Friday, March 12, 2010

Letter to Thomas Lindsay by Marcia Zdun Nelson

Author and journalist Marcia Zdun Nelson graduated from Shimer College in 1975. Her books include The God of Second Chances: Stories of Lives Transformed by Faith and The Gospel According to Oprah.

Dear President Lindsay,

I’ve been a financial supporter of Shimer College for most of my working life since I graduated in 1975. I taught there for two years (1978-80), helping to move the college to Waukegan. Shimer has my firstborn child, Meg Nelson; I was excited by the opportunities made possible by the move to Chicago. I also recently submitted my name for a position on the board of trustees but withdrew when a complication arose in our finances. I think I am familiar with the school.

I have on my bookshelf an underlined, highlighted copy of The People Shall Judge, the anthology of readings about the formation of American policy prepared at the University of Chicago for the Great Books curriculum; PSJ was used in Soc 2 when I was there. The introduction has some lovely and reasoned statements about the purpose of liberal education, e.g., “Liberal education must help the people to judge well.” It also notes that in the development of what it calls intelligent citizenship, “the students must themselves practice judgment” through discussion classes and dialog as a means to critical examination. The book’s editors don’t, however, argue that the American Constitution enshrines the political freedom on which intellectual liberty depends. But possibly this compendium of writings essential to understanding the American system of liberties is no longer in use at Shimer.

I bring up the above because I can’t figure out why Shimer’s new mission statement gives pride of place to readings about the development of American liberty. They’re an important part of the curriculum, but they don’t seem more important than anything else in an education aimed at developing broad, general knowledge and critical faculties. Are they more important than Plato’s Republic? Or Aristotle’s Poetics? Or Shakespeare’s Hamlet? The wording of the new mission statement smacks of ideological jingoism, which is the very antithesis of the “liberal” – free; also broad, generous -- in liberal arts education.

I gave $500 at the end of 2009, but I will not be liberal – as in generous – with Shimer College as long as this mission statement stands. You and a bare majority of the recently expanded board of trustees, a number of whom appear to have little familiarity with the workings and history of the institution but do appear to have some sort of agenda, have redefined the mission of Shimer into something I don’t recognize, so I can’t support the school. I am also sending a copy of this letter to Albert Fernandez for dissemination to the College through its assembly.


Marcia Zdun Nelson

B.A., Shimer College, 1975; M.A, University of Chicago; M.S.J., Northwestern University


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