Friday, March 5, 2010

Letter to the Assembly by Steve Zolno

Steve Zolno graduated from Shimer College in 1971. He is the president of the American Values Focus Group. The following letter was addressed to the Assembly of February 28th.

In 2003 I participated in the 150th reunion of Shimer which was held at the Waukegan campus. Up until then I was uncertain whether Shimer still existed due the school’s history of near closures. However, I, and many other past Shimer students (some graduates, some not) determined immediately that we would attend. I believe that the reason for our undying loyalty to Shimer is not our attachment to a football team or an old fraternity, but a connection at a much deeper level. We feel that Shimer represents an essential part of us, and perhaps the best part at that. Soon after the 2003 reunion we started regularly scheduled discussions in our area based largely on the great books curriculum that Shimer employs.

For many of us Shimer remains not just our “old school,” but the place where perhaps the most important part of who we are was defined. That’s why such a great number of us in Northern California have been following the recent discord.

Hopefully your current struggle is not greatly disrupting your academic lives. However, the most essential purpose of education – in my view – is preparing one to participate in democracy. Your struggle, if nothing else, is a laboratory in motion. To me it is clear that the value of an education can be measured not solely by an ability to sustain oneself: it must also affect one’s ability to contribute and participate in society. For me and, I believe, a number of us, Shimer not only familiarized us with the essential tenets of our civilization, but made us feel confident in our ability to participate as active citizens. The most relevant element of our education was not the study of documents, but the dialogue that leads to an ability to fully take part in democracy. The essence of democracy is engagement, not theory.

I believe that Tom’s portrayal of how higher education is essential to the perpetuation of democracy is well founded, but that participation is what teaches us the most. As Donald Rumsfeld has told us: “Democracy is messy.” Keeping focused while participating in constructive dialogue and working through a mess led to the founding of our nation. Dialogue toward a common goal – regardless of ideology – is the guts of what keeps a democracy functioning. This is not only a necessary foundation of democracy but the essence of its ability to continue to exist. A McCarthy-like litmus test clearly is at odds with real democracy.

I believe that most of the Shimer community shares a common vision that is similar to a vision of what is possible for our civilization. This includes respect for the dignity of every human being in practice as well as in word. I would hope that all are committed to the ongoing dialogue that is the essence of what Shimer needs – and has always needed – to perpetuate itself. Another military leader said - during the Vietnam era - that “we had to destroy the city to save it.” This represents the ultimate arrogance of those who would impose their ideology at any cost. I understand that there has been talk of cracking eggs at Shimer, but once Humpty Dumpy is rendered asunder there will be no way to put him back together in a viable form.

Many ex-students in Northern California would like to know how we best can support the ideals of Shimer at this point. We’re looking forward to hearing from you and the rest of the community.

Steve Zolno, Class of ‘71

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