Shimer was founded in 1852 and has been a great books college since 1950
Liberal arts colleges are well known across the country for their ability to create critical, intellectually-capable thinkers, and not just hyper-specialized, vocational workers. While there are many liberal arts colleges, there are some like Shimer that go one step further and use a great books curriculum—a curriculum devised directly from classic and primary texts—to engender discussion and debate.
In this case, the role of the faculty is to facilitate discussion and allow their students to question, explore, and debate various ideas and philosophies found in primary texts. This type of educational philosophy was championed by Robert Maynard Hutchins, who in his life held the title of Dean for Yale Law School and President for the University of Chicago.
Read on to find out more about him, his life, and his vision of a more intellectual approach to the liberal arts education.
Maynard Hutchins Became the Dean of Yale Law School at 29 Years of Age
Robert Maynard Hutchins was the son of a preacher and studied at Oberlin College before enrolling in the United States Army in 1917. During World War 1, he worked on an ambulance in Italy until the war finished. Upon returning home, he entered Yale Law School and quickly rose through the ranks. He began his law degree in 1921, was secretary from 1923-1927, graduated in 1925, and became the Dean by 1928—all before he turned 30 years old! By then, he had developed his own theories about the nature of higher education and how to reverse the trend from intellectualism to what he described as ‘vocationalism, empiricism, and disorder.’
Shimer focuses on great books studies, a curriculum that was pioneered by Robert Maynard Hutchins
As President of the University of Chicago, Hutchins Pushed for Great Books Studies
In his mind, these pedagogical trends were plaguing academia. Quickly after ascending to Dean of Yale Law School, he accepted the position of President at the University of Chicago in 1929, which is where he began implementing changes to address these concerning trends. One of his solutions was the creation of a new style of curriculum, which focused on a great books foundations and encouraged critical thinking and discussion. Studying directly from these momentous tomes would allow each student to feel an intimacy with and responsibility for the material, as well as a deep understanding of how they respond to it individually.
The University of Chicago adopted his new curriculum in the late 1930s, but unfortunately it was later discontinued once Hutchins resigned in the early 1950s.
An Adapted Version of Hutchins’ Great Books College Lives on At Shimer
Hutchins’ dream of a great books college lives on at Shimer, a tiny liberal arts college in Chicago that utilizes great books exactly as Hutchins intended: as vehicles for intellectual debate, Socratic dialogue, and constant discourse, in what he himself wrote, the “pursuit of truth for its own sake.”
Hutchins permanently left the University of Chicago in 1951, then went on to become associate director of the Ford Foundation, president of the fund for the Republic, and founder of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions before retiring in 1974.
As for Shimer College, it was affiliated with the University of Chicago until 1958, when the two parted ways. Since then, Shimer has been independent, and is one of a very small number of colleges that still follows a great books curriculum.
Great books studies allow colleges like Shimer to keep class sizes small, so that every voice is heard
Hutchins was an undeniably influential figure in academia during the 20th century. His presence was felt far and wide as to the purpose of academia, and his spirit lives on in the liberal arts colleges, like Shimer, that have continued his legacy of a great books curriculum.
Are you interested in great books studies?
Visit Shimer College for more information or to speak with an advisor!