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!
There has been a lot of chat about W.E.B. Du Bois at Shimer lately. His work appears in our courses. And, yet, how and whether we actually read that work has been the matter of some very interesting discussion. And, since today is Martin Luther King Day, focusing on Du Bois' work seems a reasonable idea.
So, I feel obliged to ask: was Du Bois a Shimerian?
Somehow I seem to lean toward yes each time I ask whether someone counts as a Shimerian on this blog. The reason lies in my belief in Shimer as an inclusive community and campus. Shimer has a way of talking about itself as being located somewhere between reality and utopia. Yes, we fail. Yes, we aspire. And, we aspire to be an inclusive community -- in a variety of ways. I believe in that aspiration and in the ongoing effort to make it more and more true.
Du Bois matters to all this -- as short hand for our successes -- we have included him in our courses -- and our continuing aspirations -- the recently raised question of how we respond to him in classrooms and beyond. This short hands a whole range of issues, and consolidates it on to Du Bois, of course. Here the tension is that he stands for the specific issue of inclusion -- and for our failure to do so -- and for the tension between the particular and the universal (or more).
Given this, how can we even address the question of whether Du Bois is a Shimerian, you ask? Obviously he is -- he is included. And yet. . .
There is much that persuades me that Du Bois is a Shimerian, but here I am going to limit my remarks to his essay "A Negro Student at Harvard at the End of the Nineteenth Century." That essay teaches us a lot -- about his views of education, about Harvard, and about the tension between aspiration and attainment. The essay is not irrelevant, either, to much discussion today within African American communities and beyond about the value of HBCUs and the challenge of PWIs. (The first acronym means historically black colleges and universities; the second, predominantly white institutions.) The essay is also relevant to any understanding of the role of privilege in education historically and in the 21st century. (And, by the way, makes a very interesting read alongside a book entitled Ebony and Ivy.)
In the essay, Du Bois comments about the teachers he had, the issue of housing (aka his housing choices), about his acceptance of racial segregation, his desire for freedom of laboratory and library, and much more. We learn of his encounters with William James, his reading of Kant, and why he emerges form Harvard knowing many of his "colored" peers but few of his white peers. As he discusses it, Du Bois' intellectual adventures are linked, throughout, to descriptions of what his views were and are on being a Negro in the situation of Harvard in his day. Reading it reminds us all that reading of philosophy -- and all experiencing of classrooms as well as the rest of what college is or can be -- has a complex relationship to who one is, both as an individual and as a person within categories within an era.
It is in his elaboration of the very details of his particular experience of Harvard (also a very particular place) in a very particular time period (the end of the 19th century), that the broadest point emerges, one that contributes to knowing Du Bois as Shimerian: his reading, his intellectual life, are neither limited by or defined by his particular experiences as "Negro." Nor are his reading or his intellectual work separable from that reality.
In this, the life of the Negro at Harvard in the 19th century is a Shimerian life -- of aspiration and limitation -- and so very much more. The both/and of the particular and the universal reminds us that how we read and philosophize and educate today are themselves limited by time, place and person. And, that very same both/and reminds us that how we read, philosophize and educate are enriched, as well, by our embedddedness in time, place and person.
By the way, if you think all this not relevant to today, click here for a piece from Huffington Post on liberal education, Du Bois, and Carver from Michael Roth of Wesleyan University.
And then ask yourself: Was Martin Luther King a Shimerian? What might his piece entitled a the letter from a Birmingham jail (available here) tell us about that?
Mark Benney was born Henry Ernest Degras, and lived from 1910 until 1973. He was most definitely a Shimerian. And, in this case, I do not mean this in some distant figurative way. As you will learn here, he taught at Shimer, and as I learned some time ago, he wrote a memoir called Almost a Gentleman in which he discusses Shimer, where he taught from the 1959 until 1963. The memoir was published in 1966.
I had never heard of him until a more recent Shimerian put me on to his memoir. What a colorful history Shimer has -- having had on its faculty a former burglar from the UK. We share that distinction with the University of Chicago where he was employed prior to Shimer As one of the only (I hesitate to believe he was the only) U of C faculty person to ever teach with absolutely no degrees, he wrote well, had thoughtfully expressed views, and brought a critical eye to much around him. In various venues he is described as a sociologist.
Chapter 12 of his memoir is devoted to his experiences of -- and views about -- Shimer. Entitled "I Only Am Escaped to Tell Thee," the chapter characterizes the faculty, the student body, the town, and more. It is framed, in some senses, by Benney's sense of being an outsider from the get go, due to his lack of degrees and his relative ignorance (or flouting) of rural Illinois small town (aka Mount Carroll) norms. Indeed, as I indicate below, his views of Shimer and the small town are connected to his views of the cemetery in Mount Carroll.
Some of Benney's comments remain relevant today, others, perhaps not. For example, he notes the very significant difference in workload between the U of Chicago, where he had previously taught, and Shimer. As he put it:
"In Chicago, there was a highly efficient examiner's office, staffed by experts in every field, that would take over most of the chores of preparing long lists of 'multiple-choice' questions. In Chiago, there was a diligent studdent adviser's office. that had its own sources of informastion about which students attended his classes, or staying up late, or desecrating graves. Here every faculty member had to prepare his own examinations, keep records of who attended his classes, and act as a counsellor to delinquent students." (p. 319)
That was not all. At Shimer, faculty were expected to advise student groups and participate in faculty gatherings. (For him, theatre and politics were his student groups and play-reading and Wittgenstein his faculty groups). As he put it, he did not mind working hard and is ever willing to "over-prepare" to teach Plato. Yet, he wrote "I find it difficult to behave as though I were everyman's super-ego." (p. 320)
Benney details various exploits, including his behavior at local bars and as a house guest. His debating the merits of Medicare and his choice of The Bald Soprano and Jack, or The Submission as plays to do on campus (which leads others to determine that people from town were not to be invited to attend) are descrcibed in rich detail, with a kind of pride in his offensiveness simultaneous to a sort of bafflement about it all.
The metaphor that he uses to sum it all up involves a charlatan who had sold Mount Carroll citizens (long before the mid-1950s) lousy cemetery fixings, a crack in a mausoleum through which a skeleton pokes, and. . . . yes, he thinks there are skeletons in the closets around him. As he put it, "the town and I were not the only crumbling sepulchres in the picture: there was also Shimer College itself." (p. 331) Shimer faculty come in for a pretty sharp criticism; Shimer students fare better though he worries about their likelihood of ending up in jail (where he himself had spent time as a result of his earlier career as a burglar in England) and the related likelihood that Shimerians, as nonconformists, would be able to avoid certain forms of undesirable but highly remunerative employability. Benney takes up sex and faculty meetings, alcohol and the impact of the need to get and retain students on the quality of the student body and the education. He is very concerned about American parents and their intrusiveness on campus. And, I admit that as I read I wondered if the students he was describing in some detail were saved by his use of pseudonyms or whether he bothered to disguise them at al
Mark Benney is eventually let go and leaves Shimer in 1963. Two other colleagues lose their jobs simultaneously. Whether Benney is let go for financial reasons or because of his inveterate capacity to offend those around him (intentionally or not), is left a bit vague.
1963 is a long time ago. And yet, Benney lingers as a Shimerian voice: worth a read for the nostalgia and the very continuities in the history of American higher education to be found in his words. I will leave it, as he does, to the reader, to decide more -- most especially, the ways his depictions are and are not about Shimer -- both then and now.
The evidence I have provided may be enough for you to decide. Or, to be truly Shimerian, try reading Benney;s own views in the chapter here.
When I arrived Shimer, there were odd connections between the Shimer curriculum and my reading of murder mysteries. And, this was especially true when it came to the appearance of famous (aka Shimerian) authors in murder mysteries and detective stories. Nietzsche or Freud or Aristotle or Wollstonecraft . . . as detective. So, I knew that some detectives were -- or are -- at least potentially Shimerian.
But: Charlie Bradshaw is not, as far as I know, on the Shimer core curriculum reading list. (Or the faculty.) Nor is Saratoga particularly Shimerian, despite the many many ways that Shimer and upstate New York connect across Shimer's history and throughout its present. Saratoga, though, definitely has a Shimer cast as I have come to understand. And so, in fact, does Charlie Bradshaw.
Here's how I learned that: First, I went into the bookstore with the worst name ever, one I am fond of, in Alberta. So, I learned part of what I had to learn in Canada. Then, I purchased a book because the author's name screamed "Shimer" at me while the genre screamed "peanut book" or, put another way, it screamed "series detective novel." Not serious. Not work.
The book title? Saratoga Snapper. And yes, it is one of a series of Saratoga-based mysteries featuring a former policeman, now . . . well. . . detective . . . . named Charlie Bradshaw. No, the theme of this one is not a kind of turtle called a snapper. Instead, it is all about a photograph taken by a pal of Charlie's -- named Victor -- who exists somewhere in the twilight between sleaze and good guy.
The author? Stephen Dobyns. And yes, Dobyns, according to wikipedia and the voices of Shimerians I know, started his education at Shimer. At Shimer, I had learned about his poetry, which I also had encountered pre-Shimer in an anthology or two. But at the bookstore, I encountered him in a row of mysteries with the word Saratoga in the title.
So: Shimer can in fact accommodate both poet and creator of genre prose in one person! Hurrah! He has, by the way, taught at Sarah Lawrence, the Iowa Writer's Workshop and Warren Wilson College. We are indeed serious and silly, both/and, are we not?
And thus, via the power of syllogism or contiguity or six degrees of separation or something, Charlie Bradshaw might just be a Shimerian.
Erich Segal, you may recall, is a novelist who also wrote some nonfiction, including on Greek and Latin literature. So, he was/is/might have been somewhat Shimerian.
In this case, here is a tiny bit of actual evidence, taken from a book I recently received in the mail by Segal entitled Prizes, and copywritten 1995. On page 30 of the Fawcett Columbine edition, Segal writes:
"Ever heard of Shimer College?"
"Nobody has. But it's a small progressive offshoot of the Unievrsity of Chicago. They believed if you could pass their test, you were ready for college. It was a kind of incubator for premeds anxious to save a few years. I was so keen to be a doctor that I worked as an orderly in MIchael Reese Hospital in the summers -- which gave me a respectable excuse for not going home. I channeled my anger into studying. and by some miracle I got into Harvard Med."
Of course, the novel goes on, but nothing is as important as these few lines. Right? SHimer appears in all fo the oddest places, and this one is a reminder that Shimer is a special place and has been for many years. While I tend to think of the U of C as an offshoot of Shimer, we can forgive Segal his lapse.
We endlessly refer to Mrs. Shimer -- to Frances Wood who married a chap named SHimer and this lead to our college's name: Shimer College.
Mrs. Shimer mattered and matters. So too did Cinderlla Gregory (who also married and her last name became Lansing. And this despite controversy about the spelling of her first name).
But, I ask: is Mrs. Shimer the only Shimer that matters? My answer? No.
Here's why: the husband, Henry Shimer, depicted here, was a key player! Without him, we would not be Shimer in several senses.
There are other Shimer's that matter -- like Robert Shimer, for example - though only because we share a name, not because we share a history. Henry, though, matters in a different way. He matters because we are Shimer in part because of him,
I have asked whether Poirot was a Shimerian and whether one of my favorite Chicago sculptures is by a Shimerian. In each case, I was showcasing something in popular culture -- or in Chicago -- that allowed me to speak of Shimer in certain ways. What happens when we begin to ask something a bit different: Is a particular theorist or philosopher Shimerian?
The question is a bit different from asking if Foucault appears in Shimer classes. He does. He has. He will. Just as Foucault has been and is and likely will be read in many institutions across the US and the globe, he has and likely will be read into Shimer's future. His work is important -- and has been -- in both contructive and deconstructive ways.
So, yes, in that obvious sense, he is and was and will be Shimerian. Is there, though, more to the question?
Might we need to ask "which Foucault"? No, I am not posing Michel Foucault against some other person with his last name. Rather, I am asking about the many texts within the corpus of his work. On the bookshelf in my office here are the Foucaultian texts:
Seven books. Not even scratching the surface of Foucault's work. If merely being prolific were enough, Foucault is definitely a Shimerian. If it is the ideasd that matter, might the early Foucault matter? The mid-years? The late? All Foucault.
What about his overall significance? Does that qualify him as Shimerian? I would argue yes. He (among others) helped us to think through the ways that epistemologies are historical, that power relations and knowledge are inseparable, the ways sexuality is itself a historical product, and more. For me, perhaps the most important was the first one I read: Discipline and Punish. He made me see the world -- and myself -- anew. Here was guilt reimagined, institutional force rethought, and, in the long run, I see higher education differently because I read about the prison.
Could there be Foucaultian words on a Shimer t shirt? Hmmmm. An option:
"...madmen were confined in the holy locus of a miracle." (Madness and Civilization, p. 10, Wildly out of Context for No Good Reason at All)
As you drive (or walk) along Michigan Avenue, heading north from Roosevelt Road, turn your head a tad to your right. (I think.) What do you see? What appears to be a gathering of legs. Yes, I said legs. There are 106 of them. They are tall. And they are cast iron. This art work, titled Agora, was created by Magdalena Abakanowicz. And, I argue, it shows very clearly that the artist is a Shimerian. Of course, she did not graduate from Shimer. But: there it is, right there, the Shimerian sensibility (implied footnote here to Tim Lacy and Stuart Patterson).
I have several reasons for making this argument. Here they are:
1. Yes, the title. Agora. Doesn't it make you think classical literature? The Polis? Socrates? Aristotle? Plato? And all those chaps? While the artist herself -- and much of the commentary I have read -- focuses on her relation to the notion of "Crowd," the title gestures to a different notion, right? And as a public sculpture, perhaps it gestures to the notion of public as well. Seems to me somewhat Shimerian.
2. Here's another argument. The piece has multiple interpretations. Yes, it is indeed, an aesthetic experience that requires reflection and, perhaps, discussion. Here's a bit from the Chicago tribune that might spark ideas. Such requirement that discussion emerge in any encounter -- well, that too seems Shimerian. Meaning emerges. It is not simply there.
3. Most crucially, perhaps, the experience of walking through the sculpture seems to me Shimerian. In a way, it is like the experience of walking our hallways, where conversations sparkle and mutate and are never quite what they seem? Perhaps the Agora's seeming antiquity, despite the fact that the installation is relatively new, can be read as similar to the continuity I experiene when Shimerians across generations start talking to one another.
A tad early for ice skating, perhaps, given the current weather in Chicago, but not for Shimer! Bev Thurber is a Shimer faculty person who holds a variety of degrees, from MIT to Cambridge University to Cornell, and from Nordic languages to math and other fields. Here's what she has to say on "Euclidean Ice Skating." As a non-skater -- who has never taken IS 2, this is the start of a wonderful education for me. How about you?
Figures are what gave figure skating its name, though this seems to be peculiar to English --- in other languages, figure skating is called artistic skating. They're geometric designs that skaters draw on the ice with their blades. The official set of figures used in competitions, called compulsory figures, are all based on the figure eight. Figures have not been required in competition since 1991, and few people do them now.
Skating figures requires a lot of concentration. The goal is to get the line on the ice exactly right, then to go over it two more times. The lines left on the ice, called tracings, are the important part. In figures competitions, the judges stand on the ice and watch the figure being skated. Then the skater leaves and they examine the tracings carefully. Tiny mistakes, invisible to a spectator watching from the sidelines, can determine the outcome of a competition.
One example of a figure is the backward serpentine, which consists of three circles in a line, just touching one another. The skater starts at the intersection of two of the circles, skates (backward on one foot) halfway around the middle circle, then, without changing feet, glides all the way around the end circle. Once she or he has reached the other intersection point, she or he changes feet ("push...with vigor," advises Maribel Vinson Owen (The Fun of Figure Skating,98)) and completes the remaining 1.5 circles on the other foot.
This figure isn't very advanced --- it has no turns, and the backward change of edge, its main feature, is one of the basic building blocks used in more advanced figures. But it's quite difficult to learn, and many skaters have struggled with this figure. In fact, T. D. Richardson writes that the backward change of edge in figure skating "has been aptly described as the pons asinorum of skating" (Modern Figure Skating, 1st ed., 34).
Richardson's statement links this figure directly to Euclidean geometry. The pons asinorum (`asses' bridge') is the nickname of the fifth proposition of Book I of Euclid's elements, which is read in Integrative Studies 2, a course (also called Foundations of Math and Logic) that we offer at Shimer. It says: "In isosceles triangles the angles at the base are equal to one another, and, if the equal straight lines be produced further, the angles under the base will be equal to one another." (Euclid, The Elements, trans. Heath, I.251)
Euclid's proof of this proposition is, like skating a back serpentine, notoriously difficult for beginners. The Shimerian student assigned to do it on the board in IS 2 always has a hard time with it. The difficulty and the diagram of the proof, which looks something like a bridge, earned the proposition its nickname by 1780 (Euclid, I.415).
Euclid is hard for the same reason that figures are hard: you have to get it right. In geometry, you get a set of building blocks in the form of axioms and previous propositions. In figures, they're circles, turns, and changes of edge. A new proposition, or a new figure, is a combination of the building blocks at hand, and no more. Studying Euclid teaches students (and all of his readers) how to think logically, just like studying figures taught many people how to skate well.
Euclid may not be very popular these days but his Elements remains an excellent introduction to logical reasoning. Students (and perhaps many otherds) aren't always enthusiastic about studying him, but they realize how important understanding his work is when they get to Lobachevsky's Theory of Parallel Lines, the next reading in IS 2. That's the one that makes them want to poke their eyes out.
For access to some of Euclind's The Elements, click here. For more on Bev Thurber, click here.
In many ways, murder mysteries have a lot in commn with Shimer. In fact, they have an enormous amount in common with liberal education more generally, and I do not mean only because there are so many set on campuses -- or so many set in Chicago.
What then do I mean?Well, there are at least 4 characteristics of murder mysteries that seem to have to do with Shimer.
First: the genre called cozy mysteries (often including those featuring Miss Marple) are set in small towns, and are a variant of domestic mysteries. While not at all domestic (in my humble opinion), certainly Shimer is a small community -- and there are many who function a bit like Miss Marple, seemingly inoccuous smart people who are terrifically observant and able to . . . put 2 and 2 together.
Second: many commentators believe that murder mysteries are, in part, about ethical or moral quandaries. They are, some argue, case studies in debate about the distribution -- restorative and/or retributive force -- of justice. Certainly these are topics within the Shimer curriculum and, in fact, part of the struggle to live within its ethos.
Third: mysteries often pose problems that are -- shall we say -- interdisciplinary. Science, humanistic understanding, and social science can come to bear in a solution -- in the case of detective novels, balanced differently by various authors in the guise of their investigators. They require the "right" balance of specialist and generalist, breadth and depth of context in thinking about circustances.
And, of course, murder mysteries, detectives stories and the like are in part a genre of literature (controversial though that ststament may seem to some) that focuses (in some sense) on rationality -- on reason -- on thinking. That is, they are about what Poirot more or less indicated was "the functioning of little grey cells." While one might not limit rationality directly to the cells that make up the brain, certainly thinking is a crucial part of all this -- even when stretched to include intuition.
Murder mysteries vary in their commitment to positivism, of course. And the rules of detective stories call for requiring clues to be there for readers to trace.
But: again Poirot -- the little grey cells. Shimerian? In my view yes. And, not because of the fact he was Belgian, nor because of the way he was played for years on PBS, but because he too fits within the rubric of the core of what we do. We think together about texts - and the world in which we live.
There are some classics that are, indeed, must reads. And by classics, I do not mean greeks or romans, though many of them deserve our attention as well. In this case, I mean works that shape and shaped our understanding of what it is to be human, raise essential questions, offer important understandings of both specifics and of broader matters.
Black Metropolis is a classic. Of course, this assertion is not surprising to many.
Black Metropolis is a must read for Chicago-ans. Again, not surprising.
Black Metropolis both helps us understand the world and ourselves. This last bit, if those around me these days are a measure, is somewhat more challenging. Why does it help a white, female, only-recently-returned-to-Chicago college president understand herself? Why is it important to Shimerians -- indeed to all Americans and Shimerians and more, today?
First: As I will always argue, making sense of our world requires us to refuse to be ahistorical. We are shaped by the context within which we live and that means doing what we can to know our history. To know Chicago, for example, is not merely to know where to get a good gluten free donut today (I do) or even to notice the differences and continuities between today's Chicago and the Chicago one first experienced (I do notice such things -- where did that S curve go? where is my old friend hte seminary coop bookstore in the basement?). Knowing Chicago means more though -- and to be responsible for learning more. For me, that included reading this great classic work.
Second: Of course, because Shimer is in Bronzeville, Black Metropolis is particularly important. It provides a mix of ethnographic and quantitative data approaches to understanding how limiting the residential accessibility of the city occurred, was experienced, and continues to shape today's experience of race and class.
Third: This book does require some self reflection. Perhaps all important books do. By asking readers to look directly at the realities -- both the wonders and the horrors -- of racism, of black culture, of church and press and work, and institution building -- the book made me ask myself what I am doing and why, how I benefit from my many encounters with the legacy of the black metropolis -- every day. And, it makes me ask myself how I did not know -- nor was I required -- to know much of this in any educational venture I pursued. A number of years ago, I worked on a Black History month presentation -- and of course, all the "new history" I learned was a significant part of the education of my colleague with whom I worked -- for he was raised to know his history -- african american history -- and I was not.
The latter perhaps, is the most crucial reason for me to read the book. Some of you wil have read it, and many of you will bring very different histories to the reading than I. But I can assure you, I will be re-reading Black Metropolis for some time.