In the Shimer library the other day, I came across a little gem of a book from our old Mount Carroll campus (circa 1940) entitled “Too Much College,” which contains the chapter “Teaching the Unteachable.”
“In my opinion,” Stephen Leacock wrote, “the great majority of the colleges of the United States and Canada contain in their curriculums of liberal arts an accumulation of courses which are little more than an attempt to teach the unteachable...in a world where it was always afternoon young men and women might sit among the lotus leaves, or in the shade of the catalpas and talk of “social trends” and “personnel psychology” till they nodded off asleep. In the world as it is there is no room for such a slumber, for such a sleep, for such a folding of the hands to sleep.”
Learning for the sake of learning is the cornerstone of academia--but it has always struck me as leaning too far towards selfishness over selflessness, passivity rather than activity. But now, through Shimer, I have come to see learning as an end in itself.
It's the process. Before the "end product" of an object of knowledge, there is the activity of putting down your preconceptions and listening. It is beautiful and redeeming and allows you to appreciate your (collective or individual) past with unbearable compassion and no shame. To learn is to love, I have come to see. Engaging in a dialogue--whether it be with a book, a classmate, a stranger, or a piece of art--requires you to act forth with your true self in a simultaneously outward and reflexive relationship. It's astonishingly profound. You are constantly becoming more 'yourself,' breathing and laughing and feeling--extending like a thousand branches--through the world around you. You are of it and with it. In the Bhagavad Gita, "there is a banyan tree which has its roots upward and its branches down." In its context, it refers to the Vedas and transcendence, but it strikes me as a beautiful description of all relationships and the self.
Your roots might be your experiences; your branches, your action. But in the end, they are equal and of the same tree; they are meaningless distinctions, as all are.
And in between the ground and heavens? Understanding, or the verb tense of. At the trunk, you use the nourishment you've taken from the rich soil and process it into something helpful and true to yourself. You are producing. Then you take this truth and send it back out into the world as something others can appreciate and utilize in turn. It requires every single cell of the tree and every breeze of the surrounding environment; but the most beautiful thing of all is that it will come back to you, again through the fertile ground. It will all return, only to go back out again. And only in this way can a tree grow.
Funnily enough, our mascot is a tree (well, one of them--the other is a 'flaming smelt,' but that one doesn't often make it onto the t-shirts). If we place it in the context of our motto, "to serve rather than be served," the tree becomes a metaphor for truth in action.
In the same vein, the growth of a culture or world can be seen as a similar gyre: our delving into the past to gain wisdom, our synthesis of these ideas, and our future output. All of it's "turning and turning in the widening gyre," in that unlike a tree, it not only progresses through time, but spirals back through space. In a sense, we are continually returning to the same ideas, the same truths, but in different contexts and in different lights.
Returning to our original metaphor of lotus leaves and catalpas, we ask ourselves: what sets our particular tree apart from those of other liberal arts colleges?
Our motto is “not to be served, but to serve.” It's our method. Judith Butler writes, "Being acted upon is not fully continuous with acting, and in this way the forces that act upon us are not finally responsible for what we do." It's an intentional understanding that active reception is necessary before active engagement in the world, and in between the two is you, your intelligence and will. Navigating through integrated course after course, one comes to see both that things are ends in themselves, and that none of them are isolated disciplines--including yourself.
If one could ever distill the particular quality that makes Shimer special, I think it's that every level of our organization is consistent with itself, these truths. On an interpersonal level, we try to understand each voice in class, including the facilitator’s. On a self-governing level, we work together democratically to make decisions. On an academic level, we try to understand the author of each text we read, and ultimately try to understand all the texts together--which themselves even build upon the inherent subjectivity of everything we think we know.
This may seem paradoxical when examining, for example, our social sciences curriculum, which sort of moves from through philosophy progressing towards post-structuralism. But I think here we try to treat all texts as equally important. We read the feminist critiques of Plato, but we don't necessarily lose respect for Plato. We confront the racist, sexist, and colonialist texts in the western canon, as well as difficult-t0-grasp mystical texts, but throughout all of it we learn that in order to actually understand the author, respect is a pre-requisite.
I experienced a rather silly but nonetheless striking example of this last year during a Humanities 2 study party. We were all reading poetry aloud in the dorms when someone reacted to an annoyingly distracting individual with sarcasm--which I pointed out to him wasn't fixing anything. I didn't realize until I saw the trapped look on his face that I wasn't solving anything either. It seems to me to be an perennial question: how do you relate to a person or idea without just reacting to it? Where's the balance between you and the other? It was a real-life, emotional realization of the pitfalls of endless ideological intolerance. Academic and political movements tend to react seemingly endlessly. I found myself looking for balance, and finding it here, in discussions of existentialism (authenticity), zen (the middle way), and pure dialectic itself (Hegel).
"Ultimately, therefore, it is not a question of (n)either…(n)or, but both…neither," as Constantin von Maltzahn put it.
What makes the “Great Conversation” so great is the degree to which we actively listen to the Other, understand what was said, consider it critically, and then consciously relate our perspective back to the person, who in turn does the same. It goes from one person’s mouth to the other’s ears, and back out through the other’s mouth (...and back in through the other’s ears, ad infinitum). It's the understanding understanding, as Aristotle might say. Martin Buber (whom we read in Social Sciences 4, and is generally a favorite among Shimer students) calls it the unifying "I-Thou" relationship achieved through the objectifying "I-It" relationship. The common idea here is that humans are social beings, so we’re going to live with each other whether we do it compassionately or not. We are, in a sense, obligated to learn to do it well.
I don't think it's a coincidence that our studies are so generalized. In teaching us “how to think,” I think we are really learning “how to love.” The Sufi mystics sought to love all things. Shimer itself has made me a spiritual person, in helping me to understand my place in the universe, and what it means to be an active participant in it--arguably the most "unteachable" thing of all. I am learning what it means to be open: both confident and humble. A Shimer student recently sent out an email reminding us of the necessity of vulnerability. It feels like magic when both sides of a conversation really show up to help each other learn. I recently realized that the word compassion, literally, means to "co-suffer" (the "Passion" of the Christ); it is a mutual surrender necessary for making the world a better place.
Evidently we knew it in Mount Carroll, and we continue to remember now. To put it simply: we insist upon living what we've learned: we love.