What is a great book? What is a great conversation? What counts as a great class? a great education? a great idea? a great life? For that matter, what is a conversation? an education? a life? As a great books college, Shimer College is about the questions -- questions which we carry with us across our lives as we work, play, think, read, live. We are about acting responsibily in our world with joy and seriousness. So, Evocations is about higher education -- but like higher education about much more. Please join our conversation today. Scoll down and read more!
When I arrived at Shimer, some months ago, I started seeing connections. I saw them everywhere. There was a former student's name at the bottom of a hand out, in the footnote. There, on the back of a Shimerian's book -- the name of a dear friend doing a jacket blurb. And there, a donation from a former colleague in honor of another at the time of the latter's death. Six degrees of separation, I thought. I thought of sociometric diagrams. (And no, until this moment of googling, I did not know this was who Moreno was. To my shame.) And, I kept thinking this way for months. I imagined a portion of our website, where you would enter a name and follow the links to find how that person, ultimately, connected to Shimer. I imagined a map, and a cursor, that moved across the map, showing connections -- to authors and readers, to donors and alumni, to friends and . . . to Shimertopia.
So, this new part of this blog will be about connections. Sometimes 6 degrees, sometimes 1. And here, not degrees of separation, but degrees of connection.
This is not the game, six degrees of Kevin Bacon, though that is partly what inspires me. (especially now that he has come to see the game as fun -- and potentially a force for good. Click here for more.)
Nor do I actually have in mind the relevant social scientific research, though I perhaps ought to. (Is it in our curriculum? Hmm. Ought it be?) Nor do I have in mind the play or the film. (Well, maybe I do?)
Instead: how many links must we find to connect Shimer to:
1. Robert Maynard Hutchins (ok, this is easy, right?)
2. Don Moon (ok, another relatively easy one, right?)
3. Kevin Bacon (hmmm. 6?) See what you can do?
Okay, I admit it. I looked up Phoebe Snow and her Kevin Bacon nnumber is 3. Here you go.
And, yes, our alum who has a book being made into a movie gets us there as well since actors included in the film have low KB numbers. Here's the information on the film; and Olivia Munn's KB number is . . . 2.
4. Bill Clinton (or Hilary)? (I can do this one in 2-3. How about you?)
Okay, now you know the idea. We can do more -- and will. In fact, I recently spent part of an evening with Shimerians (Sandra Collins, Ed Wallbridge, Chris Vaughan, and Joseph Fitzgerald) and was amazed at how we can reach out -- to politicians, celebrities, scientists, authors, and more. Why? Well, I was amazed because I had not thought to ask. I was not entirey amazed though. Why? Because, of course, everything is connected to Shimer, a place with disproportionate impact -- and disproportionate connections!
One way of thinking about what great books are is to think about lists. (Yes, people make lists. Perhaps they always have.) For example, the collection of great books created by those at the Encyclopedia Brittanica (think Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins) was, in some ways, a list with a delightful index called a synopticon. The books include Freud and Artistotle, Homer and Darwin, Thucydides and Chaucer and much much more. Wikipedia even has an entry on the books, complete with a picture. As you will learn there (or if you have a set) it was not until the second edition that any women were included (and yes, Jane Austen made the cut as did George Eliot, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf and, well, that is it for women. Unless I missed Sappho?).
The works chosen have been criticized. Lists themselves, often labelled (and occasionally libelled) as canons, have been criticized. And yet, the game of listing continues. (Ok, ok. It is not a game.)
Here, for example, is a list of The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time -- from Ms. Magazine. Virginia Woolf makes their list (though a very different book than that included above -- here we have A Room of One's Own and there To the Lighthouse.) Simone de Beauvoir makes the Ms. list but not the great books of the west list. Likewise, Wollstonecraft makes Ms. but not. . . . I am not sure I like tthe list -- either list -- but the contrast is interesting as are the methods each uses to create their lists.
Here's a list of global works, from the 25 years prior to the creation of the list by international writers. The only book to make the list twice is by Gabriel GArcia Marquez. And, I admit to loving that Elizabeth Bishop makes their cut.
The Guardian has done the top 100 books of all time. Here we get Job (yes, the biblical Job not hte job you are looking for) and Doris Lessing, Walt Whitman and the Ramayana, Chinua Achebe and emily Bronte, to note a few. (The list was compiled by Norwegians. And, I have to say, it is a pretty darn global list.) (If you want Time's list, try here.)
There are, of course, lists of great scientific books. (See this example). And there are lists of the top books of a given time period; I like this one on the 20th century -- in part because it feels Shimerian in a somewhat challenging way. (Not to mention that there is a one degree of separation thing her and the pictures are great.) Lolita, though, is not MY pick for top book of the 20th century.
And, I admit, while googling away I found this -- a "slow school" focused on global great books. Hmm. Who knew? And what exactly is a slow school?
I know that the notion of great books is not merely about lists (and that reading does matter not to mention writing). But still, I am asking: what is your list? On what basis do you make it? And, on what basis do you criticize lists?
Is "who's in and who's out" part of it? Do the lists make communities? And, as they do, are we proud of who "we" are? If we want to build a more just world, what is the role of such lists in accomplishing this goal? Must we share "our" works? Must we read "their" works? And who are we/they anyway?
The Chronicle of Higher Education for September 14, 2001 -- composed nad likely printed before what we have come to call 9/11 -- offered the following words as we entered the 21st century in an article entitled "A Battle Plan for Professors to Recapture the Curriculum" (page B7):
"As we enter the new century, society's agreement on what defines an educated person, what constitutes essential knowledge and common discourse, has essentially collapsed. As a result, universities in the United States have a problem in the area of curriculum that has been widely recognized. Curriculum means, literally, a running track, but, in recent years, it has been called 'a cafeteria with little indication of what are entrees and which the desserts' and 'Dante's definition of hell, where nothing connects to nothing." (B7)
Is this still apt?
Interesting phrase, battle plan. What do you make of the quotation?
If Shimer were a religion, and we had saints, one of ours would be Robert Maynard Hutchins. His name is even invoked in our mission statement. And yet, I am not sure many of us know who he was, or read his work. I had not done so in years until I came to know Shimer. And, now, I often find myself asking who today's Robert Maynard Hitchins might be. I even ask myself: is it possible for anyone to lead in higher education in the way he did? Does the commodification of learning -- and of colleges and universities -- or the economic situation or. . . . bode poorly for such leadership?
If you are unsure, then join the crowd.
But, if you do not know much about him, then he is worth exploring. If you click the link on his name above, you will come to the novel form of encyclopedia, perhaps apt given his historic relationship to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, we all call wikipedia. What is most interestng, perhaps, is that the depiction of the Hutchins Plan included there says it "survives at Shimer College in Chicago."
Here are a few teasers:
1. Because it is interestng, did you know his father was president of Berea College? I did not. And, it is pretty darn interesting, in my view, give the wonders of Berea.
2. As perhaps you know. in his role as head of the Ford Foundation, Hutchins was influential in the establishment of early entrants programs, including the one at Shimer, which continues to this day!
3. He wrote a terrific book entitled The University of Utopia, which I have not read. It strikes me I darn well better, given that one of the unofficial mottos of Shimer that I really like it "Shimer -- somewhere between Utopia and Reality."
"The conversation presented in this set is peculiar to
the West. We believe that everybody, Westerners and Easterners, should understand it, not because it is better than
anything the East can show, but because it is important
to understand the West. We hope that editors who un-
derstand the tradition of the East will do for that part of
the world what we have attempted for our own tradition
in Great Books of the Western World and the Syntopicon.
With that task accomplished for both the West and the
East, it should be possible to put together the common
elements in the traditions and to present Great Books of
the World. Few things could do as much to advance the
unity of mankind."
Hmmm. And what, then, is the great books of the "east" in our curriculum?
5. Finally, try this site where Don Levine strives to engage us all in a Hutchins-like great conversation. (Yes, he is one of the guys depicted -- Hutchins, that is.)
So: the question is: can one be a Shimerian without being a Hutchins devotee? Are you? Both? Or?
Below is a dandy picture of a place I was -- can you identify it and why the location is relevant to the history of higher education (and thus to Shimer)? I was there several days ago, after a lovely Shimer event in . . . . well, that would give it away. Hint: the specific location has something to do with civil rights. And yes, I took this lovely picture, with an iphone. Amazing what we can do these days even without a camera! Figure it out and I will send along a book -- prez choice.
I have always loved this chap's surname. I just do. No good reason, just the sound of it. In any case, Alexander Meiklejohn was quoted as follows by Laurence Veysey in his book entitled The Emergence of the American University; the quotation comes from Meiklejohn's 1908 piece "College Education and the moral ideal). As he puts it, the aim of the American college
"Is not primarily to teach the forms of living, not primarily to give practice in the art of living, but rather to broaden and deepen insight into life itself, to open up hte riches of human experience, of literature, of nature, of art, of religion, of philosophy, of human relations, social, economic, political, to arouse a understanding and appreciation of these, so that life may be fuller and richer in content; in a word, the primary function of the American college is the arousing of interests. (Quoted by Veysey, pp. 210-211).
Who was Meiklejohn? A philosopher. A college president. And, the composer of these words. In various biographies, one will also find that he is also all about free speech. Try this one from Brown University where he once served as Dean.
I find a lot of books in odd places, including on the streets and in Good Will stores and in bookstores and in sharing libraries in the places I live. And today, I am writing about a paradoxically wonderful book called In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik. It is a bok about searching for silence; and thus, paradoxically, it is a book that devotes a lot of attention to noise. Noise pollution (and attempts to address it), noisy trains and the near ubiquitousness of headphones form which leak louder and louder music as we all. . . . search for silence? Or, at least, try to block out the distractingly noisy world within which we live.
Prochnik, a descendant of James Jackson Putnam of fame witin the history of psychology, lives in Brooklyn and writes books. And, living in Brooklyn is not exactly silent. So, he goes in pursuit of it in various ways -- from traveling to a Trappist monastery to reading scientific literature, to identifying pocket parks near where he works to explore in search of a moment's peace (aka a bit of quiet) and visiting Gallaudet to investigate the notion of Deaf Architecture. Of course, nowhere is it entirely silent, but quieter moments allow him to hear the unexpected -- birds and church bells, and other aspects of the world within which he lives. (And, indeed, we all live.) He becomes fascinated by the notion that it is clearly bad for us to create so much noise -- we are increasingly unable to hear as we age, and the situation deteriorates quite quickly today in large measure because we are exposing ourselves to such high levels of noise, often voluntarily.
Why is this relevant? Well, it is not unrelated to the notions of bewilderment with which I began this blog, or of pausing (slowness) which I have also addressed. First: Prochnik is bewildered in a particularly fruitful way that leads him to reflect in very interesting ways on his topic(s). Second, and more importantly, perhaps: Listening is one of the skills, I would argue and I think faculty/facilitators would agree, required to think. And, it is a key part of the sort of dialogical education offered at Shimer. Listening, perhaps, is really all about distinguishing meaning from noise, and thus in some sense about silence. I think. (and I say that as someone rarely silent.)
Reading the book teaches one about why malls are so darn noisy (of course, they think it makes us buy more -- and a whole new profession within the marketing world has emerged to create the "soundscapes" of consumerism), the notion of noise maps and the entanglements of public policy around noise, and a lot about how our ears work (and do not). Perhaps my favorite parts -- the part that really shifted me -- was the discussion of Deaf Architecture. The openness of the world enabling people to see each other to speech is a very intriguing one for developing new notions of listening and hearing.
So: is one of the unsung outcomes of a liberal education at the individual level the capacity to listen? To distinguish meaning from noise? And, is it more then utilitarian? Is one fo the unsumg public outcomes the capacity to create a world with less noise pollution? (It is, one discovers, responsible for an enormous amount of our health concerns -- and more.) Hmmm.
This novel, entitled A Novel Bookstore, was written by Laurence Cosse, and published by Europa Editions. It is translated from the french. Hence the accent (invisible here, above the e in the author's last name.)
The story is of a person who starts a bookstore which chooses its books by a very intriguing route. There is a mysterious committee (no one knows who they are, and they are kept, even, from knowledge of one another) which picks llists of 300 or so books, and the contents of the bookstore come from those lists. Each year, they may add some more. So: the bookstore incldues only good books. Yes, a quality distinction. And, the owners -- and the committee -- actually choose wonderfully good books -- even acting in such a way as to create a demand for some long out of print. Their bookstore, it seems. finds a wonderful audience -- and has an impact. All those rather trashy books -- sometimes called peanut books, often selling huge numbers (sometimes even in airports), arriving with great hoopla to big box bookstores and piled in heaps near the door -- are set to the side so that one can actually find the "real" novels.
In the book, this leads to all sorts of consequences -- including competition from other like minded (or apparently like minded) capitalists, protests about their elitism in the media (and suitable defenses), and even more.
I will not spoil the plot but I will ask: what does this have to do with Shimer? Is the notion of choosing only good books at all like proclaiming oneself a great books college?
Here the complexity is (as articulated in the novel even), that one cannot choose everything. And, one does wish to steer away from sheer junk. But are there limits to this approach? who gets to be the committee? Who chooses the committee?
And, another question: in what ways are bookstores and colleges alike? How are they different? How do they (respectively) relate to the notion of a business or a non profit organization?
I liked this novel novel. Can you tell? Thought provoking and a good read (in the sense of well translated and articulate as well as in the sense of a romp I enjoyed. )
For a review in the Washington Post, click here. For some quotations from A Novel BOokstore, ripped out of context, but still worth a gander, click here.