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!
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.
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.