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!
Stuart Derbyshire, Researcher and Academic, visited and wrote about Shimer for Spiked Online, "‘The worst college in America’? The Washington Monthly could not have got it more wrong, Shimer might just be the best." Read more here.
Some weeks ago, the new Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was asked by a journalist why he had chosen a cabinet that was 50% women. His answer was short: “Because it’s 2015.”
In the few seconds of Trudeau’s answer, I heard a kind of “it’s about time” tone, as well as just a bit of puzzlement that the question even arose. On reflection, I also came to see his answer as a gentle rebuke to those who are passive in the face of the need for change. Trudeau made it happen. He did not wait for it to happen to him. He stood as if poised between reality and utopia, and grasped them both, pulling them together into a moment for his country and for his country’s future.
I chose to see his words – and his decision – as Shimerian in its bringing together of reality and utopia, bringing “what is” together with “what ought to be,” the conjoining of daily lives with our aspirations. Facing the practicalities of running a country, Trudeau refused to choose between ideals and logistics. He chose both. And he did so together with those who came before him as well as those who stand alongside him today.
What, I have come to ask myself, am I, are we, waiting for? Is my phrase “Shimer – somewhere between reality and utopia” serving us well – or serving to keep us stuck? Am I settling for the tension hidden in the phrase as though it is eternal and we are unchanging? Or, am I – are we—ready to identify the Shimer we must be because it is 2016.
Some of you will hear my question as about diversity, especially perhaps demographic diversity: gender parity, racial/ethnic diversity, and more. Some of you will hear this as about the tangled web of managerial and leadership roles at Shimer or the complex relation of educational mission with fiscal responsibility. The question might shape not only what we read together but why and how we read, what the focus of our conversation-based learning must take up, and who we must become.
All of you, I hope, will hear this as about the many accomplishments articulated in our recent annual report detailing the 10 years we have spent in Chicago. (If you have not received it, and would like to, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
So, as we enter another year together, I challenge each of us to identify the questions and actions we might take because it is 2016. Because it is 2016, and we are Shimer!
Happy New Year and best wishes for a wonderful 2016.
As we enter December, there is much to be thankful for and much to grieve. Violence abounds – both in Chicago and in various places around the globe. Racism and other forms of exclusion persist in horrifying ways. Poverty is more characteristic of the world we live in than many of us can face.
These sentences contain - in both senses of the word – much suffering.
And yet: students and others are standing up in a wide range of ways to change the world. Some of the work is volunteerism – at soup kitchens & settlement houses. Some of the work is activism on campuses and beyond. Some of the work is educational, as we help one another to focus on facts not rumor, to engage critically with the world around us and meet others with generosity and hope. Part of that hope – of dangerous optimism – is our hope to hear and be heard. All of the work is necessary.
And this hope is both an individual and an institutional hope, if we can envision structures of hope.
What we grieve and what we are thankful for each reminds us that to live fully in the blazing world, as a late, dear friend of mine once put it, is what it is all about. It is about the effort to listen, to think deeply, to enjoy and celebrate, to mourn and be exuberant. It is aspirational and in the moment, not one or the other.
I hope, this month, that you will be as open to new ideas as ever, to the humanity in all around you, to the worth of our best critics who help us see the difference between aspiration and reality, intention and impact.
I hope this month, and all months, that you will support Shimer as we steer between reality and utopia – and as we build hope in ourselves and the world around us.
Harry Dresden is a fictional character appearing in books within the "Dresden Files," written by Jim Butcher. Dresden, the recipient of a GED, is labeled the "only wizard in the Chicago phone book" in the novels. And, yes, he is a wizard -- and something of a wise ass. The books are somewhere in that grey zone between swashbuckling sword and sorcery and murder mysteries. And, they are set right in Chicago at locations such as the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum as well as fictional places that really really ought to exist.
No, Harry has not (yet) gone to college. (Unless one counts the many ways that he learns about his wizarding capacities). But he should. And he should go to Shimer.
Here are a few reasons why:
1. Harry had a messy time in high school and is not a huge fan of school. But, he is obviously and entirely smart -- both well read (there is evidence in the books that he has read some of the works we read at Shimer) and thoughtful in many senses of that word.
2. He is not "traditional age" for college. Like many Shimerians, he is not somewhere between 18 and 23. In his case, he is older. He would thus contribute to the wonderful intergenerational learning that is Shimer
3. Harry is curious and wants to learn more and more. This is clear in the ways he engages in various experiments in his sub-sub basement. He also believes in dialogue (with a variety of sorts of entities) and knows that dialogue may require action. And, he values collaboration.
5. Harry is interested in teaching as well as learning, having taken on an apprentice. His teaching methods are a worth reflection, given they are right there at the cusp of kind, inclusive and wildly rigorous.
6. Harry has a sense of humor and has moments of being very very kind. (He shovels his neighbors walks, for example.)
7. Harry gets Windy City weather. And, he lives in a basement apartment given his economic situation. So: he really gets Chicago weather. And, he sprinkles various Chicago insider humor across his worlds.
So: Harry should go to Shimer, where wizards are welcome. Right?
(Post script: Jim Butcher will be signing books at the Barnes and Noble in Skokie on October 1. Click here for information. And yes, Butcher went to the University of Oklahoma.)
Annually, there is an event called Banned Books Week, sponsored by, among others, the American Library Association (I think). The year the relevant week is September 27 through October 3. This year's theme is Celebrating the Freedom to Read, and includes specific attention to YA (Young Adult) books.
As you may know, Shimer has a new-ish youtube channel, and you can watch videos related to Banned Books Week there, including this one by yours truly. If you spend the time to listen to it, this question may make sense: what author of a banned book grew up in Waukegan, where Shimer spent several decades?
But today, as the week of banned books thinking, reading and etcetera begins, here is a list of 10 banned books from faculty member David Shiner:
In my field of academic training, the word myth has a very particular meaning: a story that functions to hold together a community. It is not (as ordinary language sometimes has it) a false story.
So, what I am about to quote is about the clash of myth and history (perhaps a tiny bit similar to the ways that clash occurred in the 19th century, for example, when historians and others debated the status of biblical texts). The words are from the preface to The Idea and Practice of General Education: An Account of the University of Chicago by "present and former members of the faculty." The particular edition I own has a preface by Donald N. Levine (one of my dissertation advisers and an emeritus faculty member of the University of Chicago who has also written on liberal education and served as Dean of the College at the University of Chicago). Here's what he writes:
"Often hailed as the most momentous curricular experiment in the history of American higher education, the 'Hutchins College' has even more frequently been misrepresented. The phrase evokes a widely cherished founding myth: Robert Maynard Jutchins came to the University of Chicago as a young man in 1930; he brought along Mortimer Adler, who introduced him to the powers and pleasures of the Great Books; as a result, Hitchins established a liberal arts curriculum in the College organized around reading of Great Books. The story is colorful, inspirational perhaps, but quite untrue."
As he continues: "The facts of the matter are:
(1) Well before Hutchins was even considered as a candidate for the presidency of the University of Chicago, its faculty has developed all of the ideas for what becamse knowns as the New Plan, instituted under President Hutchins in 1931.
(2) The College faculty subsequently considered but firmly rejected his aspiration for a curriculum organized around the Great Books, after which the plan for a Great Books curriculum got transported to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.
(3) The curriculum consistently developed in the College in the Hutchins years followed an alternative principle, that of leading students to develop their powers by focused work in the major disciplines by means of which human knowledge had been constructed -- not a Great Books program, then, but one that included some Great Books along with other texts whose selection was geared to progressive mastery of some basic ideas and methods of the various arts and sciences." (p. v).
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?
August 26 is Women's Equality Day. It commemorates a long struggle -- in some senses not yet done -- to establish the right of women to equality. In particular, it commemorates the achievement of women's right to vote in the United States, in the 19th Amendment certified on August 26, 1920. The date and nomenclature were passed by a Joint Resolution of Congress in 1971. On occasion, the date comes with a presidential proclamation (see here) and in 2020, I assume, it will come with loads of celebrations including those in upstate NY itself.
Begun, according to some powerful (though of mixed truthfulness) tales, with the Declaration of Sentiments, penned in upstate New York, and actually conceived before then in several other places, the work to gain the "elective franchise" took many decades. It has been challenged in recent years -- by increased scrutiny of voters, for example, and by uneven use of the vote, not to mention the many ways that court decisions leading to a variety of funding sources for those seeking election, the role of the media, and much more. And yet, we have it. We can use it. And this is in large measure the day to celebrate it -- although, like all such "holidays" it ought remind us to celebrate and use it every day.
This date is also the anniversary of a significant protest in 1970 described here and, in 1789, the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which you may read here.
As we do so, we can also celebrate part of Shimer's history, as we know that one or both of our founders, Frances Wood and Cinderella Gregory, were involved in that effort in upstate NY to achieve the right to vote. Hurrah!
And, this does have to do with liberal education, folks, because the rights of women include the right to education, including a liberal education. What was once the education of "gentlemen" was critiqued and changed as well as women's right to what the authors of the Declaration of Sentiments called "the elective franchise."
This book, authored by David Mikics, is both wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful? Because it says what many of us seem to be thinking -- slow down, think, pause, read. Frustrating? Because it reads in a kind formulaic fashon and as though the author's main idea is that the people he is speaking with might be . . . . well, slow. reflecting on this, I suspect he is truly attempting to get his readers to slow down as they read, thus illustrating the point he is making. Thus, I suspect it is not his intent at all to treat his readers as though they are (always already) slow. His intent is not embedded exactly in his style or even in his review of wonderful pieces of literature. (he introduced me to some I shall, indeed, read.) His intent is to encourage just what his title says so clearly: slow reading in a hurried age.
Several things I found delightful: (a) a description of why reading well includes using a (preferably print rather than digital) dictionary. I loved this because it read like a description of someone I know - and also because it noted a few of the new words that the OED has recently included. I also found delightful (b) the notion that reading is inherently dialogical -- that is, a conversation between author and reader. Neither, in Mikics' view, can or ought be passive. Neither agreement or disagreement is the goal -- connecting is. And, taking one another seriously. (c) self-reflection is a crucial part of all this. And, the emphasis on self-reflection (and transformation) is another delight in the book. This includes reflecting on why certain books or authors just. . . annoy us. That some annoy us -- but that ignoring the annoyance is not such a good idea -- itself delights. I also loved -- and I mean loved -- (d) the section on writer's revising their works. Totally reassuring. In addition, you may want to know that Mikics himself revised the title of his tome; perhaps thinking about the change from Lost in a Book: How to Recover the Pleasures of Reading to Slow Reading in A Hurried Age itself teaches us. Mikics' reflection on revision encourages stepping a bit out of any given version to think about the spaces between.
I also liked the moments of humor that poked up out of Mikics' text. The author's point is not that reading is entertaining or fun -- but that it is important in a variety of ways. And yet, he does seem to remember that humor is important as well.
All in all, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is well worth slowly, patiently, reading. It is, in some ways, like liberal education itself. It is, well, Shimerian in many ways.
A quotation for the day? None. But, I can tell you I intend to read -- again -- "The Kraken." And, I may, in fact, read it slowly. Want to join me? Click here.
One of the things that I think a good liberal education ought foster (and most definitely ought not squash) is creativity. In support of this I would suggest a read of a few chapters of Abraham Maslow's The Farthest Reaches of Human Nature. Part II of the book, Creativeness, includes chapters entitled "The Creative Attitude," "A Holistic Approach to Creativity," "Emotional Blocks to Creativity," and "The Need for Creative People." While nothing he says is surprising given his emphasis on self-actualization as both an individual and a public good, and as related to his views on education, the chapters are still worth a read many decades after he made his arguments. We seem to have missed his point, sometimes very willfully, about the ways that all education -- regardless of level or area -- can be informed by a more thorough understanding of art education. Here, his relation between experiential learning and other forms of learning is also relevant. (See here for some insight. And here for Psychology Today on Maslow and creativity. ) Perhaps the best quote on this from Maslow, borrowed from the immediately preceding link is "a first rate soup is more creative than a second rate painting." Who knew?)
The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) does include a creativity rubric in its assessment work. (Yes, there is some risk that, poorly done, such rubrics actually have the opposite impact from what is intended, but . . . . not if used wisely). They define creativity this way: "Creative thinking is both the capacity to combine or synthesize existing ideas, images, or expertise in original ways and the experience of thinking, reacting, and working in an imaginative way characterized by a high degree of innovation, divergent thinking, and risk taking." (Source: http://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/creative-thinking ) While I think this definition may not cover everything in the way of creativity -- such as the creation of artworks and engineering designs, it does remind us that when we think about what liberal education -- and indeed Shimer -- accomplishes and/or ought accomplish, enhancing creativity is an important goal!