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!
Marc Edmundson is a professor who has written a new book entitled Why Teach? Having just read it, I concur with those who have celebrated it -- and believe that those who teach are not the only folks who might wish to read it. Those who administer institutions might want to read it -- and those who subject themselves to education (aka students) might as well. There are bits to object to; frankly, I get tired of negative portrayals of students -- despite my own sense that we all, includign students, do embody a culture that is peculiarly against education and learning and sometimes, even, peculiarly incomprehensible. There are moments when one or another essay might have been edited -- or even (gasp) omitted. And yet, I recommend the book. And, I would go so far as to say that Edmundson, though he know it not, has a spark of the Shimerian in him.
Here are a few reasons why, which I share in the spirit of nudging readers toward the book. (And yes, I believe even a president can benefit from reflecting on the question "why teach?".)
1. The tone of the first essay is a wonderful and insightful way to understand faculty relationships to course evaluations. Yes, he is unduly negative about students and, I fear, gets somewhat of the wrong message from the evaluations (which seem to me to push him toward entertainment rather than pushing him toward a bait and switch from entertainment to rigor). But, I may be missing his ironic tone in my hasty reading.
2. His argument against laptops in the classroom is worth a good solid read.
3. He seems fair minded when he discusses sports in part because he reflects on his own experience in sports -- and I suspect his experience is more like many of his readers' experiences than those we see on television.
4. His essays entitled "Against Readings" and "Narcissus Regards HIs Book/The Common Reader Now" push this reader to think about reading in new ways.
5. Who can not love his essay entitled "The Uncoolness of Good Teachers." Really.
His passion for his vocation -- and for liberal education -- are indeed inspiring. But, what I really want to talk about is a comvocation address he gave at the University of Virginia in 2005 entitled "Glorious Failure." The essay (as presented in the book) is why I have carried the book around with me for the month I have owned it. Failure. Glorious failure.
The phrase seems oxymoronic, right? It feels a bit like linking education to . . . . bewilderment? Or slowness? It feels somehow wrong. And yet, the essay is inspiring -- that one aims for glorious success and in doing so the failures -- the opportunities for learning -- themselves are glorious. He rages from Thomas Jefferson to Joni Mitchell, on the same page even, noting the ways both tried new things rather than repeating earlier successes. Edmundson has "heroes in the art of failure." Walt Whitman is one -- who did all sorts of things not so well (including it turns out he was -- according to WEdmundson -- bad at everything by the time he was 32). And, Edmundson also writes about the ghost or shadow curriculum vitae (cv or resume); he notes that when we look at such genre productions we see only the successes -- the articles we completed, the degrees we received, the books we published. We do not see the failures or the struggles -- only when one looks at one own cv does one see the rejected articles or the years that lead to that one publication. The shadow of the success is. . . the failures, the work, and the rest of life that disappears behind the carefully planned font and style of our cv.
And of course, for Edmundson, the writer can, slowly, patiently, over the course of a lfietime -- create the reader whose patience and thoughtfulness we all need: the common reader. (See page 179). Perhaps equally importantly, Edmundson reminds us that Wittgenstein was an elementary school teacher. So: teaching matters.
Why should presidents read Why Teach? Because much administrative work is itself teaching -- as is much leadership. And, because we too have a vocation.
Some of you will remember that we launched a social reading opportunity in a test way some months ago. We return to that enterprise now, on the anniversary (the sesquicentennial!) of the Gettysburg Address. Here is a primary text that shaped, for example, the more recent (though itself not young!) "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King, given during the Centennial of the Civil War. Both texts are, thus, core texts of today's thinking -- and arguably of modern civil rights thinking and activism. So: please read on -- and join us in reading together:
Dear Shimerians and other friends:
On November 19, 1863, one of the most famous texts of American history -- or, more accurately, one of the most famous speeches -- was given at the consecration of the Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As we approach the 150th anniversary of this, Shimerians and our friends can join us in a conversation about the Gettysburg Address via our social reading platform, Shimertopia.
Below are the directions for joining the conversation:
Please first sign up for SocialBook here. SocialBook is entirely free, and in addition to the Gettysburg Address, you will find a huge number of other texts that you may read "socially". Please note that SocialBook works only with Safari or Chrome browsers; unfortunately, 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, Safari should already be installed on your device, and Chrome can be downloaded here.
After you do all this, email email@example.com with a note expressing your interest in joining the conversation, and you will be promptly added to the group.
As many of you know, Doris Lessing, recipient of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature recently died. Below is a guest post from a Shimer faculty member, Ann Dolinko, reflecting on the impact of the book upon her thinking, her experience, and her teaching.
Susan’s recent post to Shimer’s Bulletin about the death of Doris Lessing made me reflect upon my first time reading Lessing’s book, The Golden Notebook. This novel is about two women exploring what it means to live personally fulfilling and politically and intellectually engaged lives. The narrator and the characters are coming to terms with the fragmentation of identity that many women experience within patriarchy. At the time, I first read this novel I was in my early twenties and preparing to take my exam to earn my Masters Degree in philosophy. It was the summer of 1989 and I had a Bachelors degree in Philosophy and had completed all my course work for my Masters Degree, yet I had never read a female philosopher. I was never assigned a reading by a female philosopher in class and I had never read any feminist philosophy as part of my extensive course work in philosophy. My Masters exam was on Aristotle, Avicenna, Descartes, Marx, James, and Husserl. Until that summer it never occurred to me that there was anything missing in my education, nor that there was anything particularly notable about the fact that all the figures for my Masters exam were male and that all my studies in philosophy up to that point were on male philosophers mostly taught to me by male professors. I had many wonderful and inspiring professors throughout my early education as a philosopher and I had what I thought was a firm grasp of the history of philosophy. But once I began to read feminist thinkers I realized that the education I had was only partial; there was an entire aspect to the world that I had never considered. Of the many books that I read in those first few months of becoming a feminist philosopher there are four that I think anyone who wants a nuanced understanding of the Western intellectual tradition ought to read: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, The Subjection of Woman by John Stuart Mill, The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.
What all these books made me realize is that I am a woman doing philosophy. This had never occurred to me before. From this seemingly simple realization followed profound changes in how I understood philosophy, education, and the canon. It never occurred to me to question why I had never read a female philosopher; I never even noticed. Once I did notice, my orientation to the whole world changed. I suddenly realized that I was an embodied being in a world engaged in the discipline of philosophy and that my position within that world had profound implications. These realizations did not make me abandon philosophy or the traditional texts which provide the foundation of philosophical thought, rather it made the project infinitely more exciting. As I read Lessing, Woolf, Wollstonecraft, Mill, and De Beauvoir, I realized that thinking is political and that as a philosopher I have a responsibility to the external world. As I have developed as a philosopher for the past 25 years this insight has extended from studying women to studying many other voices that are marginalized within the traditional philosophical cannon. My experience of becoming aware of my own self as a reader of philosophy has influenced what I teach. I think it is crucial to include works by women and people of color and others who are often ignored in canon formation. While the traditional canon has much to teach us it is not a complete narrative. It is partial. One of the major points that Lessing makes in The Golden Notebook is that women’s narratives are disjointed and hard to trace when we try to do so only through the texts of men.
I recently saw Wicked in Chicago. I admit that some time ago I read the novel upon which the musical is based, by Gregory Maguire (whose name often comesup when you google our beloved Cinderella Gergory). I am hoping the some time ago is actually a relatively long time ago, as I hardly recall the plot or the novel at all.
However, the musical did remind me of the novel, and together I was led to ask: was Elphaba a Shimerian? Ordinarily, I am not inclined to inquire whether characters in novels or musicals are or were Shimerians -- focusing my question more on authors (and on occasion recently an architect). But, I must, having seen the bits of the musical that focused upon education, pursue the question. Could he green witch, the so-called wicked witch, be a Shimerian?
I think the answer could be yes for the following reasons. First: she is an active learner and pursues her craft with a kind of dedication and native talent that seems, well, Shimerian. It is the combination of the passion (in her case on occasion anger) and the effort, not one or the other. And, there is most definitely "native talent." Perhaps more persuasively, she is a bit of an outsier as a consequence of her talents and smarts, and this leads to a somewhat complex social situation with her peers. (Ought I not say that? Hmmm.) And, of course, Elphaba is misunderstood. Her commitment to social justice (and full participatory education) are perhaps Shimerian as well.
No, I am not arguing that Shimerians are green. Though I have on occasion noted some green hair. Yes, I am saying the Shimerian ethos and Elphaba as portrayed by Maguire and the musical may have some similarities.
No, I am not arguing that we ought to sing more than we do (though I did recently participate in an intriguing conversation about karaoke). I can indeed imagine Shimer as a musical. Alas, it was a tad painful (except for the bit taking place at Orange Horse).
No, I am not arguing for inclusion of Wicked in the curriculum. But, I would say that some of the themes raised in it -- the complexities of good and evil, the nature of friendship, and the ways politics qua expressions of power can lead to a dehumanizing of the other -- well, those are indeed part of the enduring questions and texts we tangle with. Shiz University as Shimerian? Hmm. No ghost of Hutchins there, I think.
I ask this question for three main reasons: 1) because Shimer is now located on a campus that is linked with van der Rohe, including the building in which we currently hold classes, read and think (and, truly mportantly, what some view as hte "crown" [pun intended] of his career, Crown Hall); 2) because one of our recent (interim) presidents (yes, Ed Noonan) had an intellectual relationship with van der Rohe; and 3) because I believe that there may be features of Shimerishness that may be attached to those who were not Shimerians in any direct sense but participate in some way in its ethos. I have asked this question regardng contemporary popular authors, for example. Is so and so a Shimerian? So, why not ask the same question about a dead architect? Besides which, how can someone named Ludwig fail to be a Shimerian?
Another way of asking our question is this: if Mies van der Rohe was seeking to identify an architecture for his time, and in particular for his post World War I era, did others seek to create a curriculum for their time? Are spaces of intellectual vitality called curricula and spaces more literally linked? Of course -- hencer our octagonal tables, hence the move away from lecture halls, hence many changes in the thinking of those who plan pedagogical spaces.
Of course, as an educator at IIT he also looked to a curriculum to educate. In his case, theory did play a part, though as the last of a three step process as I recently read. Hmm. Which comes first -- drawing (he thinks yes) or theorizing?
And, of course, he is linked to aphorisms -- most clearly to "less is more" and "God is in the details." These too show perhaps a Shimerian connection. (By bounding our curriculum, by what we exclude, do we too assert less is more? )
Did you know there is a Mies van der Rohe Society? Yep. Here it is. And, here is the site on the IIT web that points to the historic architectural features of the campus we share. This article lists 3424 South State as part of the Institute of Gas Technology Complex.
Some time ago I purchased a treat for myself: a small book containing Neil Gaiman's graduation address given at Philadelphia's University of the Arts. The book is a tribute in some sense to the speech, having been rendered into an artistic form by Chip Kidd. A lovely small hardback, whcih, on its front, says "fantastic mistakes" right behind "Neil Gaiman's 'Make Good Art' speech." The font is lovely. The ideas even more so.
Several bits resonate particularly with this blog.
First: to fit with my theme of unexpecetd connections (recall bewilderment? slow?) -- mistakes. Failure. Hurrah! As Gaiman argues, if we fear mistakes too much, we will not pursue our dreams and hence will definitely not meet them. So: risk mistakes. And, relatedly, learn to deal with failure -- to make of them learnng opportunities.
But, perhaps most crucially, do not let success get in your way. Gaiman's book was one of several places recently that reminded me that with success can be a sort of deflection from one's vocation. Thus, for example, the artist becoems the person who . . . replies to emails. And thus makes less and less art.
So: Gaiman reminds us to keep doing what we love, what our passion says to do. And not be deflected by success. Enjoy it, yes. Enjoy it a lot. But do not let the detritus that comes with it deflect ou unduly from what you do -- in the context of Gaiman's speech, this is: do not get away from making good art. No matter what -- even in the face of bad things or boring things or success -- make good art.
I think, I do indeed, that one might say a related thing in the context of the liberal education Shimer offers. I'd wonder if you agree.
Worth a read, in my view. Inspiring I would say. And, if you must watch and listen rather than read (though then you miss the wonder of Chip Kidd), try this site where you can hear Gaiman himself give the talk (and look a tad silly in academic regalia.
Four percent of American Hispanics live in Illinois. (See here for this and other data.) And, as this site states, "In 2011, states with the largest Hispanic populations are California (14 million), Texas (9.8 million), New York (3.5 million), Florida (4.4 million), and Illinois (2.1 million)."
Sometimes the titles of books tell you all about the field of inquiry. Sometmes, not so much. And, of course, one cannot (they say) tell e book by its cover. Having said that, here are three that I find both humorous i terms of titles, and important in terms of their substance. Please add more in the comments?
1. What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and 'Bias' in Higher Education (NY: W.W. Norton, 2006) is by Michael Berube, who teaches literature at Penn State. This is exactly the question many ask. Hence, I like the title. (I confess: I actually really like the use of scare quotation marks around the word 'bias.') There is much here to encouner -- challenges to many accepted views. Two quotations are perhaps illustrative. First: "Good teaching requires all kinds of ventriloquism" (p. 12) simply illustrates Berube's tone. More crucially, the chapter in which it appears is entitled "Reasonable Disagreements." And, for Berube, this is not an oxymoron. Berube also uses in an eloquent and touching way, his own exposure to issues around disability, his own classroom, and his own field to push back against some jeremiads against today's university. Whether one agrees or not (and I often do), his arguments are critical to the ongoign debate about the nature of what we do. (and no, there was no second quotation. )
2. A second title I love: Anxious Intellects: Academic Professionals, Public Intellectuals, and Enlightenment Values (Durham, NC: Duke University Press) by John Michael. I like this not only because its author has two first names nor only because it has a terrific riff on phrenology mapping of the skull as its cover (what bump do you think links to identity politcs? to anti-intellectualism?). It is the title that gets me, linking as it does anxiety to intellect -- yes, I believe this caught virtually every academic I know in a kind of mirror of self-identification. Plus, the book offers commentary on Berube.
3. We're Losing Our Minds: Rethinking America Higher Education (New York: Palgrave MacMillan: 2011) is more obviously focused on today's debate about what higher eductaion is and how it "should" be operating. Best ironic title ever? Maybe. Its authors (one a friend) are consultants (and a former college president) whose love for liberal education shines. Their call for change is, in part, a call to revalue what is critically important: what education is and what it is for.
What's on your reading list that affects your view of higher education? Share please?