Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Letter to Chris Nelson by Louis F. Linden

Louis F. Linden is a 1969 graduate of Shimer College. The following letter was sent to Chairman of the Board Christopher Nelson, who also serves as president of St. John's College; it is reprinted here by permission.

Dear Mr. Nelson,

I write you today in your capacity as Chair of the Board of Trustees of Shimer College. I am a 1969 graduate of Shimer and I am very concerned at the events of the last few months. The “Mission Statement” submitted by Thomas Lindsay and adopted by the Trustees is one of the most poorly written I have ever encountered. Not only is it wordy and unfocused, making dubious logical leaps from even more dubious assumptions. It evidences an apparent intention to highjack Shimer and its tradition of critical inquiry for an ideological end. Either of these characteristics should have been fatal to its adoption. I am embarrassed by the former and appalled at the latter especially in light of the factual context that has been exposed in the several investigative articles following the money as “Deep Throat” recommended these many years ago.

As you have no reason to know me please allow me the presumption of sketching my connection to the College and its impact upon me. An anomaly in my time, I graduated from Shimer after eight consecutive semesters on the Mount Carroll campus. I was able to matriculate only because of the scholarships I received from Shimer, NDEA loans which took me 15 years to repay and four summers and winter breaks working in factories. Suffice it to say I was not a child of privilege. I was the first and only person in my family to graduate from college and the only person in my extended family to ever attend, much less graduate, from a graduate or professional school (Univ. of Texas School of Law, ’76).

The day after I graduated from Shimer I was drafted into the U.S. Army. To make a long story short, 15 months, 29 days and eight hours from the time I was inducted (not that I counted) I was the first person ever discharged from the Army as a conscientious objector on moral and ethical rather than strictly religious grounds after 3 courts martial and a federal habeas corpus. Several years later I was able to go to law school and became an award winning criminal defense and civil rights plaintiff’s litigator. Subsequently I became the Executive Director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and was a faculty member of the National College for Criminal Defense. I then ran away to sea for five years and became a Merchant Marine deck officer. Upon coming back to the U.S. in 1992 I returned to the practice of law then came to Baltimore in 1995 to run the last ditch effort to save and restore the USS Constellation in Baltimore harbor. Since then I have embarked on another career as a sound engineer and video writer/producer. Throughout that entire experience nary a day went by when I was not consciously aware of how in some way or other Shimer made all of that possible for a plumber’s son from South Dakota.

As the President of St. Johns I’m sure I needn’t lecture you about Shimer’s raison d’etre since the adoption of the Hutchins curriculum being teaching students how to think rather than what to think, etc., etc. The previous mission statement covered that quite nicely so why the change? Everything I read from and about the College makes it difficult for me to avoid the impression that Shimer is simply a financially weak institution that is being rolled in a hostile takeover by people who intend on using it as a shell from which to produce something that serves their own agendas. The new Mission Statement is simply an announcement.

For me this is not particularly about the form of Shimer’s governance. As a Mt. Carroll grad I was used to the College administration running things for better or worse. The Presidents and a not insignificant part of the faculty were undoubtedly Republicans (as well as republicans). Their political ideology never played a part in teaching or curriculum except as yet another set of ideas that were deserving of being tortured, parsed and dissected as best we could: savagely, mercilessly and is the wont of people between the ages of 15 and 22 sometimes fatuously. Not even the faculty or the Trustees would ever have asserted that theirs was the only way to run a college. When the needs of the College changed the form of governance changed to meet the needs of the College. It was alien to me but without that change we would not have a Shimer to be discussing today. This is not about the form so much as the process by which it is being changed. That it is being imposed from the outside seems pretty obvious given the universal resistance from the faculty and students as well as former faculty, not to mention Don Moon, et. al. Mr. Nelson, what in the hell is going on there? This is beginning to look like a secondary education version of the movie “Aliens.”

If the previous mission statement was not adequate allow me to suggest the following fifty words:

Founded in 1853, Shimer College, The Great Books College of Chicago, is an independent, nonsectarian institution whose mission is liberal education. That education is best conveyed by open ended inquiry, free from unexamined assumption which Shimer accomplishes by study of the Great Books of Western Civilization using the Socratic method

Anything beyond those two sentences really belongs in budgets and lesson plans and long and short term planning documents. It is difficult to ignore the surplusage that Mr. Lindsay and 17 Trustees endorse. It pretty much seems to put the world on notice that some ideas are simply fundamental and that the new Shimer is going to promulgate them. The sequence of events in adopting it certainly reinforces that conclusion.

That Mr. Lindsay has the temerity to assert in the new mission statement that intellectual freedom cannot exist without American patriotism is astounding. Rocky Koehane from whom I took Comparative Government would be equally astounded and I can guarantee he was no mushy left wing “communitarian.” (Probably any number of scholars in such benighted places as Canada, France or the United Kingdom might be surprised as well.) At Shimer we have always studied the founding documents of the United States and subjected them to the same scrutiny as any other ideas. I am pleased to say they have always stood up to that scrutiny fairly well without any help from the outside thank you very much. The sacrosanct idea always has been and always should be anathema at Shimer.

As best I can tell from talking to other Mt. Carroll alumni the vast majority of them are concerned at least and for many, quite more passionate about what appears to be happening. I have contributed modestly to the College annually ever since I paid off my student loans as have many of my classmates. Other than my spouse Shimer is the sole legatee of my will. If indeed the important principles of Shimer are cynically violated I doubt you can expect that support in the future. I would be pleased to come to Annapolis to discuss this further with you in person. Thanking you for your attention, I remain,

Very truly yours,

Louis F. Linden, ‘69

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At April 1, 2010 at 7:47 AM , Blogger Sandy said...

Thank you, Lou, for so eloquently stating the feelings of hundreds of Shimer alumni.

Sandy (Schmidt) Hockenbury '74

At April 1, 2010 at 8:34 AM , Blogger Marcia Z. Nelson said...

Yo! Lou! As the daughter of a tool & die maker, I'm with you. Thanks.
Marcia Zdun Nelson '75, MA, MSJ

At April 1, 2010 at 9:06 AM , Blogger Maria Sosa said...

Thanks from another child of working class parents who is grateful to Shimer for helping me develop not only the mental tools that shaped the rest of my life, but also the confidence to express them. I did this because at Shimer people listened to me. For Shimer alum who pre-date the Assembly (as I do, too) it's important to listen to the voices of the current students. They have so much to say and I am so impressed by them. The Assembly, as I see it, carries on the tradition of listening to the voices of the students. It instills in them a sense of responsibility for their own learning that I think is unique and should be preserved.

At April 1, 2010 at 10:09 AM , Blogger Sammie said...

Go Lou!!!

At April 2, 2010 at 6:10 AM , Blogger Warner (aka ntsc) said...

I never had Mr. Koehane as an instructor, although my brother thought well of him in the 50s, but I would like to think that his response to that mission statement, if he didn't need toilet paper, would be to grade it and return it with an additional writing assignment.

Great statement, followed a link from Facebook where a number of us hang out, the McNeil Grill being closed at the moment.


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