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 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.
Is it possible to construct an entire course that is constructed out of "great books" by using only texts that are in some sense from Chicago or connected to Chicago?
I think the answer is yes. See if you agree.
Here are some potential people to include. Let's get to readings later?
Chicago through the Humanities:
Writers: Richarrd Wright, Sandra Cisneros; Saul Bellow; Nelson Algren (and by a degree of separation Simone de Beauvoir); Ray Bradbury; Phillip K. Dick; Hemingway; Carl Sandburg; Gwendolyn Brooks
Arts and Artists: Frank Lloyd Wright; Mies van der Roehe; Edward Gorey
Theologians and or religious studies scholars: Valerie Saivings; Mircea Eliade; Wendy Doniger
Philosophers: Mortimer Adler; John Dewey; Leon Kass; Martha Nussbaum
Chicago through the Social Sciences:
Other resources: Field Museum
Chicago through Natural Sciences:
Manhattan Project scientists such as Enrico Fermi
I admit it, I had to search for science people, and this is pretty minimal, but I did know about the Manhattan project. The others are "off the top of my head." This tells me there are likely many more. Hmmm on more scientists -- given how many Nobel Laureates are or have been in Chicago.
I recently met someone who recommended the book High Rise Stories. And, then there it was at a bookstore I was visiting. So, I purchased it, carried it around for a bit, and have now read it. I would say it is must reading for Shimerians -- at least those who want to understand our current environs.
A volume in a series entitled Voices of Witnesses (published by McSweeney's) that brings together oral history with matters of conscience, High Rise Stories is subtitled Voices from Chicago Public Housing and is edited by Audrey Petty. The book is exactly what it says it is: narratives compiled from interviews, extensive interviews, with former residents of places like Cabrini Greens, hte ironically named Robert Taylor Homes, and elsewhere across Chicago. Their experiences living there - and their experiences being displaced by the "Plan for Transformation" that led them to be demolished. They are recent, they are troubling, and they are inspiring.
I brought to this reading my own stereotypes, as we all do. And yes, there is an enormous everyday-ness to the violence described, to the poverty. And yet, there is also joy and community and much much more. There were facts I learned -- like the setting of the television show Good Times as connected to Chicago. And, I did read the appendices, which include some material on high rise architecture, a time line of public housing in the city, and more.
What makes this work critically important? For Shimer, perhaps the most directly relevant is the voice of the individual whose home was in the Robert Taylor homes for that is our neighborhood. To be part of this neighborhood is to know it. I recommend the read. And, then, a walk around the neighborhood. And, for those of us who no longer reside in places like Chicago, it is a welcome introduction to the notion that Voices of Witnesses -- a series focusing on "illuminating human rights crises through oral history" exists. And, as importantly, a model of the public intellectual that is inclusive and wide ranging.
Greetigns from Shimer College! I am going to begin a new theme across Evocations called "Reading Chicago" which will focus on several matters.
First: For those of us in the "great books" or "great conversation" community, both at Shimer and beyond, we must reflect on what we read that has its roots where we are. IN the case of Shimer, this is asking what "great" books or art works or texts have their roots in Chicago (or, more broadly) Illinois. There are, in fact, many, I would argue. And that is part of what I intend to indicate here.
Second: Are there texts (or art works or music) that are, in some sense, required readings for all Chicago-ans? I woudl argue yes Why? Because we ought to understand and reflect upon our surroundings in an informed way. Here too, I will offer some reflections -- and ask you to do so as well!
So: moving beyond "One Book One Chicago," we must ask: what does it mean to read Chicago?
Blogging is supposed to be something done regularly, dear readers, and I have been negligent. The last post was in May and . . . well, it is July. So, here is an alert that I am getting back to writing these, and I hope you will find what I say useful and enlightening -- and provocative. Look to this blog for the following kinds of pieces in the coming while:
1. Books about Chicago: Why Shimerians Ought to Read Them, and more!
2. Continuing reflection on who counts as a "Shimerian" -- Who would you include?
3. A guest post or two from Shimerians across the country -- and perhaps the world!
4. The return of Six Degrees of Shimer
And more. Of course, for a real sense of what is happening at Shimer, you ought, also, check out the Shimer website at www.shimer.edu and I urge you to stop by and submit news (have you written a book? Had a child or grandchild? Climbed a rock wall? Taken a new job? Run into other Shimerians and taken a picture?) or offer your help. Like all colleges, Shimer depends on your donations and support as a volunteer to ensure that our education is available for coming generations.
The main point is this: let's not get ourselves into a lather about the internet and related matters, because in many ways this is simply a continuation of teens' desires to congregate and create community with one another. Yes, there is cyber-bullying (blown somewhat out of proportion in terms of number, though serious in each instance). And yes, there are some concerns when people only only only stare into screens. But, most teens are not doing that, even when we see them texting at football games. Rather, they are reaching out and saying stuff like "hey, where are you? the game is starting."
Another main point is that the whole darn thing changes very very quickly. Teens move from favored approach to the internet to another quickly. There are aspects of race and class that shape this and are worth knowing. And, even boyd, who is not a geezer, might be a geezer in some ways as her early internet life was quite distinct from that which is predominant in her study -- or now.
A main theme: the networked public. This is what teens (and others) are creating. And, really, this is not awful -- in fact, it is a form of sociality worth supporting. No, it is not and ought not be the only kind, but it is not itself ontologically or inherently bad.
By toning some of the melodrama down, boyd allows her readers to look at a phenomenon that is changing our world. And, she is pretty forthright, even handed, and easy going. Would that we all were.
For Shimer, this is a good place to look to consider calmly the changes that technology is bringing to our world(s).
The month is almost over, but the celebration of poetry continues, right? SO, for those of oyu whose love is poetry -- and whose love is Shimer -- here are a few things to look at
1. A poetry reading by Shimerian Peter Cooley is available here. Peter is a 1962 graduate who teaches at Tulane and is. . . a poet! You can find a bit about him (and a terrific picture) here at the Poetry Foundation.
2. Do we teach poetry at Shimer? Of course we do. Click here to look at Hum 2 which is one place that we do so.
3. Are there other Shimerians who are poets? Again, of course. An example is Deborah Sperberg who reminds us all you can be an executive and a poet. Try here for some information.
Of course, there is much more to be said -- including the names and poems of this year's poetry contest winners. But, I shall end here. And hope you will add through comments!
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.
When I saw the title -- well, when I heard the title in an interview with Edwidge Danticat -- of her book entitled Create Dangerously, I already knew that she was Shimerian. Then, I IIL-ed the book, read it -- and was even more convinced. No, of course she did not attend SHimer; but yes, she shares the spirit of Shimer. And it is not only because our tag line is "Dangerously Optimistic Since 1853." It is because Danticat is amazing -- as writer, thinker and likely more. Plus, she referenced Algerian (often mistaken for a Frenchman only) Albert Camus in her work.
Danticat, a Haitian writer, a Haitian American writer, a fiction writer and not, is interested in how one crosses borders, sometimes quite literally and sometimes quite figuratively, in life and in writing. To do so can be (again quite literally) dangerous. It can mean one's life (an interesting locution for the notion that one can be killed for one's writing, imprisoned for life, tortured and more). And, it can mean one;s life in an equally meaningful way, for such dangerous creativity can vivify, vitalize, create. Being a writer, a story teller, walks the edge of truth and lie, of life and death, of hope and possibility.
And, it is a political act. Camus knew this as does Danticat, who cites his work on this very topic. Here a her key chapter is: "Create Dangerously: THe Immigrant Artist at Work." After her description of the execution of two writers, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin in 1964, she moves to an overarching theme: a disobeyed directive from a higher authority and a brutal punishment. For those told "do not write", the punishment for writing can be brutal. So too with preading. Here, much of what she writes about is familial: about the plesures and dangers of reading.
So: as we Shimerians read and write -- the pelasure and the dnger are both literal and figurative. For, both are more than leisure, more than "mere" thought. Each is an enactment of the world we expect, we live in and we resist.