Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Peter Cooley on "The Failure of a Shimer Education"

Peter Cooley is a 1962 graduate of Shimer College, where he enrolled through early entrance. He is a poet and a professor at Tulane University, and has published numerous volumes of poetry.

I am a graduate of Shimer College.

I am not my idea of a commencement speaker, though. I am not tall enough for one thing, and though I've been told I look like Abraham Lincoln and Woody Allen (both of whom would be excellent speakers for your graduation), I lack the speechmaking ability and wit of these men. This is not going to be "The Gettysburg Address" (which was a reading in Hum 2 when I went to Shimer) or be as entertaining as "Hannah and her Sisters." Besides, I don't have the designer clothes, the BMW, the title, or the bank account to be a speaker. I don't have interesting connections in the world of the arts or business or politics which can benefit the college. I cannot help one of you graduates get a job. I have no idea what career you should choose. I am a graduate of Shimer College.

I am a graduate of Shimer College. I am a poet, and the role Shimer played in helping me write is a strange one which I will discuss later. I am a professor in a university and the role Shimer played in framing my philosophy and practice of teaching has been monumental (if anything connected with Shimer can be called "monumental"). I am an editor for a national literary magazine and read 10,000-12,000 poems a year that job — or "not read" would have to be true for many of them they are so bad. And Shimer prepared me for that. I am a husband and a father of three children. Perhaps we have three children because my wife, too, is a graduate of Shimer (though when we were at Shimer together we rather disliked each other), and we both spent too much time in courses like the first year humanities art course where you were taught to look for those triangular groupings of forms in every painting — those 3's — or I spent too many hours with a friend who told me the first day I spent on campus that all thinking consisted of three steps — thesis, antithesis, synthesis — and that was all I needed to know. I'm sure he realizes now he needs to know far more. Perhaps he, too, has three children. He is a graduate of Shimer College.

The Shimer College I attended no longer exists and yet is eternally present in this moment (as T.S. Eliot said — he, too, I read at Shimer). My Shimer was located in Mt. Carroll, a pretty enough town but one noted for its supreme isolation. THE INSIDER'S GUIDE TO THE COLLEGES, which featured Shimer in its last years in Mt. Carroll, called it the perfect setting for Plato's Academy. The only way out of town was a 5:40 a.m. train. And waiting for the train (after staying up all night, of course) involved standing outside a locked train station. In my memory it is always winter as I stand there, shivering. Then the train no longer stopped in Mt. Carroll. There was a movie theater in the town. Then it became a bowling alley. I like bowling with my six year old son, but I don't like it as my sole recreation. It is sad that the original site of Shimer is now a school for restoring antiques. It is sad for aging alumni like myself not to have familiar windows to look out when we return to campus. And the trees on that campus were very old and beautiful. I miss the trees. But I have no false sentiment about the move to this new campus. Moving saved Shimer from a deteriorating physical plant which was impossible to maintain. I know I risk boring you by talking about the past. But I want to assure you that the college you are graduating from is better than mine; I am not here to wax nostalgic. Well, maybe a little. The Shimer you are graduating from is infinitely more liberal and progressive than mine.

I am a graduate of Shimer College. You are soon to be graduates. What we have in common is a course of study which has been updated and improved since my graduation twenty-eight years ago but which is essentially the same. We have in common the approach to original materials which placed the student in the role of active participant in the learning process. I will be authoritarian on this: I do know better than you from eight years of graduate school and twenty-five years of teaching just how unusual Shimer is. My Shimer is eternally present. I know something of what happened to you here; you know the same of me. I am a part of you (or as Tennyson said, "I am a part of all that I have met" — and Tennyson was the prime poet studied in the Spring semester that I took Hum 3). I know you are going to be very dissatisfied with the world after Shimer. That's intended by this kind of education.

I want to entertain you for a moment with some memories of the college I attended, memories which will sound quaint to your ears. In 1959 when I first came to Shimer, one could enter before graduation from high school (I did, my wife did), could progress at one's own rate and take comprehensive exams in courses one had never enrolled in (the fee was very high, few students did it) and take courses, one was enrolled in independently—which meant class attendance was not necessary at all. My first roommate at Shimer was so enrolled. He left our room only to attend P.E. class twice a week and to go to meals. The rest of the time he spent lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling fixture and telling me, when I had to be in the room, in excruciating detail about a Shimer female he was in love with who was spending the year in Germany. His best friend was a black student, Bill (Shimer had minority students but never talked about them as minorities) who also took all his courses independently and swore, since he had transferred from the University of Chicago, where he knew many students, that he corresponded each week with 300 people. This was my introduction to experimental education. I should add that Mr. Ceiling Fixture is now a prominent attorney and his friend, Bill, now a priest. The young woman in Germany is a theater company manager, married, of course, to someone else. Though she did marry a Shimer graduate who is dean at a Midwestern liberal arts college.

The political climate of Shimer was very liberal when I came here. The Young People's Socialist League held weekly meetings and seemed to caucus daily to discuss Marx and Lenin. The Original founder of SDS—Students for a Democratic Society, a national radical organization devoted to social change—was a guy who lived on the floor below me. A religious club for agnostics and atheists met weekly. They showed a lot of Bergman films. I went because there was a girl I liked who always went. I don't think I understood one word of the discussions. One of my wife's friends swore she swam out to nuclear submarines with her boyfriend and climbed their sides to prevent the ships leaving the harbor. She was seventeen and dropped out of Shimer to live in a peace commune in California.

Then there was the other side of Shimer. The rules. No blue jeans were allowed in the dining room except on Saturday night when steak dinners were served. Now, you could wear blue jeans to class—in fact, you could wear anything or almost nothing (one young woman, who went on to get her Ph.D. in Biology and married another Shimer graduate who received his Ph.D. in History, used to sunbathe between classes, even in the winter, in the shortest shorts and skimpiest halter, a sort of French Riviera bathing suit which she wore also to class) just as long as you weren't near food. Women were allowed to wear slacks for lunch and breakfast but a skirt was necessary for dinner. And all evening meals were formal. We were let into the dining room together. We stood at our chairs until grace was said. We were not allowed out of the dining room until everyone at our table had agreed to leave. Twice a week, on Tuesday night and Sunday noon, the dinner was dress-up, the evening dinner a candlelight one. For these meals men were not admitted unless in coat and tie; women were required to wear dresses, nylon stockings and heels. There were, alas, always students given work grants whose job it was to enforce the rules. One of the only exceptions to the dress code was for actors and actresses. Maybe this is why I liked being in plays. If you were coming and going from play rehearsal you were allowed to wear whatever you wanted. I can still see myself at one of those dress dinners in my Restoration cape and huge plumed hat. I was Mr. Pinchwife from The Country Wife.

Women had to be in the dorm certain hours. These were eleven p.m. to six a.m. on weekends. Of course, there were numerous ways around the rules. But in theory, at least, all women were locked up at those hours. There was no visitation between men's and women's rooms. Though again, there were ways around this which seem infantile today. My ceiling fixture roommate told me that just before he came to Shimer there had been hours for men as well. There was, in any case, a large book in my dorm where men were required to sign out, even if they went downtown. No one ever used it. Or did I, once?

Smoking was permitted everywhere. This was before the Surgeon General's Report, you remember. Teachers smoked in class, which I thought was wonderful after high school where it was forbidden. Then there was the drinking age: 18 for women, 21 for men. This meant that for me there was a continuous need to beg or bribe a girl I liked or didn't to keep me supplied. The college was indifferent to the students' drinking habits. It just wanted the seams in those nylon stockings straight at dinner time.

No one was allowed to have a car when I arrived at Shimer. Then, next year, cars were permitted to those over twenty-one. But the keys had to be kept in the Dean of Student's office, and one had to request permission for a drive around the block.

However, if kept in the Dean's Office, rifles were permitted. I knew only one student who had one, a very pretty young woman who every Sunday morning called the Dean who drove over to hand her her rifle so she could go hunting in the woods. She never came back with anything.

How did I manage to graduate from Shimer College? I almost forgot. Students could not be married or if they wanted to get married they had to ask the college's permission or they were expelled.

I can't remember whom one asked. The Dean? The President? Even in those days Shimer needed increased enrollment, but a number of good students were booted out for tying the knot. Sometimes one of the pair (sometimes it was the man, sometimes the woman) was permitted to continue but never both.

An addendum: My wife tells me there were numerous fake fire drills to see that women were in their rooms. There were headcounts.

The paradox is that Shimer did teach that men and women were equal. Even today at Tulane where I work there are different requirements for each gender. This was never true at Shimer. Women went on to graduate school or to interesting careers just as men did. There were, in fact, a large number of women teachers at Shimer. This was all before the women's movement, but no one at Shimer ever talked about "careers for women." Women could have any career. Serious women students did what they pleased professionally. Academic and career counseling for men and women was identical. And you can see that the dress code for both genders was ridiculous. I was, after all, denied dinner one night at one of the candlelight affairs for not wearing a belt. I can still remember going to bed hungry—like Oliver Twist.

I am a graduate of Shimer College, and having survived its eccentricities have been strangely nourished by them. Let me tell you why it has a lasting place in my heart and what it has meant to me personally and as a writer and teacher. When I was at Shimer there was no creative writing course; maybe there is now. There were students who wrote, and informal groups met sometimes to discuss writing. And I wrote poems for the college yearbook, and the newspaper, The Quest, printed stories and poems. But I had to go to a graduate creative writing program to get my bearings and meet other people seriously interested in writing poetry. I was writing poetry, bad poetry, all the time I was at Shimer. Looking back now, I can see that simply being exposed to so much great stuff (yes, I mean Great Books, capital G, Capital B) while being told that one could understand on one's own, not because Professor X had said a book was good, I can see this created a tremendous hunger in me (and I was starving anyway, remember, having been thrown out of the dining room for being tieless, beltless or being jeaned) for writing and a humbling sense that one could do so much or so little (the Shimer paradox again!) in comparison with the greats who preceded me. I wish some of the students I met in the Iowa Writers' Workshop had had a little humility or had read something other than the latest literary magazine. But that is their problem. And many of them have stopped writing.

I think the very notion that the student is capable of approaching a great text on his or her own, of analyzing it and understanding it, is an imaginative challenge which had allowed me to believe I can write and keep writing. For that is the primary challenge to the writer: how to keep writing after the flush of youthful enthusiasm has passed. Some of the projects in the Shimer courses in my day were creative in any case: in Hum 1 each student had to do an art project (usually it turned out to be a collage); in Hum 2 each student had to create his or her own aesthetic I can still remember the Hum 3 comprehensive exam in which the question read, "Having developed your own aesthetic this year, interpret and criticize Anna Karenina (one hour)" or the Soc 2 comp, the first comp I ever took, in which the afternoon question was a challenge to restructure the course, justifying all the readings and eliminating those we thought less than useful. Or the Soc 3 comp in which we were asked to design a new foreign policy for the U.S. and Russia.

Further, the critical skills in analyzing materials have been important to me in helping me get tough on my own work. There is no other way for the writer to improve than brutal self-honesty and self-scrutiny. It is something most of my creative writing students never want to come to.

How did Shimer help me to read those 12,000 poems each year I referred to earlier? At Shimer I learned to read the classics very slowly; I also learned how to read very fast when need be, to get the essence of materials quickly. I learned how to look at and into books, not to skim them but to go through them. Until I was called upon to use this skill as an editor I never knew I had it—and that I'd learned it here.

And it has been as a teacher that Shimer has influenced me profoundly. The idealism which pervades the Shimer doctrine of education, the belief that one can understand directly with one's own mind and self and articulate and share these perceptions, has never left me, even in the darkest hours of teaching. I have never taught a lecture course (I though have to admit I have found ways to avoid teaching large courses). I have, even in teaching situations which involve students less able than those here (at the branch of a state university, or in a prison), always made the class one where participation was fundamental. Where it was the essence of what we were about. You will see if you go to graduate or professional school how peculiar Shimer is, though the notion of the professor as an absolute authority not to be questioned is an integral part of undergraduate education at many "good colleges." I have passed by many rooms at the university where I teach and at many others I have visited only to hear a professor lecturing to a class of four or five in a monotone, unaware of any reaction from the students. In most universities the seminar class is regarded as the format for Ph.D. students only. "Why let them talk until they're graduate students," one colleague remarked to me. "Undergraduates don't know enough to say anything." Another told me, "the purpose of education is to get them in their seats so we can cram them full of what we know."

As a result of my Shimer education, I decided to teach an interdisciplinary course at Tulane called "Biology and Literature" with a professor who has a Ph.D. in Biology. When I insisted that we should analyze Darwin's The Origin of the Species because I had studied it here in Nat Sci 2, she confessed to me she had never read it, only read about it. So we put it in our course, although the Tulane pre-meds were antagonized at reading original sources. (One of them told Joan, the other teacher, that I was "insane" for assigning such books). When my wife, who finished her Shimer degree by taking Nat Sci 3 independently while we were in Iowa City, talked to a Physics Ph.D. dissertation student at the University of Iowa so she could get help with the math part of the course, the student told her he had never read Galileo—and, furthermore, it was a waste of time to do so! So you see, your Shimer education is going to make you tear your hair and stomp your feet at what comes hereafter.

I am a graduate of Shimer College. I don't want to sound smug about the superiority of Shimer. One can easily fall into that. Probably when you leave here, you will want to argue with people like the professor who crams knowledge down his students' throats. I did for awhile. Now I just go my own way. A way which is very much the Shimer way since Shimer encouraged me to think independently and incorporate the college into my personality.

I am a graduate of Shimer College. And a college is just people. In the Shimer of today—the better Shimer—you have been thrown together to interact in an intense fashion intellectually, emotionally and socially as a community—which is what Shimer wanted to be but could not pull off with the same success in my time because of its rules and regulations. We have both experienced the great accessibility of faculty and administrators, something bizarre at most colleges and universities where faculty hide and administrators collect fancy salaries and never see students. The faculty and administration I knew at Shimer are all gone now; some of them have died. But it is not a cliché to say that the spirit of them lives on in you. I have brought them here. I am a poet, remember, so I can make up anything I want, though I have come here today to bear witness to my memory, to tell you what Shimer has been for me. I am a poet; I can produce those spirits. Here they are. They are here with you, with all the other graduates of Shimer whom I'm calling —— calling down from the air as I speak. We are a small army—or if you dislike the military metaphor—a small band of gypsies. But we have much in common despite our cherished individuality. I congratulate you on your graduation from the Shimer of Today. Yours is a significant achievement. And I know if we meet in the future in a shopping mall or an elevator in Houston or Las Vegas (I choose the most alienating circumstances for our meeting), we'll have plenty to talk about.

We are graduates of Shimer College.

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