Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Letter to Thomas Lindsay by Elton Kelly

President Lindsay,

I discovered Shimer College in the pages of a book called "Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different." Upon arriving at Shimer I was happy to find that it met each criteria of the book's subtitle. Before arriving at Shimer I did not realize how significantly "just plain different" the school was. I was prepared for the small, dialog based classes and independent-minded students, but I did not expect to become passionate about the governance and direction of the Shimer community. Despite the fact that I had attended a Christian high school with a graduating class size of only 70, and a small Bible school of slightly more than 100 students in the entire school, I had never felt school pride. It was entirely incomprehensible to me. The top-down governmental structures left me feeling like a consumer. The school was there to teach. I was there to learn. I was friends with the president of the Bible school, but it never occurred to me that I could have or should have actively shaped the institution into what I believed would have led myself and others towards the good life. I went to class, took from it what I thought was good, and ignored the rest.

This consumer attitude was a deep aspect of my worldview, spreading into other areas of my life. I felt like a consumer of the United States of America, rather than an active citizen. I was raised in America, and I appreciated the freedoms that this fact supplied me, but I never identified myself as proudly American. It was not until I arrived at Shimer that I realized part of the good life involves being actively political. The Assembly and the self-directed egalitarian culture of Shimer taught me that the good life involves actively debating in the public sphere what the good life is. By sharing my developed conception of the good life, and being willing to adjust it as I mature and argue, I have begun to understand myself, since my experience at Shimer, as an active participant in this community we call America.

In 2006 I married my wife. Due to her health issues, we decided it was in her best interest to move from the harsh weather and living conditions of Chicago to Portland, Oregon. This was an extremely difficult decision for me to make. Of course I had made many relationships with the students and faculty of Shimer, but I had also become passionate about the mission of Shimer. It was hard for me to leave just as they were moving to the IIT campus. The decision to move to IIT had been made the spring before my wife and I chose to move to Portland. Debating and wrestling with whether moving out of Waukegan was best for Shimer’s mission had been one of the most meaningful and exhilarating events in my life. It was tragic to leave halfway through the process.

To make things worse, I transferred to Lewis & Clark College in Portland. Lewis & Clark is a beautiful, academically respected school, but once again I had become a part of a community that gave me no reason to care about its future. I had little reason to believe my voice would be heard or that I could make a difference. Frequently the administration was making decisions that directly contradicted the will of the student body. The student body demanded very little from the administration because it knew it would receive little. In spite of the fact that Lewis & Clark is considered one of the most politically active colleges in the country, internally the students were rarely heard. The administration treated the school like a business. The faculty stayed out of the dispute because they had books to be published and jobs to keep. This deprived the students of something amazing that I experienced at Shimer. Shimer and the Assembly give the students an education that cannot be found inside the classroom. Because of the structural differences between Lewis & Clark and Shimer, the former was able to give me many things the latter could not. Nonetheless, I suffered at Lewis & Clark. Nearly all of my education was in the classroom. I am fond of the philosophy department at LC because I have become friends and peers with my professors, but I learned very little from the school as a community. Once again I had become a consumer. I was there to learn, and they were there to teach.

At Lewis & Clark I was fortunate enough to study under Nicholas Smith and Joel Martinez. Because of them I have become devoted to Aristotle's (Virtue) Ethics. I would like to argue that the passion for the political that I learned and habituated through my education at Shimer was far more Aristotelian than my purely academic education at Lewis & Clark. It is because of my time at Shimer that I no longer feel disenfranchised as a member of America’s democracy on a national and local level. This is something I would not have learned at Lewis & Clark.

I am writing in defense of dialog and the Assembly. You and the "Lindsay 18" have been charged with disrespecting these two key aspects of the Shimer culture. Currently I am in Boise, Idaho. I cannot know if these allegations are true. Either way, many people feel disrespected by the way you have acted and communicated. Please consider why this is. Maybe their criticisms are unjustified, but their feelings are not.

Currently I am working in the corporate world as a Software Test Engineer. I understand that Shimer needs to become financially viable. Although I believe Shimer's mission is of far greater importance than its budget, I recognize that it is a business. I hope that as president you can make Shimer financially successful. Please do not sacrifice Shimer's ability to educate the whole person, including the political, for the sake of the financial.

Also, please recognize that every single one of the faculty, and many others, have sacrificed their lives for Shimer College. You may not respect their methods, but do not doubt their fidelity.


Elton Kelly

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At March 24, 2010 at 2:40 PM , Blogger revdron.partridge said...

Dear Elton
We have never met. I am one of the dinosaurs from the Mount Carroll era, even before Waukegan. Even though we knew nothing of the tradition of government by Assembly which was to develop later, we were instinctively in tune with it, essentially out of love of the ethos of the college. The participatory nature of Shimer education, and your own responsibility for finding your own understanding of original texts and defending it to your peers, helped to build the same sort of deep-seated loyalty to the school as you describe. Soon after I graduated, Shimer went through a similar crisis to the current one, with students, faculty and finally the Trustees colliding with an authoritarian president. I am grateful that Shimer survived and continued, thanks to that sense of community which Shimer has always inspired.

Your letter to President Lindsay is admirable in its sincerity and restraint. However, I would urge you to take steps to become more fully informed than you indicate regarding the current crisis at Shimer. A good place to start is http://shimeralumnialliance.blogspot.com/.

Sadly, you may conclude that your plea to the president, however well meant, is likely to fall on deaf ears. Don't lose heart, however. The facts may be worse than you knew, but there are many who want to restore independence and integrity to our well-loved college and its unique philosophy of education as developed for the last 60 years. Your letter helps us all to remember what we are struggling to preserve.
Ron Partridge, Class of '64


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