Around Shimer, February means a couple of things: the coming darkest depths of winter, a gradual sense of adjustment to a new set of classes, and, of course, the Michel de Montaigne Scholars Competition. I’ve been involved with the competition in one fashion or another for the last three years, having been the recipient of a half-tuition award in 2008 and serving on different panels in 2009 and 2010 after enrolling at Shimer.
Whether talking to parents, prospective students, or trustees, I often find myself with cause to reflect on what exactly makes the Montaigne competition such a unique experience, but am unfortunately usually left with the distinct impression that I haven’t done a terribly good job expressing myself. Recently, however, I stumbled across something that reminded me in a profound way how illuminative of an experience the weekend was.
I spent most of this last winter break doing one of the least enjoyable activities known to humankind: packing and moving. After a few years of vague but mostly apathetic discontent with where we were living, my father and I decided to look at the possibility of moving, and very quickly found a house not too far away that fit us perfectly. This, of course, was only a fraction of the battle. In the process of sifting through, categorizing, and packing years of accumulated debris and possessions, however, I found, lo and behold, the copy of Montaigne’s “On the Art of Conversation” that I had marked to hell for my own competition. As I flipped through the pages and read the chicken-scratched notes that I surely thought profound at the time, I began to remember how beneficial an experience it truly was.
Prior to my time at Shimer, my academic habits were of questionable rigor at best. I spent my high school years at a Jesuit school in Detroit, disagreed in a vague and inarticulate sense with most of what was thrown at me, and left mostly unsatisfied. Though I put a good deal of effort into the reading and writing for my English classes, the type of analysis which I found was required of me for Montaigne’s essay was invigoratingly unlike anything I’d ever experienced. From not understanding his many and varied references to writers of the Classical canon to his almost taunting invitations to disagreement, I found that Montaigne challenged me in a way that few other writers had.
The discussion, of course, was no different, redefining my standards of what a class could be, and leaving me with an instant desire to sit around the table again. I found for the first time that I was able to learn just as much from my peers as from ‘the teacher’ (who, in the case of a Montaigne seminar, doesn’t actually participate at all), and was hooked.
In short, Montaigne was a transformative and illuminating experience for me, and I think it holds the potential to be the same for any prospective Shimerian. I’d invite anyone to shoot me an email to talk about it, and if you aren’t already signed up, I hope you’ll consider it.
If you'd like to talk to Erik about the Montaigne Competition, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will forward it to him. Also, here's a picture of him from the competition in 2008: