Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sara Sengenberger on "Chillin' Out"

Sara Sengenberger is a 1991 graduate of Shimer College, where she enrolled through the early entrance program. Today she lives and works in Oxford, England, which is coincidentally the site of Shimer's long-running Oxford study abroad program.

This is the text of the speech she gave as valedictorian at the Spring 1991 commencement.

I'd like to speak today about chillin' out. Many of you will think I'm not qualified to speak on the subject. But, as I notice that David has forgotten his hook, and no one has come armed with rotten fruit, I'll do it anyway.

When I first visited a Shimer class, I was struck by the phrase "So, what you're saying is..." followed by a restatement of what another student had just said. I thought, "These people are trying to understand each other." The teacher slipped out and was gone for five minutes making coffee. No one seemed to notice.

So I enrolled, thinking I'd learn about Plato and Newton, Shakespeare and Voltaire. And so I did. But I also learned something I never could have anticipated learning, and probably wouldn't have learned anywhere else.

I loved the classes from the start. It took longer to adjust socially -- some might say I never have! I mean (and I don't think I'm telling you anything you don't know here) THESE PEOPLE ARE WEIRD. At my high school, weird meant wearing black Converse high-tops when everyone else was wearing green high-tops. That was being a non-conformist and risking ostracism. But at this "Shimer" place, I had entered into a whole new realm of weirdness.

I won't describe my first encounter with the dorm and its denizens. Some people might not find it funny. It wasn't until years later that I did. Yes. These people are weird.

Generally speaking, Shimer students come here -- and leave here -- for two reasons: what happens in the classroom and what happens outside of it. Perhaps I shouldn't make such a big deal out of this division. It is true, for example, that four years after I took Natural Sciences 1, Jay and I spent the night with a candle and various other paraphernalia. (I'm always trying to spread nasty rumors about Jay.) We were trying to prove the existence of oxygen experimentally. In the end we weren't convinced there was such a thing as oxygen.

But to be honest, academics and "fun" are seldom integrated like this. I, for one, am always willing to go swimming in Lake Michigan after class -- yes, sometimes even in March -- and stand fully prepared to commit various acts of verbal violence on anyone who tries to discuss Marx while we're there. Not that I often need to do so. But it is, I have convinced myself, a matter of principle.

Some students come here in search of a good place to hang out for a while. I can think of several who have raised this to an art, and they live on in Shimer lore as consummate hangers-out But there's only so much time that can be spent hanging out before the reality of academic requirements impinges on recreation. How much time there is, I don't know. Two years? Five? Look around and judge for yourself. But after a time, these people leave. Or they start doing their work, having been Reformed. We call them our success stories.

Then there are the students like me. We come here originally to read the Great Books, through some mistake not having been warned off by the sight of long-haired creatures hanging from the trees. Maybe they were in hibernation when we visited. More likely, we were just too absorbed in trying to make sense of Freud to notice them. But, fortunately we too are reformed. We learn about life beyond books. Occasionally this requires contemplation from an upside-down aerial vantage.

This side of education is nearly always ignored at other schools, and I can see why. For starters, what would they call it: Intro to Sloth Studies 101? Even here it's played down in an effort to discourage the nonstudious from avoiding academics altogether. But perhaps this unusual little college should remember that one of its greatest strengths is its idealistic view of education, and education does not consist exclusively of reading and classroom discussion. Staying up until four in the morning discussing personal responsibilities with reference to a recent incident is not something a serious student does. A serious student does not get involved, preferring to be well-rested for a nine o'clock class. Is this in the interests of education? Not always.

Most of us at Shimer value community, responsibility, academic study, and (of course) fun. Finding the right balance is a perpetual challenge. I am nowhere near having found it. But, confronted as we are here by so many choices, this has been a good place to start looking. Come to think of it, in the unlikely event that we ever decide to carve words out of stone above the 438 building, I think those would be appropriate: "A Good Place to Start Looking." Good Luck.

And if you read any good books, or find any good trees I might like to try, please let me know.

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