university lecture-halls: the literature of speculation and escape, aka science fiction and fantasy.
The ever-helpful Adrian Nelson of Shimer admissions was kind enough to provide me with the email referenced above. It was composed by current student James Eastling and sent out to prospectives under the title "Is Gene Roddenberry a Shimerian?":
Gene Roddenberry, the brains behind Star Trek, Andromeda, and a few lesser known television shows, would be an honorary member of our community. From the Original Series back in 1968 with the first televised inter-racial kiss to The Next Generation which featured a blind man at the helm of Starfleet's flagship, the U.S.S. Enterprise-D, Roddenberry pushed the envelope of the social and cultural status quo. He dared to dream of a universe where problems were handled with words rather than violence. He created a government structure, the United Federation of Planets, which brought people of different species together for the sake of interstellar cooperation and exploration. He dreamed of humanity being fixated on exploration & discover y rather than intrigue and war.
Though people chuckle at Star Trek for its cheesy effects, Shatner's over-the-top acting, and iconic redshirt trope, Star Trek encouraged real-world change. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in The Original Series, almost quit the role until Dr. King told her just how important it was the African American community to see an African American woman on the bridge as an officer on television. John Cho, who played Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu in the J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise, recently articulated just how important it was for him when he was a young child to see an Asian man on television (referring to George Takei in the same role on The Original Series).
At Shimer College, students read ancient books discussing ideas like justice, liberty, and equality. Rather than being told what these ideas are, students are encouraged to imagine what these ideas mean for the world today and for the future. Students examine and challenge the current interpretations of concepts brought up and debated throughout history. Roddenberry would have fit right in as a Shimerian, constantly pushing peers to think outside the accepted beliefs about the world, and that is why he would be an honorary member of our community....
N. James Eastling, class of 2014
Shimer - The Great Books School of Chicago 
    Shimer College 
    3424 S. State St.
    Chicago, IL 60616
            Tel: (312) 235-3555
Credit for header image: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScl/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

In my opinion, that's pretty awesome. 

One could, I'm sure, take all kinds of issue with the above email (as with any other single way of presenting Shimer). It is certainly not the be-all and end-all of recruiting materials.  But it seems to me that it is fundamentally on the right track: both in terms of being written by a student (which is quite important if we are to avoid the generation-blindness that Lord Tenniscourt warns of), and in terms of finding a way of talking about Shimer that will actually reach potential Shimerians.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The forgotten crisis of 1927

In a recent post, I dropped the year "1927" into the familiar list of crisis years in Shimer College history.  I was, I'll confess, hoping that somebody would ask "what happened at Shimer in 1927?"  Nobody did, but I'm not going to let that stop me from answering the question anyway.

The December 1926 issue of the Frances Shimer Record, recently uploaded to (and embedded below), opens with an urgent communiqué from Shimer's second president:
With the opening of the New Year, Frances Shimer School faces a crisis and, for the first time in its history of over seventy-three years, the School is making a financial appeal to its constituency for endowment and buildings. The need in which the institution finds itself is due to no fault on the part of the administrative officers.  The School was never so well equipped as it is today, nor the attendance larger.  Moreover, the institution has no debts and its income has for years been in excess of its expenditures.

Since 1909 the School has continuously and in all particulars met the exacting standards of the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.  Now, however, this same organization has voted that beginning with the year 1927, all Junior Colleges in order to remain on its accredited list must have an annual income of not less than $10,000 from stable sources over and above the income from student fees.
(For context, one calculator indicates that this is equivalent to $132,000 in today's dollars in terms of purchasing power, or $1.64 million in terms of economic power.)

I believe this is the first crisis (and far from the last) that was directly precipitated by Shimer's accreditor, the North Central Association.  I cannot recall ever having heard of this particular crisis, and it seems to have been weathered easily enough.  In the great historical sweep of Shimer crises, perhaps, it hardly rates a mention. But it certainly set a pattern, which has continued to the present day, of the NCA imposing arbitrary thresholds unrelated to educational quality.

Then as now, the NCA calls the tune and Shimer must dance. And then as now, the changes forced by the accreditor are not necessarily bad: Shimer weathered the Great Depression surprisingly well, and some of that may be thanks to the expansion of its funding base that the NCA required.  The same may be true of other NCA-forced changes over the years. (Without the accreditors' carping, for example, Shimer might never have had President Albin Bro, Ph.D., and thus never have become the Great Books school of today.)

At the same time, it's hard to overlook the utter moral bankruptcy of the system.  In making dictates of this sort, which have become rather commonplace since 1926, the NCA is not merely laying out best practices in higher education administration.  It is not merely suggesting (as a reasonable person might) that students should consider carefully before attending a school that might abruptly cease to operate. It is saying that academic qualifications from an institution with less than a given level of financial support should not be recognized.  Students from nonconforming schools will be mercilessly shut out, no matter how sound their academic work.  And at Shimer, we know that this is not an empty threat.

In the American accreditation system, its seems, regulatory capture converges in a particularly ugly way with the use of higher education as a mechanism of socioeconomic sorting.  The crisis of 1927 gave Shimer its first glimpse of this fact, but regrettably far from its last.

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Shimer College: ________ ________ ______ ______"

Isabella recently posted a very interesting suggestion on the Shimer redesign blog:
We took this discussion about "Dangerously Optimistic" back to the drawing board and thought, Why not rotate the "Dangerously" every once in a while with other adverbs? Someone floated "Daringly." Modifiers could also reflect featured Shimer, seasonal, or cultural events.

I doubt if that suggestion will mollify the opponents of the "Dangerously Optimistic" slogan, but I think it's a great idea on its own merits. A "Mad Libs" school motto seems like a perfectly Shimerian answer to the whole problem.  Pick one adverb, adjective, and prepositional phrase for one month; then go with another set for the next month (or some other unit of time), and just keep switching things around, at least until some generally acceptable equilibrium is reached.  "Shimer College: Hilariously Obscure Since 1853." You couldn't do with this with printed materials, but the Internet is another story.

I like this approach in part because it spotlights the ludic aspect of Shimer, playing with the idea of a school slogan in much the same spirit as Shimer's classroom names play with that other convention of paint-by-numbers higher education.  But drawing on some of my own post-Shimer experiences, I think there's a more fundamental reason to like it.

Like most Shimerfolk of the Waukegan and Chicago years, Shimer was my first real experience with the pros and cons of a consensus-based community.  Drifting about after leaving Shimer, I was drawn to the open content movement, particularly the Open Directory Project (yes, that actually used to be a thing) and later Wikipedia and its sister projects, where I've logged about 50,000 edits in total so far, enough to get a very general sense of things.  The ODP and the Wikimedia projects are all more or less consensus-based dialogical communities.

Looking back at my experiences with those communities, and at Shimer, one lesson that comes through clearly is that consensus-based communities tend to handle zero-sum conflicts very poorly.  In good-faith conflicts over article content at Wikipedia, for example, the solution is often to improve the article in such a way that the subject is represented in a more nuanced way that captures both of the conflicting perspectives.  But when there's a problem that admits only of winners and losers (such as a conflict over naming conventions), inevitably some significant part of the community will find themselves on the losing side. The community is thus faced with a situation where a decision must be made, but true consensus is impossible.  At best, this creates hard feelings. 

An imperfect analogy from recent Shimer experience is the mission statement fight of 2010 (which, of course, was symptomatic of a much more serious problem, but let's set that fact aside for a moment).  Whenever a new thing like a motto or mission statement is presented as a fait accompli, the details already decided, it forces a split: you can only be for the change or against it, a winner or a loser.

A tagline is of course a less serious matter than a mission statement.  But then again, it admits of even less possibility of compromise. Even if the Assembly were to designate an Ad Hoc Sloganeering Committee (gods preserve us), there's very little wordsmithing that could be done on a four-word tagline.  And it's highly unlikely that any single tagline could ever gain anything close to a consensus from Shimer's delightfully fractious community anyway.   (We could demonstrate this with a mongrel version of Euclid's theorem:  if a slogan has the support of a large number of Shimerians, then either it will be opposed by some other group on the merits, or it will have become so generalized and watered-down that it will be opposed on that basis alone.)

Yet in these challenging times, it is essential for Shimer to have an outward-facing identity that has the backing of the whole community (as far as such a thing is possible).  Why not, then, sidestep the zero-sum aspect of the problem entirely, and take this issue to a higher and more playful level?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Some resources for Shimer College curricular history

Following up on the earlier post on curricular history, I thought it would be useful to collect some of the online resources for understanding Shimer's own curricular development from the 1940s to today.  Many of these resources have only recently become available, and hopefully more will become available in the future, so I'll try to keep this list updated from time to time.  

New resources may also become available soon as part of Stuart Patterson's upcoming course on "Why & What Should We Read?", which will touch on Shimer curricular history in the context of larger historical trends and conversations.

I'm always looking for new materials to add to the archive, so if by any chance you have resources that you'd like to share, please do get in touch. I can be reached at

1947-1948 catalog, the first catalog to present the "Shimer Plan", a four-year curriculum foreshadowing the full Great Books curriculum of later years (those so inclined can follow the clickpath from here through all the Shimer catalogs of the Academy period, 1896-1950).
1951-1952 catalog , the first catalog published within the "Great Books period" as usually understood

1960s "The Shimer Plan" (from 1960 student handbook):
"Shimer and the Humanities" (Hirschfield, 1965)
"Shimer and the Social Sciences" (Keohane Sr., 1965)

Moon memo 
"Shimer Curriculum Under Review" (with perspectives by Moon, Beeson, and Sakurai)
November 1976 Symposium

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Dangerously optimistic?

Over on the redesign blog (previously), there's some controversy about the tagline used on the mockups of the new website: "Dangerously Optimistic Since 1853":

Dangerously optimistic since 1853

A lot of people don't like it, and I can understand why. It doesn't seem to say anything about Shimer's core product—whether you call that dialogal education, Great Books pedagogy or what have you. On top of that, it lends itself to unfavorable interpretations. Can Shimer really afford to emphasize its own precariousness in this way? Even the old and thoroughly-reviled tagline "the Great Books College of the Midwest" at least suggested stability

But even though I'm the sort of person who normally hates everything, this new tagline really appeals to me. I'll try to explain why (see also Adam O.'s eloquent comment).

As much as Shimer stands for the great books (and for smallness, intentional community, dialogical pedagogy, and various other good things), it stands also for a certain glorious bloody-mindedness without which the school's existence—beyond 1853, or 1855, or 1857, or 1895, or 1898, or 1906, or 1927, or 1949, or 1957, or 1973, or 1977, or 1979, or 1990, or 2010, inter alia—would be unthinkable.

There is a reason that Shimer's people have always kept going, in the face of challenges that would have  made any well-adjusted institution decide to meekly curl up and die. Putting that reason into words can be challenging, but it's there all the same.

"Dangerously Optimistic" wouldn't have occurred to me as a way of summarizing this, but I think it works quite well—and certainly better than obvious alternatives like "Telling the World To Go Fuck Itself Since 1853," which for one thing is a bit too long.
For a long time, there has been an understandable desire to  keep this crazier side of Shimer safely tucked in the attic—when that craziness isn't needed to repel the latest existential threat, of course.  But this has left me and many others with a strange sense of contradiction between the community that we identify with and the school's outward face (which is also the face presented to alumni). Some contradiction between the inward and outward faces of Shimer is inevitable, but there's been something strangely bloodless about the way that Shimer has presented itself for many years, as if Shimer were trying to pretend that it had become a scaled-down version of an otherwise normal college.

This isn't good for Shimer or its people, and least of all for students who come to Shimer expecting something completely different from what they find.

Does the "dangerously optimistic" tagline emphasize precariousness, even foolhardiness? OK, sure. But Shimer has tried over and over to try to pretend that it hasn't spent 1.6 centuries dancing (flawlessly) on the volcano's brim, only for this pretense to be given the lie when the music starts again. This is stupid and self-defeating. We need to find ways of more effectively integrating this underlying strength in the outward-facing version of Shimer.  We cannot afford to keep turning Shimer's strengths into weaknesses.

In the end, I trust that the choice in this matter rests with the people of Shimer College, as it should.

But for my part, I think this is a good tagline.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Shimer College is hiring

Spread the word:
Shimer College, an independent four-year Great Books college located minutes from downtown Chicago, is seeking an Executive Assistant to the President to perform a full range of multifaceted administrative duties. This position is responsible for complex responsibilities and special projects requiring a high level of discretion and initiative. The Executive Assistant interacts closely with a wide variety of internal and external Shimer College constituents on matters requiring the attention or notification of the President and/or other chief officers.


Ensures the smooth and professional operation of the President's office; makes decisions of an administrative nature and executing those decisions and functions to completion; informs the President (or designee) of potential problems concerning faculty, staff, students, and other constituents.
Anticipates the President's work-related needs to make sure she is best prepared for daily operations and decision-making.
Completes a variety of administrative tasks for the President including managing an extremely active calendar of appointments; completing expense reports; composing and preparing correspondence that is sometimes confidential; arranging complex and detailed travel plans, itineraries, and agendas; and compiling documents for travel-related meetings.
Plans, coordinates, and ensures the President's schedule is followed and respected.
Assists the Development Office in organizing and implementing Presidential functions.
Staffs the President for key functions and events.
Works closely and effectively with the President and senior team to keep them well informed of upcoming commitments and responsibilities, following up appropriately.
Prepares and distributes agendas and supplemental materials for Presidential meetings, and attends a variety of meetings, preparing minutes as directed by the President.
Assists in providing meeting and management services to the Board of Trustees through coordinating and organizing meetings, events and activities.
Prioritizes conflicting needs; handles matters expeditiously, proactively, and follows-through on projects to successful completion, often with deadline pressures.
Screens visitors, and telephone calls; retrieves, sorts and distributes mail. Provides accurate pertinent information regarding rules, regulations, and policies.
Follows up on contacts made by the President and supports the cultivation of ongoing relationships.
Monitors the office budget and orders supplies.
Handles special projects and other duties as assigned.

The Executive Assistant reports to the President of the College. In the absence of the President, daily supervision will be provided by the Director of Strategic Communications & Special Assistant to the President or another designee of the President.

The Executive Assistant will directly supervise 1 to 3 student employees assigned to the Office of the President. Responsibilities include interviewing, hiring, and training employees; planning, assigning, and directing work; appraising performance; rewarding and disciplining employees; addressing complaints and resolving problems.


Strong organizational skills to perform and prioritize multiple tasks seamlessly with excellent attention to detail.
Exceptional interpersonal skills and the ability to build relationships with stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, board members, external partners, and donors.
Expert written and verbal communication skills.
Demonstrated proactive approaches to problem-solving.
Highly resourceful team-player, with the ability to also be extremely effective independently.
Proven ability to handle confidential information with discretion, be adaptable to various competing demands, and demonstrate the highest level of customer/student service.
Demonstrated ability to achieve high performance goals and meet deadlines in a fast paced environment.
Forward-looking thinker who actively seeks opportunities and proposes solutions.
Strong Microsoft Office Suite skills and the ability to learn databases.

Bachelor's Degree required. Minimum of two years prior experience as an administrative assistant with demonstrated skills in maintaining the highest level of diplomacy, confidentiality, and trust. Higher Education experience highly desired. Equivalent combination of relevant education and experience may be substituted as appropriate.

Fast-paced, indoor environment frequently requiring multi-task functioning. May work around standard office conditions. Repetitive use of a keyboard at a workstation. Lifting and moving items may be required. Required lifting may be broken down into less heavy, manageable components. Movement to and from other departments on campus. Travel to President's residence may be required during normal work hours and occasionally on evenings or weekends for special functions.

Shimer College is an equal opportunity employer. We offer ambitious individuals a work environment based on collaboration, accountability, creativity, and diversity. Position begins at $30,000 and includes a competitive benefits package.

Please send a resume and cover letter to
Application Information
Contact: Human Resources
Shimer College
Email Address:

(via HigherEdJobs)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

New coming soon

As announced on the alumni website today, the new version of Shimer's website is nearing completion, and will be launching sometime fairly soon.  The redesign is being done by White Whale Web Services.

Here is one example page from the redesign (more here and here):
You can leave feedback as comments on the posts on the redesign blog, as many Shimerians have already done. 

(The redesign blog mysteriously lacks an RSS feed and fails to sort posts in chronological order, so you'll want to drill down from the main page, but as of today the most recent post is here.)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

When is a Great Books program not a Great Books program?

On her "Evocations" blog, President Susan Henking posted the following provocative quote from Donald Levine's foreword to The Idea and Practice of General Education:

Often hailed as the most momentous curricular experiment in the history of American higher education, the 'Hutchins College' has even more frequently been misrepresented. The phrase evokes a widely cherished founding myth: Robert Maynard Hutchins came to the University of Chicago as a young man in 1930; he brought along Mortimer Adler, who introduced him to the powers and pleasures of the Great Books; as a result, Hutchins established a liberal arts curriculum in the College organized around reading of Great Books. The story is colorful, inspirational perhaps, but quite untrue.
The facts of the matter are:
(1) Well before Hutchins was even considered as a candidate for the presidency of the University of Chicago, its faculty has developed all of the ideas for what became known as the New Plan, instituted under President Hutchins in 1931.
(2) The College faculty subsequently considered but firmly rejected his aspiration for a curriculum organized around the Great Books, after which the plan for a Great Books curriculum got transported to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.
(3) The curriculum consistently developed in the College in the Hutchins years followed an alternative principle, that of leading students to develop their powers by focused work in the major disciplines by means of which human knowledge had been constructed -- not a Great Books program, then, but one that included some Great Books along with other texts whose selection was geared to progressive mastery of some basic ideas and methods of the various arts and sciences.
(my emphasis)

Levine is unquestionably correct on the facts. However, coming from the Shimerian perspective, I have some problems with his interpretation of them.

One part of today's Shimer curriculum that stands out for its ties to the U of C curriculum of Hutchins' day is Social Sciences 1 (known then as Social Sciences 2), which despite numerous changes in form and content, is still recognizable as the course designed by eminent Chicago social scientists as a general "survey course" to introduce undergraduates to the field.  (Hilariously familiar concerns about undergraduates reading unwholesome texts like Durkheim's Suicide can be found all the way back in the earliest years of this course in the 1930s.)

If Soc 1 is not a Great Books course, then Shimer is not a Great Books college -- which is absurd.  We must therefore revisit the premise.

In so doing we can no longer escape a truth that Shimerians often avoid, whether deliberately or unconsciously:  "Great Books" means something quite different at Shimer than it does at most other schools that have adopted this label, from St. John's to Gutenberg to "Harrison-Middleton".  

If I were to try to pin this Shimerian difference down, I'd inevitably get into trouble: any N Shimerians have at least 2N+1 strongly-held and mutually contradictory opinions about the curriculum.  But suffice it to say that at least part of what sets Shimer apart is an enduring commitment to the Great Books approach as a pathway to "general education" -- which is to say, as something fundamentally radical, inclusive and progressive rather than exclusive and conservative. 

This is the ideal that informed the survey courses of the Hutchins era, of which Soc 1 is  a leading exemplar -- and which broadly underlay the curriculum that took shape in Hyde Park in the 1930s and 1940s, of which these courses were part.  This ideal requires a conversation informed by the classics of a given field, but not necessarily limited to them. In fact, including recent and contemporary scholarship will tend to strengthen the focus of such a course.

 From the perspective of a classic Great Books college like St. John's, Shimer's curriculum can appear as, at best, a compromise, with its numerous recent and contemporary texts (and extensive allowance for electives).  But seen properly on its own terms -- as even we Shimerians often fail to do -- I would argue that Shimer is in fact truer to the Hutchinsian Great Books tradition than any other school in the present day, St. John's included.  

This points to a broader theme, which I'll hope to tangle with some more in future posts: the more deeply we understand Shimer's own history, the more forcefully we can argue for (and the more effectively we can preserve) the integrity of the Shimerian vision.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Real reviews of Shimer College

If you happened across the Shimer College entry on a certain popular review site (which will remain nameless here but which has become infamous for its dubious and extortionary tactics), you might easily think that only two people in all the world had considered Shimer worth reviewing -- both of whom apparently had quite miserable experiences.

Your eye might easily miss the gray text at the bottom of the page announcing "28 Filtered Reviews" -- which is where this popular review site has seen fit to dump every single positive review of Shimer College, despite nearly all of these in-depth recommendations of Shimer having been written by demonstrably real human beings who really attended the school.

In the public interest, then, I here present all 28 of the reviews of Shimer that are currently filtered on the aforementioned site. (NB, the total number of reviewers is slightly less than 28, as each update to a review is counted as a separate review.)

If, gentle reader, your review is among these, I hope you will consider reposting it on Google+ Local and/or Yahoo Local, which lack that other site's incentive to rig the game against the reviewee.

Real reviews of Shimer College, in chronological order

bill m.
Flower Mound, TX
5.0 star rating

I went to Shimer in the late 60's early 70's
The education that the school offered has proved invaluable in my life
You did not learn a craft or trade
You learned how to research and think for yourself
You also learned to take care of yourself
I've been involved with two companies that vanished but could get on with my life because of what I learned at Shimer

Jon E.

Duluth, MN
5.0 star rating

I'm sorry to hear of anyone having difficulty with financial aid at Shimer. I suspect the cause is simple shortage of admin manpower at such a small school (I would like to see Shimer achieve some economy of scale by increasing enrollment to several hundred). I nearly left Shimer after a single semester when, newly married, I thought we couldn't possibly afford double Shimer costs. Financial aid put together a package that made it possible, and both my wife and I were graduated. Years later my loans were sold to Wachovia, who put some impossible pressure on me at an especially impoverished juncture in my life. I called Shimer, who immediately called Wachovia and furnished what amounted to a character reference for me, and induced Wachovia to arrange a manageable payment schedule. I offer these anecdotes to illustrate a different facet of financial aid at Shimer. I don't wish to contradict someone else's perception, but mine is obviously one of warmth and affection.
In the matters of continuing education and job-hunting assistance I can offer no comment except to wonder what one might expect from such a small institution. A remarkably large percentage of Shimer graduates successfully pursue advanced degrees, so one can hardly fault the school for insufficiently preparing students academically. I suppose the times have changed, but it never occurred to me to seek Shimer's help in finding a job. I assumed I was on my own, but with the considerable advantage of a Shimer education and degree.
That brings me, finally, to the heart of the Shimer experience, its curriculum. Reading original source materials instead of textbooks, discussing those readings in small groups guided by skilled and experienced teachers, and pursuing the major themes of Western thought through several academic disciplines toward intellectual synthesis at the upper levels of the curriculum constitutes an educational experience attainable in very few places on the planet (Shimer is indeed unique in some important qualities). I can't claim any "success" in my life in the ordinary use of the term. I came to Shimer early in my struggle to overcome ADD (the diagnosis didn't even exist at the time) and probably some very mild form of autism. Shimer's curriculum gave me simultaneously the focus and the self-confidence I needed to learn how to overcome my deficits, and began an education which I have continued on my own to this day. I would not trade that experience for any material success I (or you) can imagine. My life began at Shimer College. I say that in complete sincerity, and it is a sentiment I have heard again and again from other Shimer alums.

Meg N.
Aurora, IL
5.0 star rating

I think I should start out by saying that Shimer College is not for everyone. We are fairly open about this, and aware that it attracts a certain type of people: usually bookish, self-motivated individuals; people who were unhappy with the type of education they'd received before; and yes, some people who because of our novel curriculum thought they might get a degree with less effort than going to a normal university. These people generally leave before they are halfway through their studies.

I am going through my second year here at the college, and while I have gone through my share of ups and downs with the community and the curriculum, my overall belief in the mission of Shimer College has not diminished. It doesn't always live up to its ideals, but what university does?

The student body is small. Lack of diversity? Maybe. It's true that it tends toward the white. Male/female seems pretty equal to me (sometimes more men than women). Political? Definitely left-leaning, but I see this trend in most college students, and I definitely know students here that span the spectrum. As far as ideology goes--I've had my own ideas challenged left and right, and the same text is approached from so many angles in a single class that it turns my head sometimes. Personalities come in an extremely wide range as well.

The curriculum itself has its roots, in part, in the Great Books movement that surged in the 1950s and continues to spread small tremors even today. But Shimer continues to revise its curriculum, adding and taking away works in various classes, diversifying the material that we read. I won't deny it's mostly western. Any Eastern, African, Central/South American literature I'd want to read, I would probably take in an elective here. But the idea is to spark original thinking, to look at how the authors we read have over the ages struggled to answer the same problems we face today. For me, it got me excited about learning things again, after high school textbook memorization had all but killed it.

One of the biggest concerns that most people have is practicality, I think. Reviewers below mentioned that Shimer grads (the recent ones) are having trouble finding work, etc etc. I think a good amount of this is due to the economy at the moment, among other factors. My mother graduated from Shimer in 1975; she is now a general editor of the religion section in a publishing magazine, works for religion news sources, and has published three books. My own plans after graduation include publishing novels, volunteering and traveling, attending culinary institutes and working at starting a cafe or something similar. Will I be in debt? I don't know. It's probable, but not yet speculative. It's a much-touted statistic that two-thirds of our graduates go on to higher education; accounting for the small number of students that we have, that still speaks of some successes. The way Shimer approaches reading, writing and analytical thought serves grad students very well when it comes to taking the GRE.

As far as tuition goes--it's fairly expensive, but for a private college, it's on the lower end of the scale. Shimer has expanded its scholarships, most recently with the Michel de Montaigne scholarship competition, offering two full and two half-tuition scholarships. We may offer less financial aid than other universities do--we are small, we do have less resources. This is part of the reason we share a campus with the Illinois Institute of Technology. We are slowly building up our resources and our student body, and in the meantime taking advantage of the city location that IIT has to offer. Possibly the best thing about the campus is that as a full-time student you get a Upass, allowing you unlimited rides on CTA public transit for a single semester fee--huge savings on what you would normally pay for monthly passes.

Shimer has two programs: a weekday and a weekend college. The weekday follows a more normal school schedule of classes; the weekend college meets once every three weeks for two days of intense back-to-back classes. It's ideal for working adults that would like to go back to college but don't have the time to do it on a weekday. I've taken classes in both programs and enjoyed them both immensely. They each have their differences and their advantages.

For me, the best thing about being at Shimer is that I'm around people who are really excited about reading the things that we do, and have explosive ideas about the world. Yes, most of us are young and tend towards the ideological side without real-world grounding as of yet. But you have to grow up somewhere. I see nothing wrong with thinking you can change the world and trying. Sometimes you really can. Shimer has immensely helped my reading and thinking skills, which I know will serve me when I go to publish. I've run out of room here, but I could say so much more. Shimer has given me the freedom to think.

Marilyn M.
Libertyville, IL
5.0 star rating

As a graduate of Shimer's Weekend Program, as well as a five-year student of a large state university, and someone who currently works at an excellent large suburban high school, I must dispute some of the criticisms I've read here. Shimer is far from perfect -- and it's true that one can have a less than stimulating class if one's fellow students (or oneself!) comes to class unprepared -- however, in my four years at Shimer even the worst class was better than an average class at a large university. I found at Shimer a love of learning that I had not seen in all my years of schooling. Both the professors and the students were curious and intelligent -- willing to challenge one another and themselves. The fact that the students had real control over the content of the class meant that if a class failed to engage or challenge you, you had to accept part of the blame for that -- you couldn't blame it on a lousy professor. There were many intelligent professors at my large university, but they were uninvolved with and disinterested in undergraduate students. Teaching us was a rather unsavory chore to be gotten through as quickly as possible. For several years I was convinced they had underground tunnels or secret passageways to escape the classroom buildings, as I never encountered them in the halls or on campus. At Shimer, we ate together, had wonderful conversations, and occasionally socialized on weekends. They were involved with and concerned about the students to a degree that I still find incredible.
I think much of the dissatisfaction one might have with Shimer -- or any college/university for that matter -- is a result of incomplete research. I definitely should have done more searching before I attended that large university. There are many components that combine to make a school a good fit for someone, and there should be some extensive soul searching and a good deal of on-site examination and conversation before a decision is reached. One complaint was the size of the school -- it takes very little research to find out that information, and that should definitely be taken into consideration before one commits to attending a school - of ANY size. Why didn't the student think that through beforehand and perhaps talk to Shimer students about that concern?
I cannot agree at all with the comment on cost -- you folks need to look around a bit -- as far as private schools go, Shimer is on the VERY low end. Most privates cost thousands more, and most don't even begin to approach the kind of education available at Shimer.
It is true that you may well have an English teacher as your tutor in a science class. I found that incredibly refreshing -- we were learning together, and it was exciting and energizing! We frequently had visitors to our classes, and on several occasions the visitors weren't sure which of us was the teacher. Everyone in the class -- including the tutor -- was delighted by this, as we felt it demonstrated that we were asking good questions and digging deeply into the readings.
Finally, the whole job thing is problematic for ALL graduates today. Liberal arts grads often have a tough time selling themselves, but generally, once they get that first job, their value becomes obvious. The trouble these days is getting that first job! I truly believe the faculty will help you in any way possible -- but no one will research this for you -- although they may provide alumni contacts and other sources of information, this is an every-girl/guy-for-her/himself sort of thing.
Shimer provides something rare and wonderful in higher education, and I hate to see folks tear it down for things it never claimed to have in the first place -- at a school of 100, one can scarcely expect an extensive campus and resources (didn't you visit first?) -- or for things it doesn't want to have (professors lecturing away about their field of expertise, rather than acting as questioning guides to the student's own learning). I can understand that this type of education isn't for everyone, but for those of us who jumped in and really worked while we were there, I believe it was the best of all possible worlds.

Colleen C.
Brookfield, IL
4.0 star rating

Luckily, I happen to go to Shimer College, in their Weekend Program, and, as expected I love it. The primary reason Shimer is, in my opinion, a top-notch higher learning institiution is the typeof education they offer. The discussion based, Socratic method is not your everyday lecture in a lecture hall. It's impossible to say how different this is, from ordinary colleges on the whole,except that one has to experience it.

Phthalo B.
Chicago, IL
5.0 star rating

What Aaron says about it being limited in diversity is certainly true but hopefully we will fix that.

Certainly it is also true what he said about laziness. I have been lazy lately myself. It is certainly true that you have to get your own education out of it: if you want to be lazy as all hell you sure can, but that is your own fault and it is possible to get a beautiful experience. But as he says this is "as with any school".

But the community for me is the most beautiful part. I can talk about beautiful academic topics all the time: all kinds of beautiful discussions all the time on feminist theories, gender theories, discussing religion, theories of how the mind works on drugs, theories of consciousness. Huge amounts of dialogue. If the teacher doesn't show up we still have class just discussing what we want to more freely. I am convinced that Shimer will save the world. I think that Aaron was in the weekend program which is less amazing than the weekday program apparently.

Here is a website that I made which contains my opinion of the school:

Dan S.
Mill Valley, CA
5.0 star rating

Shimer College is simply the most amazing school in the country. Granted, it's not for everyone, but it was far superior to UC Berkeley and the other acclaimed universities where I did graduate work. As far as getting a job is concerned, first of all, Shimer students tend to go on to graduate school--in fact, Shimer students receive doctoral degrees at a rate double that of Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or Princeton. For those who don't--like me--Shimer prepares one for almost any work. After I left Shimer, I was hired to do accounts receivable at a $100 million corporation (with $2 billion in assets). After five years, I was Controller. After I was named as the new Controller, I was asked if I had a CPA; I said no. I was asked if I had an MBA; again, no. I was asked where I received my accounting degree; I told them I didn't have one. I told them the truth: I had attended Shimer College, and Shimer graduates can do anything. I've been in corporate finance for years; I also sell used and rare books. I use my Shimer education every day. By the way, my wife, a UCLA summa cum laude graduate and a Berkeley MBA (top of her class) refers to me as the smartest person she's ever known. I had a 2.64 GPA at Shimer (4.0 everywhere else, including Berkeley. Enough said.

Samuel H.
Miller, IN
5.0 star rating

I am a 1998 graduate of Shimer College, and I would recommend it to all independent thinkers. Shimer offers a blend of Great Books learning, participatory governance, and dialogical education that no other college has ever replicated. Few have even tried.

I cannot judge whether what Shimer offers is actually the best education in America, but it is certainly the best that I have experienced. You read original sources, not textbooks; you come to your own conclusions, not the conclusions your professor wants. You participate in the actual governance of the college, not the make-believe of "student government."

In sum: if you like reading and thoughtful discussion, and don't care for the mass-produced drivel that masquerades as "education" in much of the world, go to Shimer.

Matt M.
South Pasadena, CA
5.0 star rating

I started at Shimer College in '01 and graduated in '07, having taken some time off. I saw the college go through various notable changes, some that took place in as little as a year, due to its small size and creative culture. I moved the college from Waukegan to Chicago the summer before my final year, working on the Buildings and Grounds crew, which no longer exists. I stay in touch with current students, former co-workers, and fellow alumni. When I started teaching, I sent an e-mail to all my facilitators asking for advice; all responded. It is a close community.

The community can also feel narrow-minded and stifling sometimes, which is why I respect the narratives of Aaron and Jeremy. The college does not suit many people's ideas of rigor and interest, and it's inability to include them stems from and reinforces its social and academic narrowness. I see this as a problem, and I want to work within the community to address it.

That said, a Shimer education is both challenging and enlightening for those who commit to it. Because each member of the community has a voice, the shortcomings of the school can be addressed by each member, and problems are often rectified. I've attended a state university, a correspondence program, and now a community college for brief stints, and none of them has begun to compare to Shimer College. The program is grueling, but interesting and rewarding. This page will be helpful for anyone interested in the specifics of Shimer's curriculum. The links from it also contain valuable information for anyone hoping to get a sense of what we do:…
I would recommend a Shimer education to anyone who loves to read and think. But people should also know that the college faces a grave threat at the moment. The president and a majority of the board, all recently imposed by an anonymous donor, have spurned Shimer's long-standing tradition of self-governance and open dialogue. They have put the college's accreditation in danger by adopting a mission statement that lacks the support of the students, faculty, and a vast majority of alumni. Community members worry that the president may begin firing cherished faculty whom he perceives as threatening to his dominance.
Many of us are working to regain our voice at the college (though the offices of Board and President have always had legal control of the college, they have taken the wishes of the rest of community seriously). If we are not successful, Shimer risks losing its accreditation, faculty will be distracted from their academic duties by worrying about their jobs, and students will no longer be able to meaningfully participate in the decisions of the college, missing out on an unparalleled civic education. A Shimer education would still compare to that of many other universities, but it would seriously degrade. Shimer has plenty of problems, but the current regime will only exacerbate them.
To learn more about the current situation at Shimer, read the February issue of Promulgates, the student newspaper:…

Ron P.
Maidstone, Kent
5.0 star rating

Although it's awhile since I attended Shimer, I have many friends who have been there over the intervening years, and have been in close touch with those involved in ensuring the college's continuing freedom and independence. Over the years it has remained a great place for stimulating education in Western thought, close community and enduring relationships. I sincerely and strongly recommend this school.

a b.
Beverly Hills, CA
1.0 star rating

This school is awful- could be the worst school ever. Ran by manipulative students and duped faculty. The faculty have absolutely no clue what is going on outside the classroom which is really bad considering that of the 5 or 10 faculty members they have, all of them have joint roles as the director's of either financial aid, dean of students, housing director, academic dean, etc. This school is very cliquish and the students that do not leave after 1 or 2 semesters are extremely manipulative, particularly to the faculty, who basically control everything. The clicks ultimatly end up determining what elective classes are taught, who gets to take them, who gets in (or out) of housing and where they stay, who gets scholarships- basically who leaves and who stays. Most students that attend (particularly the quality ones) either get fed up with all the manipulation and resulting poor administrative choices made by the faculty and transfer (which almost none of their classes do) or give up with school altogether because they are too in debt now and disenchanted to start over some were else. Those people I know who did put up with it (or were in the clicks) and have graduated had a sour experience and are typically employed as waiters.

Erik B.
Chicago, IL
4.0 star rating

In contrast to the other reviews here, my Shimer experience was transformative in a lasting and positive way. In high school I didn't participate seriously because I resented being treated like a child by teachers who rarely impressed me. In contrast, at Shimer, through four years of thoughtful, rigorous, small-group discussion centered on original source texts, I was invited to share my opinions with others, to collaborate respectfully to come to a deeper understanding of the topic at hand, and to face the responsibility that comes with having strong opinions. Rather than the revered repositories of arcane knowledge, my teachers were the stewards of this complex learning process. Using some of the greatest original sources as the starting point of our discussions, my Shimer experience helped me to find my own voice in response to life's most challenging existential, philosophical and practical issues.

This experience not only prepared me for graduate school - which seemed easy after Shimer - and the workplace - where my writing and communication skills have earned me strong recommendations ever since - but it also prepared me in a much deeper way for life by refining my critical reasoning skills, cultivating the habit of active participation, and broadening my interests across the disciplines.

The comments here about "manipulation" surprise me. Elective offerings are determined by surveying student interest and then taking that together with available teaching resources - much more input than a larger school would offer. Who gets to take what class is determined like at any other school, based on prerequisites and seniority. Housing is contracted through IIT's housing services, so IIT, not Shimer, determines who gets to live there and who doesn't. Scholarships are determined by a committee that is elected by the entire community. To accuse the faculty of being 'clueless' outside the classroom, makes me wonder what particular clue "a b." has to make such a strong and sweeping judgment. As an alum ('97) and a former staff member ('02-'09), I found my colleagues on the faculty not only to be remarkable teachers, but to be remarkably informed and responsible citizens and individuals. Furthermore, the only significant administrative position currently held by a faculty member at Shimer is the Dean of Students and that's a temporary measure taken only because the former president refused to fund a full-time Dean of Students for this year.

In response to Aaron's comments (who I knew at the College), though I'll agree that the price tag is high, for the kind of education that Shimer offers, it's much cheaper than the alternatives. As for available services, Shimer students have access to all the services that IIT students do so one might look into other reviews of IIT's services to get a better sense about that.

As for the Shimer classroom lacking rigor, I simply disagree. Though it takes time for those students who aren't ready or committed enough to handle the work at Shimer to either find their own way elsewhere, get kicked out or get serious, a student who takes her or his work seriously is in for somtimes hundreds of pages of reading per night, scores of pages of writing per semester, and enough serious discussion to wear out the most energetic intellectual. And, apparently, it works. Despite a very liberal enrollment policy, Shimer graduates score in the top 1% in the country on standardized tests and are three to four times as likely to earn doctorates than graduates of such schools as Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. My own informal survey has the graduates that I'm in touch with programming at Microsoft, studying and practicing law, doing various non-profit work, teaching at St. John's College, doing graduate study at UofC, Duquesne, DePaul, Loyola and elsewhere, and on and on.

My main reservation about Shimer is that it would be better off with its own campus and one or two hundred more students. This would allow for more elective options, a larger and more diverse faculty, and a student life experience better tailored for Shimer students.

Though Shimer is certainly not for everyone, if you are ready to work hard, to read an amazing amount across the disciplines, and want an education which goes beyond simple job preparation and genuinely prepares you for a meaningful and engaged life, try Shimer. You won't regret it.

ps: Yelp's automatic filter seems to have hidden the majority of the comments about Shimer. I'd encourage you to scroll down and read the "unfiltered" comments.

Robert H.
Mill Valley, CA
5.0 star rating

Shimer College is, without a doubt, the best college in the country. Shimer graduates are five times as likely as Harvard or Stanford graduates to attain doctoral degrees. Shimer graduates outperform virtually every other college or university on standardized tests. Yet Shimer accepts 90% of their applicants, some of whom are high school dropouts, others of whom only attended high school for two or three years! How do they do it? Incredible teachers (called "facilitators"), tiny classes (usually between five and twelve students), an amazingly supportive environment, teachers who know EVERY STUDENT personally (there are only about 120 students, so it is not that difficult)...I could go on and on. Sure, it's too small for some people and too difficult for others--you have to read a lot, write a lot, think a lot, and talk a lot in class. But you will achieve things at Shimer that you never believed possible--and without being miserable or worked half to death. And for the (quite reasonable) cost, you are getting an education comparable to what you would receive at Oxford University in England--where many Shimer students spend their junior or senior year. My entire education was wasted years--middle school, high school, graduate school--except Shimer. What an experience! What an education! What incredibly wonderful faculty and students! How I wish I could do it all again!

Tia S.

Chicago, IL
5.0 star rating

Shimer is an amazing academic experience, one that you can't get anywhere else in the country. The facilitators care about the students and want them to really thrive, and as much as Shimer is a college, it is also a family, and a community.

I've experienced more personal growth in my last year at Shimer College than I have through any other formal education. Shimer is incredibly rigorous, but if you welcome change and put effort into your work, you will come out with so many skills that other colleges don't have the resources or care enough to teach.

Robin B.

Chicago, IL
5.0 star rating

So, take this with a grain of salt as I've been attending Shimer for hardly a month as of now, but this is a fantastic place to go to school.

Known as the "other" Great Books school, (St. Johns being the primary) Shimer has a culture and a community all its own that sets it apart from all others. Reading and discussing the Western canon with a group of people who are passionately interested is what Shimer promises - and delivers. Perhaps it is really the quality of the group of people one has class with that makes the most difference in the educational benefits one receives at Shimer, but the added element of a generally friendly and open-minded character that permeates the school is what makes it special to me.

While I wouldn't say that this school is good for everyone, I believe that for the people it IS right for, it is an invaluable experience. If you love to read and dialog, and you crave that "aha!" moment of understanding, chances are Shimer would serve you well.

Danielle B.
Chicago, IL
5.0 star rating

Shimer is unique, and as such, attracts unique students. I was one of them, and after attending several other college, finally found what I was looking for at Shimer: A vibrant intellectual institution; a caring, considerate community (and that includes students, faculty, staff, alumni, and even trustees); an acceptance of what each of us has to offer; and the opportunity to be challenged, and succeed, in a demanding environment. The academics are difficult--you have to really enjoy reading and thinking--but the rewards are worth it. The cost was far lower than other colleges and universities I attended, and the financial aid package was quite good. And I've never been to another college where faculty members invite you to their homes for dinner. I even had a Board of Trustees member I was chatting with one day take me--an 18 year old student--out to lunch. When I graduated, I found work quickly (maybe not the dream job I hoped for, but it met my needs) before going on to law school two years later (five applications, five acceptances). In summary, you won't do better than Shimer College. I only wish I had not wasted almost three years at other colleges.

Danielle B.

Chicago, IL
5.0 star rating
Update - 2/12/2012

Only three students who have ever attended Shimer College have anything negative to say about the college. There are about TEN TIMES as many positive reviews, except Yelp has chosen to "filter" those so you cannot see them without searching. I don't think there is another college in the country where 90% of the students talk about how wonderful their college experience is. And as a former student at Shimer (and not one who dropped out or never even attended, like one of the front page reviews), I can categorically state that the education at Shimer is unsurpassed, the students warm, thougytful, considerate, and just plain fun to be around, the faculty amazingly knowledgeable about almost anything, and the experience unsurpassed. Try it--90% of those who do so love it.
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Robert K.
Princeton, NJ
4.0 star rating

I am a 1961 graduate of Shimer College, who lost touch with the institution, and has recently spent quite a bit of time at the College. I am an academic (a professor at Princeton) so I am well-acquainted with higher-status institutions. What impresses me about Shimer is not only how bright the students are, but how engaged they are in their education. They read Great Books and continue their discussions -- of Plato, Thucydides, or Durkheim -- outside of class. It is true that many of the usual amenities of US colleges are missing, such as sports, and that Shimer is housed in the campus of IIT. But if you want a truly intellectual college experience, and to play a major role in your own education through both small discussion classes and a democratic governance system, you should look at Shimer College.

Nancy N.

Evanston, IL
5.0 star rating

About three years ago I decided to become a more active alum at Shimer because I valued deeply the experience of open and vigorous inquiry at the college, the commitment to thoughtful dialogue, and the affirmation that an informed life is truly possible. Alums from various decades often report the ways in which Shimer "changed their life," just as it had done for me. I am so inspired by the students that I meet on campus today. They are incredibly bright, dedicated, involved, and are living proof that the education at Shimer continues to nurture real intellectual and personal development. I have been able to be more flexible, creative, collaborative, and discerning in my professional life because of my education at Shimer. Going to Shimer was one of the best choices I ever made, and I love the fact that what was great about Shimer when I attended remains great today.

Pandora W.
Chicago, IL
5.0 star rating

An incredible place. This is the second-smallest first-tier college (after Deep Springs) in America--a wholly unique place. We start with the pre-Socratics and progress all the way through to the post-structuralists, but still valuing each author in their own right; we discuss each text together, as a group, and also value everyone's opinion. The entire format is set up to be a meta-meta-modern dialectic, essentially that which teaches one to be active and yet understand.

Everyone (well, everyone who does it right) has their mind blown every single day. Most of us see Shimer as a place where you learn how to live, which is admittedly not something that can be quantified with a diploma very easily. Luckily, we have a great reputation with graduate schools and are in the top 1% of graduating seniors who go on to masters' programs.

Basically, learning to love all things makes you a better person. Doing it this way makes us a really special place. It's definitely not for everyone, but if you're reading this, it's probably worth your time to come visit and see if it's right for you.

Meep L.

San Francisco, CA
5.0 star rating

Shimer is a fantastic school.

i just read 'what is art' by Tolstoy, and 'waiting for Godot' by Beckett for my humanities 1 and 2 classes respectively. i had rehearsal for a collection of David Mamet shorts, i attended a Quality of Life committee meeting where i actively participated in the governance of my school. also happening was a SMELT meeting (our student activist group), where a speaker from a local community organization conducted a Q and A session.

the reading, the community, the classes all make this a really outstanding school. i like the people and atmosphere that is created in polite and honest discourse. it is a very small school, with limited resources, but i think that it serves its mission well.

'to serve rather than be served' is the official motto, and one i love and think truly represents the spirit of this college community.

'let us discuss this' is the unofficial motto and one we see enacted everyday, in and outside of classes.

i'm really happy i came to shimer, i think that it creates a unique environment that many people could benefit from and fosters critical thinking and an active mindset.

Genevieve W.
Libertyville, IL
5.0 star rating

This is an unbiased, positive review about one of the best kept secrets (that should not be a secret) in higher education. I value the rigor, antics and fun and the true sense of the community of scholars that is Shimer. The facilitators (professors in regular college speak) are some of the most committed, intellectually curious group I have had the pleasure to study with.
I am a graduate from 2006 Adult Weekend program; one of the Waukegan campus alums.
Yes, it has a number of administrative dysfunctionalities, the school is quite small and does not spend a fortune on amenities.But they continually work to improve the support systems. On some levels it is a bookish place with a no frills approach. That was just what I needed to focus my attention of the learning. My facilitators helped me or arranged for tutors anytime I made the need known.
With it being a small school I had the opportunity to serve on governing committees to do the work of the college. To have a say, so to speak.

Yes I did take on student loan debt, but I knew that going in and made the commitment to do so. But my financial aid package also had grants, some scholarships funds as I worked and attended school to keep down my personal debt. If you are willing to work out the finances, they went out of their way to help me navigate the expense.

This is not a school for the faint of heart, or pampered soul used to having everything laid out for them. But it is for the willing participant in the life of the mind, willing to work for their knowledge and continue onward in their life able to think, and not from having been told what to think

I am a part of an ongoing legacy of excellent academics and joyous reading whilst searching for the meanings of the "Great Books" and how to integrate that knowledge into real world, real time life situations. It has broadened my abilities to critically analyze and propose solutions in many areas. It is for the curious, the geeky, the independent learner who hungers for knowledge, conversation and impeccable writing skills.But you personally must put in the effort and want it enough.

Dan S.
Mill Valley, CA
5.0 star rating
Update - 6/3/2012

Amazing college. Small classes (10-15 students), brilliant faculty. I was a high school dropout who was accepted to law school at Stanford after completing my undergraduate degree at Shimer. All classes are discussions--no lectures. Half the time you don't even know who the professor is. They are not even called professors, but facilitators. No fraternities, sororities, football teams, cheerleaders, none of tat garbage. Just a small group of kids who are great to hang with (almost all really interesting and smart, including some high school dropouts and "early entrants"--kids who are 15, 16, or 17 and couldn't stand high school any more). You will read more than you ever imagined and learn more than you ever imagined. It will be the toughest four years you will ever love. If you are not a jerk, check out Shimer. If you are a jerk, go somewhere else.
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Samuel H.
Miller, IN
5.0 star rating
Update - 6/5/2012

If you like reading and thoughtful discussion, and don't care for the mass-produced drivel that masquerades as "education" in much of the world, go to Shimer.

I am a 1998 graduate of Shimer College, and I would recommend it to all independent thinkers. Shimer offers a blend of Great Books learning, participatory governance, and dialogical education that no other college has ever replicated. Few have even tried.

Tia S.
Chicago, IL
5.0 star rating

I cannot make this clear enough:

Shimer is an amazing academic experience, one that you can't get anywhere else in the country. The brilliant facilitators care about the students and want them to really thrive, and as much as Shimer is a college, it is also a family, and a community.

I've experienced more personal growth in my time at Shimer College than I have through any other formal education. Shimer is rigorous, but if you welcome change and put effort into your work, you will come out with so many skills that other colleges don't have the resources or care enough to teach.

Tia S.
Chicago, IL
5.0 star rating
Update - 6/16/2013

For whatever reason, basically every positive review has been filtered, while the two negative reviews and mine stand (thanks a lot Yelp).

I suggest you read the filtered reviews in addition to the unfiltered ones to get a better idea of what Shimer is about. I have no idea why 25 of the reviews (many of which are from friends of mine) are hidden.
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Sam K.
Green Bay, WI
5.0 star rating

The purpose of a Great Books education is to present yourself with challenging prose, meticulously deconstruct the text, and then attempt to understand. Shimer College is an accredited institute of higher education that allows you to practice this unique curriculum in the city of Chicago.

Here you'd find a big lack of hierarchy. You're not required to climb ladders to reach certain goals. You merely say, "I'd like to study this." Shimer College provides you opportunities to either get credit studying with a professor one-on-one or cross-register with Harold Washington or IIT to obtain whatever intellectual goals you have.

Shimer College, though, is a liberal arts college that focuses on general education. The students, faculty, and staff members are all deeply committed to the spirit of democracy, the socratic method, and conversation. This is perhaps the only place you can walk into and immediately expect a serious conversation.

For those who are self-driven, independent, and free-spirited, this college will not only improve you intellectually -- but would thoroughly cleanse you of any strict dogmatic belief that holds you steadily to whatever political ground you stand. That doesn't mean you will change you from an Objectivist to a Tolstoyan, but rather, you will learn how to talk about concepts and ideas in ways you probably haven't done before. The tools that Shimer will give you after days of dialogue are the ability to comprehend your own ideas, translate your thoughts into words, and then communicate yourself to any audience willing to listen.

Meybalo L.
San Francisco, CA
4.0 star rating

this college has changed my life. It's thoughtful, which is rare nowadays. they don't have the best facilities. but the community is strong, and the education even stronger. we read the great books, which in itself is enough to change someones life. but the opportunity to discuss the great books, that is truly altering. I recommend this education to anyone. this environment is amazing. the people are SMART. the readings are hard (they're not great for nothing.) but totally worth it.
come to this college. it's awesome.

also note that there are 24 'filtered' reviews really praising this college. I'm not sure why they're filtered but many of them say exactly what i am saying now. this is a great college, of great books.