David Gasper is a current student who has been working with political campaigns during his time at Shimer. He'll introduce himself in another post, but would like to bring you what he's been working with around this election time of year!
I've thought a lot on my semester off about what Shimer means to me. I could wax poetic for volumes on the quality both of our education and of our community. I could weep a new Great Lake for how much I miss the discussions in and out of the classroom. While all of that is true, what stands out most is what has changed about me as a result of just a year and a half at Shimer.
I've been doing work in the Waukegan area during my semester off. For those unfamiliar with Shimer's history, there was a time when a few buildings in the Waukegan area served as Shimer's physical home. This means that people in the area are at least passingly familiar with Shimer. Let me pause here to tell you a bit about what I've been doing. I came from school busing, and so I have returned part time to that field. The other thing I've started doing is getting involved in politics. I've been working both for a county wide political party and for a state senate race. My instinct is to tell you all about both of those, but what's really amazing is what Shimer has meant in this journey.
In school busing, I have a reputation for being able to do work quickly and under pressure, a skill Shimer has only honed to a razor edge. Things like hell week (the last week of classes before writing week starts) and the Basic Comp (the week-long examination you take after your second or third semester) kept that working under pressure skill sharp and readily available. While other people found thinking under the harsh reality of 16-hour days, five to six days a week, to be near impossible, I found it to be a blessing I was only solving how to get a student from point A to point B and not attempting to unravel the mysteries Kierkegaard almost teased me with my last semester. I also noticed a huge change, and so did my previous boss, in that I ask A LOT more questions. Sometimes this is a wonderful thing. Upset parents and school administrators have commented to me on how they feel like I really understand their complaints and am working with them to fix their issues. I wasn't bad at this before but Shimer and learning to ask questions in a different way has helped tremendously. Sometimes it's a hindrance that I like to understand a project before I undertake it and sometimes business relationships are about doing work quick not with the deepest understanding of that work.
In the world of politics my Shimer education has been nothing short of magical for me. I'm sure all of you have heard, "Shimer is a place you learn how to think, not what to think." Nothing has made this reality more clear for me than entering into a world I knew very little about. I've learned new skills (whole new areas really) at a pace that is startling for me. I started the season with things like 'script', 'turf', and 'universe' being totally foreign words. I'm now quite comfortable not just with the terminology but the concepts behind them. I've been able to convince people to not just teach me what to do but why they do it that way. I've learned things like when to walk base (friendly voters same party as candidate) and when to walk persuasion (not-so-friendly voters from either party), why we call some universes (consumer-data and voting-data-targeted groups of voters) and walk others. It means that though I started the cycle off knowing nothing about the mechanics of running a campaign or working for a political party, I'm now confident that I'm an asset to the campaigns I work with.
Some things are the intellectual fascination of creating universes harkening back to Durkheim’s love for statistical analysis; others are much simpler. I worked an event where we put up pictures of candidates on a backdrop. For years they've had trouble with getting any adhesive working to keep them up and they spend large amounts of time trying to so. My solution was one that was simple, one that hearkens back to my Nat Sci experience magnets. The front of the backdrop was held to the frame with magnetic strips, so magnets seemed to me to be the simplest solution. It seemed like an incredible solution to them and a simple solution to me. It worked; magnets front and back meant signs held no problem. And that's what I see when we talk about "how to think, not what to think."
What's been most surprising to me is that people DO know the Shimer name. We have a really solid reputation with people who know us. Our exposure isn't as large as I'd like but a good number of lawyers and politicians (even a state senator) have heard of us. An even greater number have heard of a Great Books education. Both Shimer and the Great Books tradition have been greeted with a positive response. Comments about Shimer specifically have been about the small size of our classrooms and the community activism of the community. I didn't have the pleasure of being in Waukegan, but some of you must have caused some ruckus while there because people in politics feel the Shimer name is associated with being active in the community we lived in. I'm proud of that tradition. I'm sure some of the neighbors wouldn't find that tradition so wonderful but the idea of "to serve, not to be served" I believe starts first in our own community and then extends into the communities we live and exist in.
I never expected to be one for calls to action; I certainly didn't sit down to write this to give you one. However, that's the rub... we only affect our world by acting in it. So that's what I'd like to see all of us do more of: talk about Shimer and the Great Books program whenever you can, to whoever you can. But also, do things that make a difference in your community. By doing those things and wearing something from Shimer or by simply having a group of us making positive change in a neighborhood: people will ask, people will talk!