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!
Some time ago, I attended a talk and heard someone speak of visits from Gertrude Stein to Chicago in the mid-1930s. The speaker then sent me a terrific article entitled ""An invincible force meets an immovable object": Gertrude Stein comes to Chicago." The article, written by Liesl Olson, appeared in Modernism/Modernity, volume 17, Number 2, Spril 2010, pp. 331-361. And, the topic seems apt for this, the start of Women's History Month.
And yes, it is this article that leads me to ask, rhetorically at least, whether and how Stein might be Shimerian.
As Olson argues, Stein was initially incredibly put off by the notion of "great books," especially as pushed by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins. The U of C, as we call it today, snubbed her in some ways during some of her visit(s) to Chicago. And then, she was entranced -- she accepted the invitation to sit in on a seminar and that was it. Or, that was kind of it -- she actually enjoyed the debate and discussion. And, though no one would argue she accepted the full paraphernalia of the "great books" tradition, she certainly was more inclined that way than prior to her visit amongst the students. (Certainly, it is the delight of the classroom discussion that persuades people to believe -- or join -- what Shimer does. Stein as pre-cursor to today's Shimer?)
As Olson notes, one "infamous" evening (November 27, 1934) at a party, Stein "got into a very heated discussion with [Mortimer] Adler and Robert Hutchins.. . According to Adler, Stein was 'infuriated' by the idea that the Great Books were read in translation. . . " (p. 347. The debate seemed to have to do with the value of language per se and the notion that the ideas themselves were what matters and that they were translatable. In any case, though, this lead to the famous invitation to a class. Here, though, is some of what Olson writes about Stein's visit to a class: "By her own account Gertrude Stein had an entertaining time teaching Great Books students. In a letter she wrote afterwards to Van Vechten, she admits to "immensely" enjoying the course because "they teach by talking." She writes to him: "they are interesting students and they say good things to you and they catch you up and it goes hammer and tongs pretty well and I liked it I like it a lot, it lasted almost two hours and I guess a good time was enjoyed by all." . . . (p. 348)
Her objections, as Olson makes evident, had nothing to do with the classroom. Stein's disagreements were, of course, more about the content, the personalities of Adler and Hutchins, and the very idea of a translated canon.
For those who do not know Stein spoke at Marshall Fields -- or much else about the literati of Chicago of that era, the piece is worth reading. And for those of us who are Shimerians -- including the folks who have written theses on Stein -- it would be great to hear what you think. A Shimerian? A Closet Shimerian? Or not?
Adam Kotsko has been at Shimer College as a professor since 2011. He has published a variety of works, including, this year, a book on creepiness from Zero Books. (Click here for information.) For more on Adam's teaching and much more, click here. Today, he is looking at the following book:
Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art (New York: Penguin, 2005). ISBN: 978-0-14-026608-5
And here is what Adam has to say:
One of the courses I teach at Shimer is Humanities 1: Art and Music, which explores the fine arts using Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a framework and guide. The myths Ovid relates have proven hugely influential on Western art and music, and at no period was that more true than in the Renaissance, which witnessed a blossoming of Greek and Roman mythological themes as the classics of the ancient world were being rediscovered.
Hence I turned to Malcolm Bull’s The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art seeking background for my course. While I did get that—in ample measure—from this amazingly thorough work of scholarship, I also gained the opportunity to wrestle with an argument that made me challenge many of my presuppositions about the centrality of mythological imagery in Renaissance art.
As Bull shows, mythological themes were in fact quite marginal for much of the period. There are many reasons for this. The first is simply that it took a long time for detailed knowledge of pagan mythology to penetrate beyond an elite circle of classical scholars. Few working artists would have been comfortable reading in Latin, and most available “translations” of classical authors like Ovid were more like paraphrases and commentaries than true translations. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of Bull’s arguments is that many of Ovid’s stories enter into art directly as images—namely, as illustrations in the various versions of Ovid’s texts that were floating around. (This reliance on illustrations meant that in some cases, myths were attributed to Ovid that don’t actually appear in his text, simply because the illustrator of a particular edition felt like including other myths.)
In addition to the problem of access, there was a problem of audience. Relatively few patrons were interested in mythological themes, at least at first. There was something vaguely scandalous about producing images of pagan gods in a Christian culture, particularly when the stories tended to center on the gods’ immoral behavior. On a more nitty-gritty level, though, there were not many settings where mythological imagery seemed like a good “fit.” It obviously wouldn’t work in churches, which were still the primary setting for much visual art, but even in a patron’s home, there were only a few types of rooms or pieces of furniture where mythological themes felt appropriate.
The bulk of Bull’s argument is taken up with showing how certain mythological figures found their way into the mainstream despite these obstacles, and the stories are often surprising and fascinating. What struck me most, however, was the conclusion, where Bull points out how strange it is that the early modern European world would embrace and enshrine a cultural tradition that no one seriously believed in anymore. The revival of Greek mythological traditions was not, after all, a revival of the Greek religious practices that gave the stories such urgency for the Greeks themselves. Whatever early modern mythology was, then, it wasn’t “Greek mythology” as the Greeks would have experienced it. Instead, Bull argues, it was something distinctively modern—an illusion that is openly embraced as such.
For a totally unrelated review of Bull's book, click here.
As some of you know, Shimer has a Social Reading Program that allows us to read together -- even when we are apart. This month, we are reading some material from African American authors, including DuBois, recently discovered to be a Shimerian (kidding, but see here). We hope you will consider joining us.
Here is a basic description of what we call Shimertopia, using Social Book.
SocialBook is a new publishing platform based on the idea that "a book is a place" where readers can congregate. SocialBook makes it very easy to annotate a text and to follow a conversation in the margins. Using SocialBook, Open Utopia allows for readers around the world to annotate the text in the margins and comment on the annotations of other readers, creating a conversation that is both dynamic and preserved for future participants. SocialBook also makes it possible for us to create a specific reading group composed of Shimer faculty, staff, students, and alumni: Shimertopia. Regardless of where you may find yourself , you can still share in a text-centered conversation with other Shimerians.
If you would like to participate in this experience, please first sign up for SocialBook here. SocialBook is entirely free, and in addition to Open Utopia, you will find dozens of other texts that you may read “socially”. Please note that SocialBook works only with Safari or Chrome browsers. It will not function properly with Internet Explorer, Firefox or other browsers. If you do not already have a compatible browser, you can download Safari for Windows here or Google Chrome here. If you use a Mac or I-Pad, Safari should already be installed on your device.
After you have signed up for SocialBook, please email SocialReading@shimer.edu, and ask to be added to the Shimertopia Group.
When you click on the My Group tab, you will be able to follow the comments of other Shimerians in the margin. You may add comments of your own by highlighting a passage in the text and typing your comment which will then appear to all of us in the margin. You may also click “reply” on others’ comments and continue the conversation they have started. Once someone has replied to a comment, that comment cannot be deleted. It becomes part of a permanently preserved conversation about the text.
We know that reading can be a solitary pleasure, and we also know that discussing texts with others is at the heart of Shimer. We hope you will consider joining us -- and spreading the word!
This month, for Black History month, the readings are Chapter 6 ("Of the Training of Black Men) of W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk. I have also added a collection of speeches from African Americans as collected by Alice Moore-Dunbar Nelson. For those of you who enjoy reading plays, I added The Mule-Bone by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.
Daniela Barberis has been a professor of history of science and social sciences at Shimer College since 2011. For some insight into what Daniela teaches and her published work, click here. Below, Daniela reflects on Henry James' Portrait of a Lady -- as well as Jane Campion's film of that same book.
Henry James. Portrait of a Lady. Penguin Popular Classics. Penguin Group, 1997 .
In this subtle portrayal of a principled heroine, Henry James shows us how constrained the lives and the mental universe of even upper-class moneyed young women were in the late 19th century. Isabel Archer has had an unconventional education and is unusually unsupervised and free to make her own choices. In a further plot twist, she goes from moderately well off to substantially wealthy thanks to a kind relative impressed with her independence of mind—an independence demonstrated by her refusal of a bon parti in the form of an English Lord. She seems to have every advantage. And yet… modern readers may be struck by what appears to be an astounding lack of imagination. Faced with an apparently free choice of occupation, she can think of only two things to do: travel the world, or marry. She receives several proposals even before she has the advantage of a fortune. One could argue that one of the reasons she is preoccupied with marriage is that men keep proposing to her (some of them very insistently), but it remains that she does not have an alternate plan of her own.
My reading of the book was colored by having seen Jane Campion’s movie version of this classic. A very beautiful film, with wonderful photography by Stuart Dryburgh, it does not accurately represent James’s book. The man Isabel does marry, Gilbert Osmond, is so intensely dislikable in the movie that one is hard pressed to understand her actions. He is simply an evil manipulator out for her money. In James’s book, Osmond is almost worse than evil. He is a fastidiously pretentious, intensely self-centered and entitled man, a “sterile aesthete” as one of the characters puts it. Yes, he marries Isabel for her money, but he is smitten by her, because in her he sees the perfect material from which he can mold an appropriate wife, re-creating her to his liking—much as he does with his beautiful house and with his daughter, Pansy. Isabel’s wealth is simply part (though a necessary part) of this material. What is more, he believes he has the right to do so. He believes his superior aesthetic sensibility gives him the right to exercise his control as a husband (or father) to make women into his creations. In Campion’s movie, Osmond is coldly calculating and Isabel seems to be swayed by his overt sexual advances, something her other, more proper suitors, had refrained from. In James’s book, the infatuation is due to her perception of him as a uniquely artistic, sensitive and proud man—a superior man—who had not been able to bring his superiority to fruition because of his lack of funds. She believes she will give him means to achieve his artistic wishes. She lacks a vision of something worthy that she herself might do with her suddenly acquired wealth, and so looks to Osmond to achieve for her this sense of worth. But Osmond has no capacity to do anything for the world; all he aspires to is to configure and control of his world, his wife included. James delivers a wonderful vivisection of his characters’ motivations and feelings and, in a muted way, a plea for the emancipation of women—or at least a heartbreaking description of the destruction brought about by the lack of female autonomy. Isabel had the makings of greatness; but due to events partially put into motion by her fortune, it all ends in tragedy and waste. Of course, as with all Americans in James’s books, she is very naïve in contrast to the wily Europeans that bring about her downfall. From our vantage point, simply observing how Osmond had brought up his child should have been enough to scare any woman of sense from marrying him. But what is most revealing about the mores of the period is that Isabel considers the way Osmond brings up his daughter to be quite proper, in the same way that she shares his notion of what a wife should be—even as she is incapable of fulfilling that role because he does not stand up to her vision of him. Isabel tries to achieve greatness through Osmond; he is not up to the task, but one has to wonder if she would have been happy, even if he had been.
To start reading Portrait of a Lady, click here. For a 2012 New Yorker piece on related matters, try here.
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)