Friday, May 3, 2013

Valedictory speech by Judson Clark, 1859

Judson Clark was the president of the Neosophic Society at Shimer in 1859, and as such it fell to him to deliver the valedictory address at the closing exercises of the fall term.  This speech, printed in the January 1860 number of the Seminary Bell, is the earliest Shimer student valedictory address known to survive.  Although not strictly a graduation speech, as Shimer had not yet begun to grant formal degrees, it has an obvious kinship to later works in that genre.

Man is the only being in the universe, whose happiness is incomplete, and who at the same time, is sensible that it is so; who is moved by a mysterious power which cause him to disdain his own imperfections and aspire to that which shall make him a nobler being.

Man is the only being who is possessed of the great solace of all pain, Faith and Hope. It is this peculiarity in his nature which enables him to look forth with fond anticipations into the future, and borrow if you please, enjoyment for the present. Man is the only being that can communicate his thoughts to his fellow associates, and whose greatest source of enjoyment is founded on intellectual and social intercourse. It is this which distinguishes him from the beast, and makes him the noble being that he is. And that these things are true, is one of the strongest proofs of the existence of an All-wise Creator, and of the immortality of the soul; for can it be, that beings, capable of contemplating all the works of creation; beings, capable of being moved by combined harmonies of sound; beings, capable of increasing in knowledge to an unlimited extent; beings, who are never satisfied with searching after truth in all the winding labyrinths and hidden recesses of nature; can it be, I say, that beings, possessing all these noble faculties, have no existance beyond the limits of the time which is allotted them here on earth? Hope is bestowed on us to cheer us on through the vicisitudes of life, and inspire us to act for the future. But Alas! this fanthom has proved the ruin of many. It is too common for us to allow the present to pass unimproved, and cling to those pleasures which future hopes afford.

Thus our youthful days are spent in idleness, and in old age we must lay down and die without the accomplishment of the great end for which our existence was designed.

How necessary, then, that we should all act for the present, ever bearing in mind that these precious opportunities will quickly pass, and that we must soon be numbered with the forgotten ones of earth; that soon others will take our places, who, like us, will be driven for a while in the whirl of time, then, like us, be lost in the shades of death. It is a view of this, my friends, that has brought us here to-night.

But for the knowledge we have of these truths, we should never have become members of that fountain head of learning, the Mt. Carroll Seminary. It is this which has prompted us to act. It is this which has aided us in becoming what we are. And now our exercises are about to close. We are aware they have been imperfect, perhaps, to an extent, which has rendered them disagreeable. But hope forbids our disponding and cheers us with the prospect of meeting with you again, when, by patient toil and unyielding effort, we shall have become better prepared to entertain you. We are grateful for the encouragement you have given us by your kind attention and apparent satisfaction. If we have wearied your patience, we hope you will excuse us. and now, to my classmates, those with whom it has been my happy lot to mingle in so many scenes of pleasure and social enjoyment, I would say a few words. In addressing you many thoughts present themselves, which it is beyond my power to express.

No friendship is purer than that which has arisen between us. A similarity of toil and trial, of hope and aspiration, of purpose and aim, has brought forth more fully that confidence and respect, which we cherish toward each other. Add to this the social example of our beloved teachers and who can wonder that we come to this closing exercise with sadness. When we leave this place, it will be to separate. True, the greater part of us expect to return, yet the little band can no longer remain unbroken. Some of those, with whom we have become united by the strong ties of friendship, are now about to leave us. Their familiar faces will be no longer seen in the class, and their voices will no longer mingle with ours in recitation. But so it is on earth, our associations here are but momentary. Time with its mighty hand, falls down and destroys the gay fabrics of youth, and the aged veteran, as he calls up in long review the many incidences of the past can but lift up his hoary head and weep as he realizes the absence of those with whom he spent his happiest days. The past has truly been a delightful term to us. Here we have sat, as it were, under our own vine and fig-tree. Here we have had the teachers of our choice, and here we have received their kind instruction. The sun, the moon, the stars in their course, and the storms and winds, have all witnessed our coming in and our going out, and all can testify that this has been both a profitable and an agreeable session. Youth is truly the intellectual seedtime of life; and so sure as this is true, so sure we shall reap the rewards of this term's culture.

And to whom can we attribute it but our kind teachers? Then, if there is a place for gratitude in the human heart, let incense be raised from that fountain to bless those who have toiled and suffered so much to make us wiser and happier. You, beloved teachers, will receive the assurance of our highest regards for your faithful and untiring service. We know your task is not an easy one.

In the midst of toil and weariness, we have marked the patience, and promptness, with which you have discharged each duty. You have borne with our childishness and waywardness. The attachment between teacher and pupil has in nose case been more strong than the present.

And now I would say a word to those who are about to leave us. There is a power in social life which seems to wrap itself around each human heart and guide its aspirations, until it becomes what others are around it. Unconsciously we partake of the spirit of those with whom we associate, until their habits become our own. From this cause, many young persons have left the kindlier influence of parents and teachers, with noble purpose and lofty aspiration, but by mingling with those of a vicious and impure disposition, those noble purposes have become blighted, and in their stead, have rankly grown the noxious weeds which have brought forth but the fruitage of poison and death. Guard well, then, your association in life, and when other faces shall greet you, when your minds shall have become engrossed with other cares, let your visions and meditations reach back to our present enjoyments and to those who have been your associates and willing assistants in preparing to act well your parts in the great battle of life. And now to all: you who have shown the interest you feel in our success, by thronging to witness our exercises; you, our patrons, to whom we feel so highly indebted; you, our beloved teachers whom we shall never forget, but cherish in warm remembrance; and you, our classmates, with whom we have passed so many both sad and joyful scenes, and with whom we are now to part, perhaps, never more to meet, till the shades of earth have fled away, and in another world, we are gathered to hymn the praises of our Creator; to you all we would extend the parting hand, and bid a fond and lingering adieu.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Eric Nicholson on Great Books education

In response to this post by Susan Henking, Eric writes:

Great Books, in the hands and eyes of an active reader, are Self Organizing Learning micro-Environments. The greatness of the books is a function of the capacity of their ideas and and arguments to accommodate the self organized expansion of the reader's understanding.

Shimer classes collect selections of great books and cohorts of interactive readers into self organizing discussions of common topics constituting learning mezzo-environments.

Shimer's curriculum weaves sequences of classes reticulating an extensive selection of great books around a comprehensive survey of common topics in a fabric of learning community wrapping students, faculty and staff in a self organizing macro-environment of learning. The generality of Shimer's education depends upon the ability of its survey of topics to embrace any of the emergent problems encountered in life in the self organizing learning environment that is our amazing world.

So where is the wall through which Shimer is a hole to the whole?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Peter W. Schroth: "Never Grow Up"

Peter W. Schroth is a 1966 graduate of Shimer College and a member of the Board of Trustees of the College. The following is the text of the address he gave to the graduating class at the May 2000 commencement, where he followed student speakers Psyche Ready and Jason Blaesing.

Never Grow Up
Peter W. Schroth1

Address to the graduating class of Shimer College
21 May 2000

Let us celebrate Shimer College! Shimer teaches the context of everything. For the next few minutes, I mean to explore the context of Shimer.

As President Moon just pointed out, the new millennium is still seven months away, although there is something to be said for the two-party system: one at each end of Year 2000. In substance, however, I think the new era – which may be looked back on as a century or a millennium, it’s too soon to tell – began around 10 years ago. Geopolitics changed completely with the collapse of Communism. Hegel could have called it the “end of history,” (cf. Fukuyama (1992)) or preferably the “end of a history,” because a different history, with an altogether different kind of participants, has begun.

Communism collapsed just in time for the Republicans to claim the credit, but in fact the Soviet Empire fell of its own weight, not because President Reagan or any other politician knocked it down. The U.S.S.R government committed a slow and horrible economic murder-suicide, taking many of its neighbors with it, but their economic systems died just in time to miss being run over by advancing technology and globalization.

Nation states appeared in Europe around 1300 – the King of the French or of the English became the King of France or of England – and I think they started to disappear in the 1990s. Projects like Europe 1992 and NAFTA would require many years or many decades to erode the nation states, but the internet and Americanization or globalization, which are almost synonyms, have already, in about 6 or 7 years, done half the job of making nation states irrelevant. In technology and finance, the rate of change has accelerated and its rate of acceleration is accelerating. If you bought your state-of-the-art computers or put up your state-of-the-art website four months ago, it’s obsolescent, and if your technology is two years old, you’re about to go out of business. If you are the dictator and kleptocrat of some God-forsaken place whose starving peasants still live in 14th century conditions, you are about to be overthrown, because your subjects are learning from the Internet how others really live.

Now, then, you graduates have just spent four years or so discussing Sophocles and Augustine and Buber and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Darwin and Newton and Schrödinger and Durkheim and Piaget and Marx and Marcuse and Fanon and Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare and Goethe and meanwhile, according to Moore’s law, computer power has roughly sextupled. Your friends who have been studying engineering and computer science think you are quite mad. You may have heard that there are 200 jobs competing for each new technology nerd and 200 PhDs in comparative literature competing for each teaching job in their field. You may be thoroughly tired of the jokes about liberal arts graduates asking whether you want fries with that, especially if your parents have been telling them.

Please don’t feel that way, because the truth is the opposite. You have just spent those four or so years building an extraordinarily solid foundation for the rest of your life. The engineers and computer science grads are better prepared for right now, but you are far better prepared for tomorrow. You have the context for learning almost anything and you are skilled at wrestling with the real thing, as opposed to the dumbed down textbooks. You are ready to go on with lifetime education, whereas most other new college graduates have learned a trade, or less, and haven’t really even started to become educated. So many fine minds, wasted, because they never heard of Shimer College!

Most of the people I meet in business consider they completed their education, then began their careers. They grew up! Education is for kids! I had to fight this, when I joined the bank in 1984, because I immediately enrolled in an MBA program, to get myself up to speed in the business world. It wasn’t just that the bank wouldn’t pay for my MBA courses – Management thought I was wasting time on courses, time I should have spent working, meaning nights and weekends. “Why does a lawyer need an MBA?” was asked as often as “Why does a lawyer need a computer?” – it took 6 months of begging to get a computer on my desk, because Management thought secretaries should type, not lawyers. Now all that changed in the 1990s: not only does everyone at the bank have a computer, or two or three, but over a quarter of its employees in the US have taken at least some courses toward the MBA, and the bank pays their tuition.

However, most of Management would not even consider taking more courses in anything itself. They say, “We’re too busy making money.” They mean, “We’re grown-ups. That chapter of our life is behind us.”

Please, Shimer graduates, never grow up.

Your Shimer College has a better curriculum, in some ways, than my Shimer College, in Mount Carroll, had in the 1960s, because it has been fine-tuned and adjusted. I thought of calling the current version the “Shiner curriculum,” which has a catchy sound, even though it’s unfair to President Moon and the rest of the faculty. There’s a much bigger objection, however, which is that both you and I owe 95% of the Shimer curriculum to Mortimer J. Adler and Robert M. Hutchins, who designed its predecessor at the University of Chicago; but even they weren’t altogether original, because Adler based his work on the great books program designed by Frank Erskine at Columbia University around 1920. My Shimer College had some U. of C. professors, like Robert E. Keohane; do you still use “The People Shall Judge”? (Keohane et al. (1949).) Professor Keohane was my mentor, who told me to go to the University of Chicago Law School and then become a law professor, which I did. Do you know that Hutchins appointed Adler to the Law School faculty, where the two of them changed the style and redesigned the curriculum in ways quite analogous to what they did with the college? Do you know about Adler and Hutchins and the Syntopicon (Adler (1949)) and the “Great Books of the Western World” (Hutchins (1952))? (Which, by the way, are prominently shelved in President Moon’s living room.) How about Adler and Hutchins and the Paideia, named for something Mr. Blaesing2 mentioned, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica? (And I found both the EB version of the Great Books and the EB itself in your beautifully restored Prairie Room.) Do you know of the Committee on Social Thought? Do you know how similar Shimer is to St. John’s College, whose program was designed by Scott Buchanan, who had worked with Adler and Hutchins in the University of Chicago College? Did you know Hutchins was Chairman of the Board at St. John’s?

I’ll assume you know all this; probably some of you are even Robert Maynard Hutchins Scholars, you have a building named after him, and I think you all read some Adler in Integrative Studies 1 (Adler (1940)). But I’ll tell you who doesn’t know it: the U. of C. College graduates who have been campaigning to bring back what they call “the real University of Chicago,” meaning the Shimer curriculum. There’s a website on this at The webmaster of a different site, this one devoted specifically to Hutchins (“Hutchins’ University of Chicago”), didn’t know it until I told him, although he knew a lot about St. John’s. But look here: in Milton Mayer’s otherwise wonderful, 500-page memoir of Hutchins, I couldn’t find Shimer mentioned even once. In contrast, Mayer has a very favorable description of St. John’s, including the statement that, as of about 1990, St. John’s “was still the only college of its kind in the world.” (Mayer (1993), p. 173.) Or look at Mary Ann Dzuback’s biography of Hutchins, in which I found only two sentences mentioning Shimer. Here’s the better one: she says that about 1949, Frederick Ward, then Dean of the U. of C. College, “explored acquiring a campus, like the Frances Shimer College in Lake Forest, Illinois, which eventually adopted the curriculum, but remained independent.” (Dzuback (1991), p. 158.)3 She, too, has a good deal to say about St. John’s. In 1963, Time magazine called Shimer College “Unknown, Unsung and Unusual” (“Unknown, Unsung and Unusual”) and every word of that remains true today.

My bank is the subsidiary for sub-Saharan Africa of HSBC, which is one of the world’s largest banks. In the financial statements of HSBC Holdings plc, HSBC Equator Bank plc is invisible, because all the numbers are rounded off one or two orders of magnitude bigger than our totals. Rounding off in a similar way, we can say that nobody in the United States has ever heard of Shimer College. However, I could round off in the same way again and say that none of the intelligent life forms in the universe have ever heard of the star around which our little planet revolves, or, for that matter, of our obscure galaxy. Something is wrong with this picture, because colleges like Shimer and St. John’s are the best preparation there is for higher learning.

Let me be very specific about that last claim: the best possible preparation for a U.S. law school or a U.S. MBA program is the sort of balanced, general education, based on close reading of original sources rather than on textbooks, that you have just had. I suspect that the same is true in many or most other fields and that report, two years ago, that we had the third highest percentage of graduates going on to PhDs is suggestive (Abderholden (1998)), but my claim about law school and business school is based on direct, first-hand experience as a student and a professor in both.

I’d like to tell you just a little about law schools and business schools. In both cases, the typical program in the United States is quite different from the typical program elsewhere. In both cases, the typical U.S. school does a much better job for its students than does the typical law or business school anywhere else in the world. In both cases, what is especially good about the U.S. schools is the features they share with Shimer College.

The first year of a typical American law school is the best graduate education I’ve ever heard of, and probably the best year of graduate education in the world. It slips a bit after that, but consider that first year: all required courses, providing a balanced overview of the main ideas on which all the Common Law legal systems are built. It’s about 100% original source materials, the opinions of judges in real cases, not textbooks. Most of the opinions typically used are the enduring, “leading” cases written by the great judges. It’s all discussion classes, no lectures, and they even insist on calling it “Socratic method,” partly because people like Hutchins and Adler told them to and partly because they don’t know the difference between what they do and the real Socratic method, because they’ve never heard of Shimer College. According to George Anastaplo (1992), by the way, Hutchins “liked to say that the law school was one place in a university where a student might learn to read.”

I could go on with this, telling you about how law schools teach analysis, logic and, of course, rhetoric, and how many law schools require a capstone, integrative course in legal philosophy, but let me switch over to the MBA instead.

The standard American MBA is mostly required courses, horizontally and vertically integrated to provide a general education in all the fundamental areas of business and management. Unlike Shimer and the law schools, there’s very little attention to the great writers in the field and business schools are far behind Shimer and the law schools teaching writing, but there is one more major similarity: the best learning experiences in graduate business schools are the cases, which in this instance means immersion in the original materials, the real situations of real companies, taught in discussion classes that, once again, are thought of as “Socratic.”

I’ll conclude this with my modified version – modified about to the extent the Shimer curriculum has been modified over the same time period – of some advice Professor Keohane gave me in 1966. I’ve subsequently found strikingly similar ideas in the writing of President Hutchins (see especially the radical tract Hutchins (1936)) and Professor Adler (e.g., Adler (1990)), so I think I’m on pretty solid ground here. Education is a lifetime enterprise. In a 1990 lecture at Harvard, Adler said, “sometime after sixty, I have gradually achieved a sufficient understanding of the great ideas and a minimum measure of wisdom to regard myself as a generally educated human being.” (Adler (1990).)

There are four key elements to a strong start on your lifetime of adult education.

The first element is Shimer College. I know I’ve been preaching to the choir on that text, so I’ll move on to the others.

The second is a corresponding general education in all the fundamental materials of the field in which you plan to work. This would be, for example, the first year and about half of the second and third years of law school, or all the required courses in a standard MBA. This is the “liberal arts” of law or business, the indispensable foundation for common discourse. There should be something like this in every discipline, but, if I can believe my colleagues, in many graduate schools, it isn’t done.

The third element is specialized training in your field. For some lawyers, there may be enough of this in the remainder of law school, but I think most lawyers need considerably more than that. Some, but I think not enough, go on for an LLM degree in a specific area of law, such as taxation or banking. After the MBA, which is only a two-year program, some go on for an MS in a specific field of business, such as finance or human resources.

Finally, you need to be educated by experience. Humans in their late teens and early twenties have a genetic tendency to think they are more capable than humans who are older than they are. A particularly pernicious form of this gene is linked to the Y-chromosome. As Shimer graduates, you are better prepared for the unexpected than most other college graduates, so if you happen to find yourself once or twice in situations where you figure it out faster than others, you may be strongly tempted to believe that you have x-ray vision and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Trust me on this: however capable you are today, you will be much more capable after several years of applying what you have learned, and more capable yet if you keep on learning and applying for twenty or thirty years at least.

Experience will educate you also about the value of some parts of your formal learning that seemed pointless at the time. Please, go back and study from time to time during your life. You don’t have to go back to school, because you are quite capable of continuing your education on your own, but there are efficiencies in letting the professional educators help you.

So I agree with Ms. Ready:4 don’t leave! Take Shimer with you! However you carry out the details of your adult education, remember the structure and the methodology and the love handed down to you from Frank Erskine and Mark Van Doren and Robert Hutchins and Frederick Ward and Robert Blackburn and Robert Keohane and David Shiner and all the others whom you know but I don’t, and, not least, President Moon.

Make the world your Shimer College.

And never, ever grow up.


1. A.B. "with great distinction" 1966 and Doctor of Humane Letters 2000, Shimer College. Also J.D. 1969 and M.Comp.L. 1971, University of Chicago; S.J.D. 1979, University of Michigan; M.B.A. 1988, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Professor of International Finance, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Hartford, Connecticut. The author may be contacted at

2. Jason William Blaesing, the first of two student speakers at this graduation ceremony.

3. The other sentence is also disappointing and misleading: "Moreover, the Hutchins college program was compelling enough that a number of collegiate institutions, including Shimer College, Notre Dame, and others, incorporated all or parts of it in their programs." (Dzuback (1991), p. 282.)

4. Psyche Zarah Ready, the second student speaker at this ceremony.


Abderholden, Frank (1998), "Shimer Shines as Starter for Ph.D.s," The News Sun, Lake County, Illinois, 6 Jan. 1998.

Adler, Mortimer J. (1940), How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education (New York, Simon and Schuster).

Adler, Mortimer J. (ed.) (1952), The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica). The second edition is entitled The Syntopicon: An Index to the Great Ideas (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990).

Adler, Mortimer J. (1990), "The Great Books, the Great Ideas, and a Lifetime of Learning," Lowell Lecture, Harvard Extension School, 11 April 1990, reproduced at

Anastaplo, George (1992), "Lasting Contributions of Hutchins, Esteemed Educator,"

Dzuback, Mary Ann (1991), Robert M. Hutchins: Portrait of an Educator (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Fukuyama, Francis (1992), The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press).

Hutchins, Robert Maynard (1936), The Higher Learning in America (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Hutchins, Robert Maynard (1952), Great Books of the Western World, 54 vols. (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., in collaboration with the University of Chicago.

"Hutchins' University of Chicago,"

"In Search of the Real University of Chicago,"

Keohane, Robert E. et al. (eds.) (1949), The People Shall Judge: Readings in the Formation of American Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Mayer, Milton (1993), Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press).

"Unknown, Unsung and Unusual," Time, 19 April 1963, p. 76.

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

David Koukal on "Coming Home Again?"

David R. Koukal is a 1990 graduate of Shimer College, and since 2000 has taught at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he directed the Honors Program from 2001 to 2011.  The following is the text of the address he gave at Shimer's fall convocation in 2009.

Many, many thanks to David Shiner and the rest of the Shimer community for inviting me to talk with you this afternoon. When I studied here—well, not here exactly, but in Waukegan—I admit to imagining what an honor it would be to be invited back to speak before a Shimer audience, if I could graduate and make something of the education I was receiving. Now, some may question whether or not I “made something of myself”—I teach philosophy at an impoverished Catholic university in Detroit—but here I am, and Shimer College is in large part responsible for who I am. And for that I am grateful, and herein lies the honor of appearing before you today: an opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to this special place.

But of course this specific geographic location is not where the Shimer of my memory resides. The Shimer in my mind has its home in Waukegan, among a cluster of cottages ensconced in a historical district located next to a generally depressed city center. Coming back to Shimer today—my first visit to the school since its move to Chicago—may be a testimonial to Thomas Wolfe’s declaration that “you can’t go home again.” I confess that I wasn’t especially in favor of the move from Waukegan; I thought the College had worked too long and hard to realize its campus plan to just pack up and leave it behind, and the College had finally, after many years of struggle, come to be thought of as an asset to Waukegan by the city’s leadership.

But then I recalled that if Shimer had never left its original home in Mount Carroll, I wouldn’t be standing before you today. When people ask me how I found Shimer, I tell them it was more a case of Shimer finding me, and then completely by chance. The school suddenly appeared in my hometown of Waukegan in the late 1970s, where it established a foothold in an old, run-down Italianate house on Sheridan Road, behind a crudely painted plywood sign declaring itself to be “Shimer College.” For years, I and most of the rest of Waukegan drove by the College without taking much notice, wondering (when we bothered to think of the school at all) whether it was some kind of cult. But another chance circumstance brought me into closer contact with the College: I lived in an apartment over a shop that did the school’s printing, and when I went down to pay my rent every month I would filch pamphlets and other material.

After poring over this material for two years and several visits to the campus, I finally conquered my initial doubts and applied for admission. To say that I wasn’t college material would be an understatement. No one on either side of my family had ever even applied to college, and there was no expectation that I should depart from this tradition. Though I had always read a lot, I was a completely uninspired and stunningly average student who seriously thought, in my senior year of high school, that after graduation I could perhaps make a passable living pumping gas.

Despite my less than stellar academic record, Shimer accepted me into their Weekend Program, and after my first semester I never looked back. I totally immersed myself in the life of the College, learning, laughing, loving, and making the most worthy of friends along the way: friends like Aristotle, Shakespeare and Nietzsche within the covers of books, and many more outside these covers—my partner in life Sharon Vlahovich, our best man Bill Paterson, and so many others, but especially those friends without whom none of this could have happened in the first place: the faculty and staff who have shepherded Shimer College throughout the years, and most especially those who brought the school to Waukegan for a time, on the way to its new home in Chicago. You came to me, and you taught me the Great Books, but you also taught me about love and a level of commitment and devotion that is so uncommon in our time. Without you, the College would have never come to be here, or in Waukegan, for that matter; without you, it would have died a quiet death in the Elysian fields of Mount Carroll. Without you, I would have been deprived of so many friends, both inside and outside of books, and a loving companionship that has so far lasted fifteen years. Without you, I would have remained ignorant of the wonder of philosophy. Without you, I would have never found myself in the private room of an Oxford don, who with typical British understatement one day told my astonished ears that I “should think about graduate school.” Without you, I would have never thought of taking up this advice and further pursuing my passions, which have led me back to the sacred space of the college classroom. Without you, I would have never discovered just how large the world is, within which I found nothing less than my very self. I owe you everything. And I thank you.

All this being said, one might observe that it’s difficult to come home again to a college so frequently on the move, but this would be to confuse place with mere space. Shimer College may have inhabited slightly different longitudes and latitudes over the course of its one hundred fifty-six year history, but from what I can discern, wherever it has ended up, it has always made its presence felt in a very profound and hospitable way. Heidegger has a word for this, which figures prominently in his later works—dwelling. For Heidegger, to dwell is to be immersed in one’s environment, to take up the things around one in an intimate, familiar, neighborly way; it is to make a home, to be at home, through one’s concernful activities. But most of all, dwelling is about caring, more specifically, about caring for, in the sense of offering shelter, or, better yet, cultivation or nurture. The Shimer College I remember, the one in Waukegan, was always neighborly, even if its neighbors were stand-offish at first. I recall the intense intimacy of the education I received there, the cultivation of my intellect, the nurturing of my writing, the easy familiarity obtained between co-inquirers, the caring for each and every student, and above all, the sheltering of a style of education that has very few congenial homes in contemporary higher education.

Clearly, I have a deep and abiding affection for the College that centers on its dwelling in Waukegan. But can the College come to dwell in Chicago? And can my affection for the school endure, in light of its new place? As to the first question, it seems clear to me that the answer is yes. After all, many if not most people make more than one home over the course of their lives. I myself feel strongly rooted to three places in my life: Waukegan, of course, but also Pittsburgh (where I did my graduate work) and Detroit (where I have lived and taught for the last ten years). If people can dwell through their concernful activities in more than one place, why can’t a college do the same?

I recall that when I first started at Shimer in 1985, there was still a number of Mount Carrollians who simply could not accept the idea of the College existing anywhere other than Mount Carroll. Many shunned Shimer in Waukegan, much to our dismay and confusion. Many of us made pilgrimages to the bucolic campus in Mount Carroll to feel the lingering spirit of that place, and returned to our admittedly more gritty Waukegan location with a better understanding of what the Mount Carrollians had lost. Yet we still wondered if the spirit of the College could be bounded by a specific place. After all, our friend in common Socrates did not restrict his concernful dialogical activities to one, specific place; he roamed the agora, seeking wisdom wherever he thought he might find it. It was this Socratic spirit that we had in common, and which animated both campuses, however different they might have been. So, just as many of us Waukeganites sympathized with those from the Mount Carroll years over the loss of their campus, so you might understand the sadness that some of us from Waukegan feel over the loss of ours. But even though sad, I don’t think any of us would declare that Shimer could never exist anywhere else, because it plainly did exactly that, in Waukegan. And now the College is here, and that same inextinguishable Socratic spirit is taking root today, in this new place. Shimerians of all stripes—Mount Carrollians, Waukeganites, and now Chicagoans—must surely rejoice in this transient but stubbornly existing institution.

Rejoice, yes—but have I come home again? The second question I asked a moment ago persists, and is more difficult to answer: can my affection for the school endure in light of its new place? I strongly suspect that my Shimerian heart will always remain in Waukegan; our memories are so tied to place, which makes me think I will never feel completely at home here, in Chicago. But in all honesty, I must confess that even when I occasionally returned to visit Shimer in Waukegan, I never felt completely at home there either. The campus and its buildings were the same, and there were many familiar faces among the faculty, but I felt as if I no longer fit in. Just as I had moved on after graduation, so too had the College. For me, these were Hericlitian moments—you can’t step in the same College twice. I suspect this is true of all colleges and universities, because despite certain institutional constants, the student body is in a regular state of flux. But because Shimer has always been so small, a school where everyone knows everyone, the flux of its students is more acutely felt by the entire community. It’s not as if I didn’t recognize something of myself among these new students; it was more simply the case that they were there, reveling in the classrooms where I once joyfully resided, and I was not. I had passed on from this part of the school’s life. It was like returning to a house I’d grown up in, intimate and familiar, only to look through the windows to see other people inhabiting the rooms within. Like a ghost, I silently haunted the corners of classrooms and common areas, hallways and dorms, present but standing outside the vibrancy of the concernful activities of the school’s latest students. These visits raised in me a flood of memories tinged with sadness, but also the bittersweet realization that this is the only way it could possibly be, and far better to return to my Shimerian house (wherever it might be) to find it still a home for a new generation, as opposed to finding a collection of cold, empty rooms. This is your place now. Keep it full and warm and safe. Sustain it. Live it. Dwell in it.

In closing, let me say that there is one sense in which this is an unambiguous homecoming for me. Since graduating from Shimer almost twenty years ago, I have come to know the larger world of American academia, and I’ve come to appreciate why experienced professors sometimes leave this world and come to Shimer, despite the College’s long history of crises and its occasional relocations. Earlier in this talk, I briefly referred to Shimer as being viewed by outsiders as a kind of cult. In retrospect, we should be able to see that Shimer is indeed a cult, if we bear in mind that cults are in part defined by the degree to which they fall outside of an orthodoxy. And it is hard to overstate just how at odds with the academic mainstream Shimer, and a small handful of schools like it, finds itself. The landscape of contemporary higher education in this country is increasingly dominated by a narrow vocationalism that relentlessly judges the humanities by a strict standard of “usefulness” as defined in strictly economic terms. Even at my Catholic university—a university co-sponsored by the Jesuits, who have long been friends of the arts and sciences—I have found myself embroiled in a bruising battle for the past four years, trying to preserve the integrity of a core curriculum that would be considered anemic by Shimer standards. That this long constriction of general education continues unabated now, at a time when so many of the crises besetting our complex world are being exacerbated by the narrowly-educated, is deeply troubling.

Despite this dark thought, it's with a light heart that I return to Shimer today and claim it as my home—wherever it may be, now or in the future—as it stands as one of the lonely outposts in academia that insists on an education that broadens rather than narrows a person’s horizons. I think this is vitally important, because my sense is that the future is going to need people who can see far, and for the most part I see more myopia than far-sightedness in higher education. In this, Shimer is engaged in a heroic task, and I don’t use this term lightly. Anyone familiar with the College’s history knows that it is replete with heroics large and small, born of trials and sacrifices that commenced in its earliest days. No matter how ominous the challenge, the College has managed to prevail, time and time again, a Phoenix that has arisen many times.

As I reflect on the College’s many tribulations and its future challenges, I find myself recalling the St. Crispin’s Day speech, which occurs near the end of Shakespeare’s Henry V. You remember the scene: It is just before the Battle of Agincourt. The English troops have fought their way across France, and they are tired, cornered and outnumbered by superior French forces. Morale is low, and on the morning of the battle, St. Crispin’s Day, King Hal enters to address his army. The speech is one in which Hal concedes several times that victory is highly unlikely, given the forces arrayed against them, and he goes on to talk with great feeling about his comrades and companions, about honor, about the legacies that many of his men were about to leave behind, and about how they will be remembered. The high point of the speech, and the part that always reminds me of Shimer, is when Hal turns with glassy eyes to look over the heads of his soldiers, and with his voice choking with love and fellow-feeling, refers to those assembled as “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (and here, today, sisters too).

I’m honored to stand before you today. I’m honored to be among you. I’m honored to be of you.

We happy few.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Symposium interview with Laurie Spiegel

The following is the full text of an interview with Shimer alum and visionary electronic composer Laurie Spiegel ('67), conducted by Shimer professor Barbara Stone on November 23, 2003.  Spiegel came to Shimer via the college's early entrance program,  and later further broadened her horizons through the Oxford study abroad program.

This interview was published in the Symposium in 2004, but until now only a partial version has been available online.  Republished by the kind permission of Laurie Spiegel and Shimer College.

B (Barbara): How far back does your composing and music go?

 L (Laurie): My grandmother from Lithuania played mandolin and she gave me one when I was about 9. I had a plastic ukulele when I was little, but I wasn't one of those kids who studied music all through childhood. I just messed around with instruments. I improvised and made things up. I just always loved music. My sister and I had about 6 piano lessons, but our father had migraine headaches and couldn't bear to hear kids practicing and playing wrong notes. It just wasn't feasible in our house. I saved up from odd jobs and got myself a guitar when I was fourteen and then a banjo.

When it was time to think about college, everyone in high school asked "What do you want to do when you grow up?" When I said  "Music. I love music best." they all said "No. Too late for that. You haven't studied it. That's only for people who started much younger." So I accepted I'd just be an amateur who loved music very much but would be either an academic intellectual or a writer.

While at Shimer, I began trying to teach myself enough notation to be able to write down bits of music I'd made up so I wouldn't forget them. In England, after the Shimer-in-Oxford program in '66-7, I decided to stay an extra year and took private lessons in theory, counterpoint, composition and classical guitar. I ended up playing all the plucked instruments. I loved to play music at Shimer, as people did then and I hope still do now.

At one point when I was trying to write down some music I had made up in order not to forget it, one of the three Oxford students sharing that house said, "You know, they call that 'composing'." I'd never have been so presumptuous as to think I was actually composing, but by definition apparently I was. I talked to the guitarist and composer Jack (John. W.) Duarte in London and he took me on as a student. He told me, "Well, you know, composing is not a mystery. It's something that you practice like you practice guitar and if you want to learn to compose music, you should practice writing something down every day. It doesn't matter if you throw it away..."

B: How do you compose music? Do you hear it first? Do you write it?

S: I go back and forth. In music, they often say that there are two approaches, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Schoenberg would sit there in a quiet room without an instrument, without a piano, and from his mind, his preconceptions, his imagination and his intellect, he would write out a piece in silence and then hear it played only much later. Stravinsky, on the other hand, would sit down at the piano, start to play something, hit a wrong note, get fascinated by the direction the wrong note was leading and basically just work with the sounds. I've done both but I tend toward the latter. I pick up an instrument or start messing around with electronic sounds. I'm very much an improviser and always have been. I also do a lot of preparatory work, sometimes writing an entire computer program so that I can interact live, in real time, with the sound and see where it leads me. Sometimes I do something completely preconceived like realizing Kepler's "Harmony of the Planets" or translating a genetic sequence into music, but predominantly I'm an improviser. I almost never pick up any instrument, whether I've played it before or not, without finding some sound in it that leads me to more sound and then I follow it where it goes. It's this bizarre combination of active and passive in which people say that they feel as though some spirit has possessed them and they are just a vehicle for the work to come through, although it actually is just some unknown cognitive process. Jack Duarte in London described composition as "improvising slowed down with a chance to edit out the bad parts." I never like to do the same thing twice. I'm not one who finds a successful formula and then follows it. I'm all over the map.

B: What do you mean by that? If somebody puts Mozart on, chances are it will be recognized as Mozart, or someone from the same era.  I think of that as similar to a signature or personal style.

S: People have told me that I have a certain personal style but I don't see it myself. I might write something that's a Renaissance piece in the style of Dowland or some motets in species counterpoint or I might use electronic sounds that are almost unpitched, just textures and densities, but people say it all sounds like me anyway. What we consider recognizable style might be described in terms of Shannon's information theory (which I like a lot), such as the rate at which you make changes, the rate at which new information is introduced, the curves in variation density leading up to climaxes, how the timbre and the loudness and the pitch change in relation to each other, all on a sensory and cognitive processing level. If you hear Bach you can always recognize Bach. It has something to do with the rates of change, the degree of parallel processing, and of course he has an incredible ability to be completely active on the emotional, intellectual, sensual and symbolic-associative levels all at once. Bach is one of my idols.

B: Do you use a musical score in the same way as Bach?

S: He was a traditionalist in his own time. One problem I had more than many musicians was that because I started late and lacked traditional musical skills, the rate at which I could write things down did not keep up with the rate at which things evolved in my imagination. This is a major problem for temporal media like music or video or film or any art that unfolds over time. It's bad enough writing words as your mind gets ahead of what you're writing. But in music you may have many parallel streams of information getting ahead of how fast you can write. One thing that computers allow and part of why I got involved with them is that they let you work directly with sounds rather than just a symbolic notation for them. I started using computers to make music in 1973, before you could interact in real time with digitally synthesized sounds. Computers were too slow back then. This was considerably before the Apple II generation of computers.

I figured I'd try to automate anything I could about my own decision-making processes while composing to be freer to focus on the aspects of the process that could not be automated. For example, you can code an algorithm (a logical process) that describes how to get roughly an equal stereo balance between two audio channels. You can always go back and edit the result later, but you've delegated stereo balancing. So you can now focus on phrasing and pitches and other stuff that you can't automate as easily. Eventually I had the computer basically taking care of all of the notes, right up through four-part harmony. We began calling such computer programs "intelligent instruments", and my Mac program "Music Mouse" is an example.

I started working with computers at Bell Labs in the early 70s because I felt I needed to know more and was lucky enough to work in the lab of Max Mathews, the Director of Acoustic Research for Bell Telephone Labs. He's a wonderful and brilliant man. He characterized intelligent instruments as those with better than a one to one ratio between the performance information you put in and the sonic information that comes out. You do that by picking relatively small numbers of relatively powerful variables to control musical sound. In contrast, traditional composing involves decisions about zillions of weak variables: this note is the pitch A, the next C, the next one E. Instead, you might just stipulate that the next twenty notes will have pitches from an A minor chord and I don't care what order they are in. So now I have a cloud of music that covers the next twenty notes with this harmony and I can focus on a melody or rhythm or timbre...

B: What is the relationship between a traditional written score and the music on one of your CDs?

S: It's like the difference between a play and a novel. A play is a set of instructions that are meant to be realized, performed, by a group of people to be properly experienced. But a novel needs only your private mind and you imagine the voices, the dialogue and everything else. In the old days, before humans could record sound, the only way to record music was by writing down the set of instructions for others to play it, to turn it into sound. Now you can just record the sound itself for anyone to play back. The reason I still write music on paper is because of how wonderful it feels to play music yourself. I prefer to write pieces that are for one player at home, rather than concert virtuoso pieces for performance in front of an audience. Even though concerts are wonderful experiences, the big deal for me is that a lone individual can play music, whether on a CD player or a guitar, just for the experience of playing and hearing it.  I love to just sit down and read scores on an instrument. I can spend hours and hours doing this when I can find the time.
 I got into technology in part because I fell madly in love with it, but also it let me use cleverness and my intellect to make up for my lack of early classical training. It let me get to a point where I could put out recorded music and get jobs doing soundtracks within a relatively short amount of time. Initially I learned composing by writing music down on paper that I never got to hear. I began learning much faster when I could turn my pieces into sound using technology because of the immediate auditory feedback.

Another reason I went into electronic music was that I'd leaf through my records, looking for the thing I wanted to hear and it wouldn't be there. So I had to make it myself. I've always been a do-it-yourselfer, and some kinds of music were just easier to make one than to find. It's like going in the kitchen and cooking something rather than going to a restaurant. I really fell in love with sounds. Sounds are amazing.

Getting back to composing, there's another way to look at it, another one of these wonderful little dichotomies: additive versus subtractive. Traditional music is made by additive processes. You write a note, then another, and another, and then you put another voice against it. You add lots of little, tiny components that hopefully form into the gestalt of a large experience. Having worked with analog synthesizers before I went to computers, I tend more toward subtractive processes. I'll program a big, wild, full, rich texture with many different levels and then sculpt it down with filters and attenuators in order to be able to let it build up as a composition over time by bringing things back in and opening up the various audible apertures. It's more like a sculptor at work with a large block of marble finding the Michelangelo sculpture that's inside.

B: How has the technology changed since your work at Bell Labs?

S: Initially, vast new conceptual and acoustic vistas were opened by the new technology. Then, as it became more commercialized and product oriented, it became more and more conventional. Now it's ordinary for everybody to use computers to simulate a piece of paper, a tape recorder or a variety of additive processing models. Those models have been moved forward to some degree, hybridized with new techniques, but in general things have reverted to older methods. When I started doing this it was almost inevitable that just about everything would go wrong because everybody was doing everything for the first time. There were no software engineers making tools for artists. Artists were trying to learn the technology to make the tools they needed in order to realize visions that they had no way to create. When I began, the whole purpose of new tools was to work in new ways with new materials, not just labor saving or speed for old ways.

One of my worst periods creatively was after I'd been working at Bell Labs for seven years when they replaced the computers I'd been using with new ones not capable of the same things. Instead of having one computer all to yourself during your scheduled time on it so you could do real time audio, the new time-sharing system swapped itself back and forth between simultaneous users. All of the software I had written was obsolete and I was without tools. After a period of mostly writing unheard notes on paper again, I got an Apple II and I got into the personal computer revolution, a wonderful time. This period in the late 70s was exciting and fun, and involved a lot of idea sharing, but there was a period there where I just didn't have the tools I needed.

B: Looking around your studio, there's lots of electronic equipment but I'm struck by the number of stringed instruments.

S: I love stringed instruments. There's nothing like picking up an instrument and touching it and having it respond with sound.  I play just about every day, at least one or two different instruments. I really love them. It's like vitamins. But there was a major revolution that I was part of, bringing new technology to music. Initially there was a lot of resistance to electronic technology in music.  Back then, people said computers would completely dehumanize music. They had the science fiction image of computers from the fifties and early sixties, when computers had the connotation of belonging only to the government, and the military and being an oppressive force. (This was before personal computers.) Now this revolution is accomplished, and instead of having to explain why you are using electronic technology to do any kind of creative art, you would have to explain why you're not. The default now is that everyone uses computers in all the arts and in a way that frees me to go back to playing my guitar and banjo.

B: Can you say something about how you came to Shimer?

S: Probably one of the best things that ever happened to me was finding a little article in the Chicago Tribune that mentioned that you could go to Shimer without finishing high school. This was at a point when I was desperate to get away from home. I discovered that Shimer was a place where people were really into ideas and cared about things, not just the superficial things that people were into in high school. Back in the early, early sixties, things were very up-tight and girls were expected to be into makeup and clothes and to want to date varsity football players, get married and live happily ever after. In contrast, I was passionately into the arts and politics and philosophy and literature and read just all the time and was inventing and making things up and drawing and writing and playing guitar. I didn't fit in at my large public high school, so Shimer was great for me. It was the first time I felt that there was a place for me in the world, where I actually kind of belonged.

B: Did you play music at Shimer?

S: I played guitar and banjo a lot.

B: Did you play with others?

S: Not often. I always loved jamming with others but I seem constitutionally incapable of playing anything the same way twice. The improviser in me always wants to take off and run in my own direction. I almost never have the discipline to memorize a piece of music. I like to just read through a score then go on to read the next one or to improvise.

B: A totally different approach than preparation for a concert?

S: Yeah, a completely different mindset. I never wanted to rehearse. I'd always want to change a line or harmony or take off on some riff instead of perfecting something already decided, but I love playing with other people and I still do once in a while.

B: Was there a time when you did a lot of performances?

S: In the early seventies, when I first began officially studying music and got a lute. I ended up being an onstage lutenist for Jacobean revenge tragedies and Elizabethan plays. I even played classic guitar once in Alice Tully Hall. I also did lots of little gallery concerts in the "downtown" experimental music scene. But I always felt extremely nervous. I could never sleep the night before a concert. Composing was just much more "me" than performing. It was private.

B: You're originally from Chicago. How did you get to New York?

S: New York was as close to being half-way between Chicago and England as I could get without drowning in the Atlantic. Also, New York is just about the world's information capital, and the arts are informational media.  I really like being in a place where, if I'm doing an all-nighter, I can look out the window and there are all these other lights on and I know that lots of other people are awake too. When I got here from Oxford, the only jobs I could get were about "How fast can you type?" I thought, "This is ridiculous. Why don't I just give music a one year real try?" I did and by the end of the year, I had a job teaching music at a community college, was doing little soundtrack jobs and performing around the city.  I was actually earning a living doing music. It was kind of amazing.

Under my first New York apartment (for about forty six dollars a month - in the Lower East Side before it was the "East Village"), a group used to rehearse jazz in the basement. One of them told me that anyone could take courses at Julliard in their open extension division, and if you did well, they had to let you into the regular division classes. I went and started acing ear training and all that stuff because I already had a pretty good ear and I was taking four-part dictation by my second semester.  Eventually I got an MA in Composition. This was still pretty rare for women back then.

What this should show you is never to let anybody tell you that you can't do something you want to do. People can only tell you what's been done before but they can't tell you what's possible because what's possible includes the entire scope of everything that hasn't been done before. You can always be the exception. If you want to do something, go for it. Don't give up before you even start. Otherwise I would not have gone into music, which I love and have done all my adult life. Nonetheless, I still don't feel entirely comfortable saying "I am a composer" because it's got all of these horrible 19th century dead white men connotations. But in fact that's what I've done.

B: I know you've kept up with some Shimer people. Did you get to know Dan Sandin while you were a student?

S: Oh yeah, Dan and I were buddies at Shimer. At that point he was studying chemistry and I was doing social sciences. We never dreamed that he would go into video synthesis and I would compose electronic music. We've done a number of collaborations and will continue doing them. He's working on a new film right now and I'm planning to do the soundtrack. I did some sounds for a virtual reality environment that he did recently. Dan is wonderful. For anyone at Shimer reading this interview, don't worry too much about what you're going to do after Shimer. It'll happen, and it may not be anything you could predict because it may not be something that has been done before.

I would've loved to have seen him and others at the Reunion, but I was sick and under pressure with various projects. There's a lot of pressure. I mean, the creative life is like never having left school. You have to be very self-disciplined. There are always deadlines, long projects with many stages that you have to stay on top of. It's like having never-ending term papers to get done on time.

B: Is the pressure due to all the imaginative ideas, or is it supporting yourself and outside pressures?

S: Great question. There is certainly always internal pressure from new ideas and imagination, and the need to resist it in order to actually complete the works that seem most worth realizing. There is also a lot of outside pressure. Once you become known for something that's wanted, the world keeps coming back to you for more stuff like the stuff you've done in the past despite how much you want to go on and explore new things. You need to be better at saying "No" than I am. The works you've put out already are like perpetual children. They need follow-up care. There are always people coming to you wanting to do something for works created years ago. They need documentation and information, liner notes, program notes, pictures... They need you to listen to them play a score to be sure they're playing it the way you intended. There are often gigantic time lags between composing and performance or recording. Someone visited last week who plans to do my harpsichord piece on a CD, so I had to do a whole bunch of work on and about a piece that I hadn't thought about in a dozen years. This kind of thing obviously holds back new works. In fields that make more money, like my upstairs neighbor who is a very successful sculptor, or people whose music is more commercial than mine, you may be able to hire people to take care of a lot of this stuff, and in the old days publishers would take care of such work for composers. But at this point, and especially for experimental music, you have to take care of everything yourself. Trying to find the time for the creative work is always a problem. It's a toss up between finishing touches for old works versus going with new ideas. This is a perpetual conflict for me, and then of course life takes a lot of time.

B: One often talks about artistic movements or schools -the op artists, the pop artists and the abstract expressionists - is there a movement that you consider yourself a part of or is it something you even think about?

S: I don't really think that way. I have friends who are composers and artists of all kinds. There was a period in the 70s when I was often grouped with the minimalists, though I didn't really consider myself one. Steve Reich and Terry Riley and many others are people I knew and was inspired by, and some of us still try to keep each other inspired. Terry Riley was often considered to have initially inspired both Phil Glass and Steve Reich, and Terry also got me my first CD contract. And then of course John Fahey, who was a friend, was a towering figure of the whole acoustic instrument revival and for what's now called "world music". It's really hard to say but today it's much more a case of individuals with whom I have musical or intellectual things in common than any kind of artistic movement. Earlier, in the 60s and 70s composed music was dominated by very bleak, dry, intellectual aesthetics like serialism, and we were all forced to write atonal music in music school. I was part of the "movement" to bring back tonality, motor rhythm, sensuality, and a sense of flow to music. It was a battle, as was bringing the use of computers into music and art. I have many colleagues who are allies and good friends from the era when there were just a handful of us trying to do each of these things and to bring other changes into being. But at this point there isn't anything that I'm part of other than a world full of many people like me who love music of many kinds and all the arts and sciences and ideas too, and who care about people, animals, the world.

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