As we sat together in Infinity with his wife and the daughter who wanted to come to Shimer College, he was not ready to accept the idea that a Shimer education was the right one. He had received his education in the physical sciences. He made his business in software. He served as CEO of his own company. Even from his way of asking questions, I knew he was an intelligent, pragmatic, left-brained thinker. So he asked,
“How can you teach math and science in discussion classes? If the students just trade ideas with each other, how will they learn the facts, the truth?”
It was clear that he was not trying to trap me. This was an open-minded and authentic question. He was prepared to hear the answer even if he suspected that I could not give one. My response was equally authentic.
“A good Shimer dialog is not a ‘rap session’, not just students pooling their ignorance.” I said. “It’s a dialog with the author as much as with each other, and we work together to understand what the author is saying. If it’s Newton explaining Physics in the Principia, then we help each other achieve a correct understanding of what he’s teaching.” The father’s mien softened. “After all,” I added, “you probably know the old saying about the best way to learn something.” I paused and he nodded, saying “To teach it.” “Right,” I responded, “so if I can get the students to teach each other instead of my teaching them, they learn more and retain more.” The father leaned forward, engaged.
I went on. “Let me share with you my own model of teaching. We Shimer teachers are often called facilitators, and so we are. But I’m not just facilitating the process by making sure everyone gets a chance to talk. I facilitate the learning process. My model, my internal image of what I’m doing, is the sheepdog. If the students are going in the right direction, I let them go, teaching and correcting each other. When they wander off in the wrong direction or into a blind alley, I round them up and bring them back to the content of the reading and the message of the author. After all, a good Shimer dialog is not just sharing opinions. It’s understanding the material and being able to back up any statement you make with evidence and logic.
“I guess that the clearest example is when I teach calculus. It’s not a matter of opinion what the derivative of X squared is: it’s 2X, period.” The father nodded. Apparently he remembered his calc lessons. “My job is to make sure that they know that fact—from the book, not from me—and why it’s true. Here’s how discussion works into it. The students have a reading and they have problems to do (you don’t really know math if you can’t do the problems) and we start class with a discussion of the text. Students share their questions or confusions and try to explain it to each other. I participate in this as just one more person at the table. When everyone else is stumped, I continue the discussion by explaining and sharing my knowledge until everyone gets it. Then we turn to the problems and do the same thing.”
The father responded to this. “Fine,” he said, “but does it really work?” I could see here both his pragmatic nature and why he was successful at business. I replied. “I used to worry about this. After all, most science faculty at other schools think a Great Books approach is fine for the Liberal Arts but ridiculous for Science. The scientist in me wasn’t satisfied till I started to get data.” What data? “I’ll share two examples. The first is my own experience. I always thought that my Calculus students were learning the material, but wasn’t sure because I had nothing to compare them to. Until Shimer moved to IIT. Our first year here, one student who had taken Calc from me went on in math and took Differential Equations at IIT.” The father winced. Apparently he remembered his Diff Eq class. “Half way through the semester, the student came back to me with the news: he had gotten his grade back from the mid-term exam. His was the highest score in the class. I finally had my comparative data showing the superiority of a Shimer classroom. The other piece of data came from the National Academy of Sciences—the crème de la crème of American Science. They studied themselves and found that their members disproportionately received their bachelor’s degrees from small liberal arts colleges, not from major research universities.” The father looked amazed. Why?? “I can’t say personally,” I answered, “But they themselves said that it’s because they were educated more broadly and taught to think outside the box while at the large universities students focus on just doing pre-defined problem sets. At Shimer, we do both of those in spades.” Now he smiled, broadly.
We talked more and I shared some more examples and anecdotes. In the end, I was rewarded with what every evangelist wants: a convert. The father said “I would really like it if Sarah went to Shimer.” This time, the daughter smiled.