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.