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.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Winona Branch Sawyer (1871) on "What Becomes of the Girl Graduates"

Winona Branch Sawyer was an 1871 graduate of Shimer College, then known as the Mount Carroll Seminary. She subsequently taught at the school for several years before marrying, moving west, and becoming the second woman to join the Nebraska bar. A close friend of Frances Shimer, she served as one of the initial trustees of the newly reorganized "Frances Shimer Academy of the University of Chicago" in 1896, and upon her death in 1901, served as Frances Shimer's biographer and co-executor of her estate. In 1926, she gave the college Sawyer House, the president's residence on the Mount Carroll campus.
The following is the text of the address she gave before the graduating class in June 1895, as reprinted in the August 1895 Oread.

The girl graduate is a product of this century. Only fifty-four years ago the first diploma was placed in a woman's hand. Last year 29,501 girls and women graduated from the high schools, colleges and schools for women in the United States. Quite an army! How much those diplomas represent. Years of work, years of hope. From the time the maiden of five trudges away to the kindergarten or primary school, on through the twelve years which terminate the high school course, and perhaps a supplementary four years of collegiate work, she has toiled and hoped for that crowning glory of which her diploma is the exponent. Then what becomes of her?
Notwithstanding the current impression that for the girl graduate commencements and weddings are consecutive events, statistics fail to corroborate the fact. In our own Alma Mater, one of the most venerable among schools for women, fifty two per cent. of the graduates have married, seventy-seven per cent. have been or are teachers. Apply these averages to the thousands and tens of thousands of girl and women graduates which are annually sent forth as teachers and home makers, and we can in a measure understand the secret of the stupendous strides in moral and intellectual development, throughout the length and breadth of this land, during the last two or three decades; why our schools are models for the world; and why the proportion of students who become graduates increases; why colleges and universities require million and billion dollar endowments to accommodate the seekers for advanced education; why conservative art salons of Paris have opened their doors to American artists; why American musicians are heard in European halls; why home making has become a regular profession; why women are prominent in literature, science and art; why they succeed as organizers and administrators; why waves of reform disturb the old-time calm of social and municipal affairs; why the whole standard of life and living is changed. For the higher the attainments the few reach the higher the many desire to rise. Progress is not determined by the amount of intelligence or intellectuality on deposit at any one time or place, but by its diffusion, and with the education of woman has come a diffusion and an intangible influence as permeating, as unobtrusive, and almost as universal as light through space.
These social changes, especially those which affect woman's work, have followed so closely upon the advent of the girl graduate, and the rate of progress has been so proportional with the increase of educated women, it is reasonable to conclude that they have been factors in producing these changes. Furthermore, it is not strange that factors so numerous and so potent should prove a disturbing element.
The girl who from five years of age till seventeen or twenty has been forming habits of observation, of tracing events to causes, of analyzing and investigating, takes these habits and possessions with her into the life she enters when she leaves school. She analyzes character and actions as she tested chemical elements. She applies to ethics and economics the same principles which underlie physical causes and results. She treats necessities as mathematical conclusions. Her knowledge of evolution convinces her that citizenship, the soul and pride of a free government, exists in the nursery and the schoolroom and can not be a gift at maturity. She has been prepared by years of logical reasoning to draw her own conclusions. Her scientific researches invade the laboratories of home and society. Her observation has been trained to see all relations of life in their true perspective. Whether married or single, the influence of the girl graduate, the educated woman, is not lost any more than the drops of rain which fall in the bosom of the great lakes are lost in the tremendous power of Niagara.
A fear has been expressed lest this higher education may unfit woman for home life. For the old-time home life of our foremothers, a life of spinning and weaving, of sewing and knitting, of brewing and baking, a limited servile round of duties, it does unfit her. Myriads of inventions and millions of never wearied machines have relegated much of this manual labor beyond her reach.
Increasing, broadening, quickening faculties does not annul the old-fashioned virtues and graces. It does not take from woman her garment of modesty nor despoil her of the pearls of truth. It does not les- sen her love and courage nor mar her ministrations with harshness. It does not make her less thoughtful for those nearest and dearest to her nor less capable and willing to be a helpmate or a guiding spirit. Instead of dependency it gives her courage and self-respect; instead of pettiness and pettishness, a wider range and firmer grasp; instead of spinning and weaving, a comprehension of the nature and extent of the laws of influence; instead of looms and spindles, a command over mental, moral, and physical powers. In the halcyon days of Rome it is said that women petitioned for permission to ride in chariots, wear purple and deck themselves with jewels. Now, woman asks for broader humanity, the royalty of knowledge, and the jewel of highest culture.
We find imperfections everywhere in nature, and it may be that there are recipients of diplomas who do not illustrate the highest ideals. If such be the case, failure is not due to an excess of education, but to deficient, defective or misdirected training.
Revels in the field of science, and acquaintance with men of genius, are of little avail, unless it be a companionship which suggests subjects of conversation more solid than gossip of society and sensations of the day. Artistic accomplishments are of little avail if they do not reproduce in the life of the student the rythm and purity and grace found in the music and canvas and marble of the old masters.
A thought I would emphasize is, that an aspiration or a preparation is not a life. One is the plans and specification for a building, the other the completed structure. A legend is told of a nymph who, obtaining a spark of fire of the gods, built an altar on a hill, which, like a beacon, sent out its light for miles around, and to which others might come and carry away sparks to kindle hearth-fires or to light other beacons. She also gave to nymphs, initiated in the mysteries of this heavenly flame, torches which they were to carry and whose magic fire, unless extinguished, would emit continuous rays of light converging at her shrine. She watched and ministered to this sacred flame until each home and every hill were lighted with promethean fire.
Forty-two years ago a light was kindled on this mount. For forty-two years the hand of Mrs. Shimer and her associate have kept it burning day and night. Thousands have visited this shrine and carried therefrom vestal sparks which gladdened happy homes. Many more have kindled beacon lights. On each commencement day the guardian of this light has given to certain chosen ones torches and her blessing, and sent them forth to impart to others the same beneficence which they received. From Maine to California, from lake to gulf, these torches have been borne even across oceans and to the islands of the sea. To each one of these wandering ones,
"Wherever they may rove or roam,
Her blessing, like a line of light,
Is on the waters day and night,
And, like a beacon, guides them home."
To-night it is your privilege to receive a token of approval and a proof of your novitiate. Some of the light and strength and inspiration and nobleness of the life of Mrs. Shimer, her associates and assistants have entered into your lives. You do not depart hence as you came. New thoughts have been instilled, new aspirations awakened, new strength imparted, new visions given of what your life may be. You can not separate and classify these acquisitions and tell who taught you this, who gave you that, but the diploma you receive witnesses your possession. To-night your novitiate ends. Your Alma Mater will watch anxiously, lovingly, the line of light which marks your past. Think not, it makes no matter if your taper vanish. One spark extinguished, leaves darkness in its place. Each new thought which you may awaken, each new aspiration you may enkindle, each new impulse for good you may stimulate, flashes back to her a thrill of joy and makes the fire on her altar burn more brightly.
Each person has two educations. One which he receives from others and one which he gives himself. The latter necessitates a culture of brain and hand and heart worthy the name of higher education. To-night ends your first education.
You are now going out on life's great tide
To enter a school-room broad and wide,
Not where pupils are found by the single score.
But where millions are met with millions more
And so varied the classes in which they are found,
That they range from the lowest to the topmost round.
Yet in this school where the myriads meet,
There is full many an honest seat.
And the highest of these may always he won
Not alone by the rich, but the poor man's son,
For happily here, true, honest worth
Is esteemed more highly than pride of birth.
There are noblest themes that the mind can try,
And problems not solved by x and y;
There are theorems grander and more profound
Than Euclid did ever attempt to expound.
There are battles to fight, more important by far
Than ever were gained by force or in war,
There are victories many and dear to be won
Without booming of cannon or firing of gun.
There is evil to conquer, and vices to shun.
There is hatred to banish and love to be won.
There is error to vanquish and truth to uphold,
And a banner of light o'er the world to unfold.
In short, all around you, above and below,
There's a broad field of labor wherever you go.
And oh! how sublime, how noble the strife,
When worthily waged is the battle of life.
It is not to the swift, nor yet to the strong,
But to him who succeeds in conquering wrong,
Shall be given a crown with jewels as bright
As stars that emblazon the dark brow of night.
And the Teacher who governs this school, day by day,
Is He whom suns and planets obey.
He'll give you each lesson, He'll hear you recite,
He'll keep you by day and He'll keep you by night.
He is Teacher of teachers, the truth and the way,
The fount of all wisdom, the source of each day.
Go forth, then, and serve Him, His rules all obey.
Confide in His wisdom and you can not stray.
His ways are all perfect, His prizes are sure,
And when earth's have all perished, His ever endure.

Thanks are due to Aaron Garland at Shimer College for making this material available.

Labels: ,

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.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 14, 2011

Graduation Speech by Carol Haney (1998)

Carol Haney is a 1998 graduate of Shimer College, where she attended the Weekend College program. (See below for her complete biography.)

This is the text of the address she gave as valedictorian at the Fall 1998 commencement ceremony.

I feel very strange speaking at a lectern at Shimer College. It is not the way of Shimer College, and I must admit that I would much rather be sitting at a Round Table instead.

John Milton
I would like to tell you a short story about the genius John Milton. Milton was, as a child, incredibly bright. By the age of ten, he was fluent in three languages. By the age of 14, he was fluent in four. He graduated top of his class at St. Paul's School, and then entered Cambridge, where he also excelled. At Cambridge, after some fits and starts, he wrote voluminous amounts of poetry, became fluent in even more languages, and discovered a love for math and music. In contemporary terms, he was a brilliant nerd.

I tell you about his academic accomplishments at a young age because I now want to contrast this young age against the five years he spent after college.

Do you know what happens when a child prodigy grows up? He becomes merely a smart grown-up.

Milton faced a long time of not knowing what he wanted to do until his poetic genius was realized. While his friends were embarking on successful careers in politics, law and medicine, Milton went to his father's estate and ... waited, waited for his genius to bear fruit. He knew he was going to be the next Virgil. It was a long time coming.

Today, imagine if you professed to do such a thing -- to go home, live off your parents for over five years, intensely throwing yourself into deep studying so when the time came, you would be sufficiently ready to show your poetic genius.

Strange. Today we would probably term such a person with a label of delusions of grandeur, suggest therapy and undoubtedly prescribe some kind of medication.

Back in Milton's days, those closest to him were also understandably worried. Milton's father asked him quite aggressively, "when are you going to get started?" "What" (it seemed as if he was asking) "ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE?"

Milton responded by writing his father a ... poem, in which he apportions some of the blame for his predicament onto his father, since after all, his father sent him to the best schools, hired the best tutors, and those things indeed helped create Milton, the waiting genius.

After Milton presented the poem to his father, he quickly decided to take a long continental journey. By the time of the trip, Milton was closing on 30 years old. He first traveled to France, then to Italy, and there something miraculous occurred. The Italians, those of Florence especially, took notice of young Milton. They called him Giovanni Milton, the genius poet, and invited him to perform his poetry at their Academies. They listened to him, they could see the beauty of his words and ideas -- there in Italy, they understood.

At Shimer, I feel like all students are treated like Milton was in Florence. They are accepted, respected and understood, some for the first time in their lives.

Now I would like to tell you another story -- a contemporary story -- about my friend Melissa. Melissa was also a very smart kid (maybe not on the level of Milton, but only time will tell). She graduated top of her class from a public high school in a small town in rural Massachusetts.

She got into Harvard, where after some fits and starts, she also did well. During her first semester there, however, she unfortunately placed into a difficult writing course in which she did not share the educational background of her fellow students in that class. Almost all of the other students had attended prep schools or fancy private high schools. Coming into the class, Melissa did not know what they knew about writing.

Her teacher, from the old school, was unsympathetic to this fact, and thought of Melissa as a poor writer instead of a student who needed to learn what the others already knew. Her comments on Melissa's papers plus her treatment of Melissa in class made Melissa feel as if she had no value as a writer.

At Shimer, the wonderful thing is that the faculty takes extraordinary care to understand their students. At the very beginning, they try to understand where you are currently, and where you want to be, and they support you as you are and as you grow. They try to treat all students with respect and understanding in the unique format of a Great Books program.

Did you know that Shimer is one of two Universities in the entire country that have weekend colleges that focus on the Great Books? Most of those here know the Shimer curricula, but let me tell you a little bit about the dynamics of the classroom setting.

The classes all have the same method of interaction. The students along with the teacher sit around a "round" table, and the dialog begins. During the first year, the teacher participates by being a model to the other students by exemplifying good communication skills. The "rules" are learned almost intuitively, bringing in other books that others have not read or lengthy personal digressions are not encouraged. Talking about the text in a thoughtful, respectful-of-others kind of way is encouraged, whatever the text may be -- Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Descartes' Meditations, Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Lorenz's On Aggression. Both weekday and weekend college follow this format. It is, I think, one of the fundamental features that define Shimer as a school.

The weekend college adds to this conversation another dimension: the diversity of the students. My fellow classmates all come from different stages and places in life. In age, we run the gamut from 18 to 60. I think that most of us are originally from blue-collar households, but that isn't always the case. Some students are wealthier than you and I can ever imagine being.

Prior education-wise, we all had different backgrounds as well. Some students are straight out of high school. Some are direct transfers from other colleges. Some had never been to college. Some had completed their degrees and are now back for another BA, and some like me are finishing up after a long absence in their studies.

Melissa's experience -- where she was marginalized for what she didn't know -- doesn't often happen at Shimer. The classrooms are too diverse for that, and the round-table style of education keeps that kind of censure out in front, where all can see.

In the weekend college, it is our diversity that sets us apart, and is what ties us together. We each came to Shimer with different experiences, and it was those experiences that fed our ideas, our conversations, our interest in the Big Ideas, the ongoing Conversation.

It is this participation in the ongoing Conversation that helped me develop my voice and get over my fears, of which I had many.

Let me tell you just a bit about who I am. Unlike Milton’s early upbringing, I was born into a hillbilly family in Indiana. Both of my parents are wonderful, well-meaning people, but did not have much education themselves, and my mother in particular did not see much sense in obtaining any higher education. At eighteen, my verbal grammar was completely in the vernacular of my town; for example, I did not know that "seen" should be accompanied by the word "have," as in "I have seen the glory." What I have always done, from a very young age, was read voraciously. Books were my conduit to understanding the world around and inside of me, but I never felt comfortable talking about what I read.

My first stab at college, at the University of Chicago, was a lot like sticking a round peg into a square hole. You know, I felt like everyone was so much more sophisticated, erudite, had not as much responsibilities as I did, they were so different from me. My classes were large, and I was afraid to speak, to venture past my accent and my eccentricities. Even when I did "well" at UofC, I felt in all of my classes like Melissa did in her writing class, marginalized. At UofC, no one took my fear into account or could see past it, and so I compensated badly in response. I wore the pain and shame of my educational experience like a noose around my heart.

When I entered Shimer, I was really afraid. I didn't know if I would be understood. The first time I went through Shimer course registration illustrates how I slowly gained trust in the college.

I signed up for Hum2, IS2, and Soc2. For the first class, the syllabus for Hum2 had a list of about 100 poems about which -- I thought -- we were to read and write. 100 poems! This seemed to me an impossible task, and so to clarify the assignment, I called the professor and asked my question, "Do you really expect us to read and write on all these poems?" This professor (who incidentally is no longer at Shimer) heard in my question a complaint about the work. He responded, "Now Carol, do you really want to start the class with this attitude?" I mumbled something, said my goodbyes, and burst into tears.

I then called Dave Buchanan and told him of the conversation, telling him of my anxiety.

And -- this is the important part -- Dave listened and understood. He helped me switch into another class, Susanne Sklar's Hum2 class. Dave's listening and understanding helped me gain confidence in Shimer as a place where my fears, however irrational they may be, would be listened to. (Parenthetically, Susanne also became my faculty mentor.)

The next few years at Shimer I relied on this ability to talk to my fellow classmates and my professors about these types of situations and my sensitive reactions to them and I was heard. In respect to the readings at Shimer, I was also heard, and I found out that sometimes what I thought about the readings was WRONG, sometimes much of the time. What I would think about the text in preparation for class would appear to be fine until I would sit in class and discuss my position on my interpretation of the text. The wrongness of my position was not pointed out only by the professors, but equally by my classmates. They also told me when they thought I was on the right track. In this way, everyone in the classroom took care of each other. Intellectual hand-holding, as it were, and when I say classmates in my mind I include the professors.


I know this speech is laudatory, but those who know me know that I am not a pollyanna. I don't believe that Shimer is perfect. Like everyone else, I see Shimer's problems, its struggles. Sometimes Shimer doesn't behave well toward its students, but what is important is that often it does. It is a unique place that helps students learn how to learn, learn to discover their hidden voice, learn to make their voices heard. I believe we take what we get in life, and we learn to look for that which we can get. Shimer sets hard standards for its students, but in return the faculty does everything possible to help the student reach those standards. It is a struggle to graduate from here, but the struggle itself is worth taking on.

At Shimer, this learning is done through the context of good and interesting books. And why should it be done any other way? Most of the writers of the Great Books were eccentrics who had a unique voice, saying something that wasn't said before.

They would have fit in perfectly at Shimer.

Shimer is a place where the Miltons of the world can come be heard and accepted. And not just Milton-types; all voices in the Community are given equal due and respect, no matter where those voices are in their own particular development. It is this listening and responsive nature that helped me get through the last couple years of my difficult life, and I thank those who did so.

After graduation, besides re-reading all of my books slowly, I would like to be an active alum and continue to be part of the Shimer Community. As an alum, however, I would like to give as much as I have received. And so I make a promise to all of you. I promise that with my first "extra" five thousand, I will buy Shimer all new chairs for the round table classrooms. I have here in front of me a picture of a sample chair that I thought would be perfect for the classrooms. Unfortunately, this new chair does not have that certain feature of current Shimer chairs, the "tilt-back" ride we all so enjoy.

This new chair does have (listen to this!) adjustable tilt-tension control, adjustable seat height, upright back lock, lumbar support, and a rolling base.

At other colleges, often is heard of another kind of chair, the type of symbolic "Chairs" that are endowed for certain professors, because of their brilliance and their achievements. At Shimer, it seems much more fitting to endow Chairs for all of the students and all of the professors. To me, this metaphor signifies the unique and special nature of the college. Because of this, in my opinion, Shimer is a wonderful, magical place and I am glad to be a part of the community.

Thank you for listening.

At Harris Interactive, Carol is Vice President of Public Sector Research and a thought leader in the development of Research Lifestreaming, an industry-changing method of doing data collection. Carol Haney led the development, implementation and execution of the Research Lifestreaming platform, a multi-year initiative. Carol’s expertise is in the intersection of market/social research and social media research. She currently heads up research for the CDC on a national media campaign to raise awareness about the harms of tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke.

Previously, Carol was director of solution services at SPSS, specializing in public sector research solutions. She consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she helped reduce critical cycle time by 60% (the time period from instrument design to production data collection start) for outbreak and surveillance data collection. Much of Carol's career has been spent at NORC at the University of Chicago, where she was Director of Data Services. She was the technology team lead on the Qatar National Education Reform initiative. In conjunction with NORC's stats and methods group, she architected a solution for managing national frame data based on the Census, developing a speedy mechanism for pulling and marking area probability sample from the national frame, and led the architecture of the logical and physical data schemas. She was part of the team that created an interactive web site (which won the AAPOR Innovators Award in 2000) for the General Social Survey. She contributed to the technical implementation of numerous studies at NORC, clients including BLS, NIH, Federal Reserve, and Census.

Carol has been a member of the University of Michigan's expert committee for the Data Definition Initiative as well as is a member of AAPOR. She is currently an expert reviewer for CASRO’s social media privacy guidelines. She attended Shimer College for her undergraduate degree and University of Chicago for graduate work in computer science.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sarah Kimmel (1996) on the Shimer Community

Sarah Kimmel graduated from Shimer College in 1996, having spent her senior year in Shimer's Oxford study-abroad program. She is currently a research specialist at Accenture, with more than 10 years of experience in human capital research. This is the text of the speech she gave as valedictorian at the Spring 1996 commencement ceremony.

Tell me why i am so bitter
Tell me why i have nothing to say
Tell me why i am no longer a disciple of the cause

Shimer, i have seen my ideals shattered
i have seen the wasteland of my youth stretched upon time's dissecting table
i have seen young women grow old and young again
i have seen the lost circling in the eyes of men, boys, men
Shimer, i do not know if this is bad
i do not know what bad is
perhaps, this is a small deception which i practice on myself
of these, there have been many.

Shimer, i have tried to be inspired.
i have called the muse and reached his answering machine.
i have left a message, he has not returned my call.
i wanted to try to bring you hope
the lifting up with words, however ephemeral
but hope implies a future, the cause, progress.
i am suspicious of these things.
Shimer, i do not know what to say.

i cannot say that now we go out into a world more real.
i know all too well how real you are, Shimer.
i do not want to exhort you to transcend your petty problems.
This is a world of petty problems, we are a petty people.
it is likely that this too serves its purpose
that without it, we would see other ills beset us.

Shimer, do not get the wrong ideas.
it is a mistake to say i am ungrateful for what you have given.
i recognize its merits and its pitfalls alike.
i would not return from this uncomfortable knowledge to
the warm and stable ignorance with which i arrived.
i would not, even if i could, which is impossible.
Shimer, i know i am expected to say certain things upon this stage.
To be thankful, modest, to regale this institution with the praise it should deserve.
Shimer, i would hope that you, at least, would understand
if i cannot say what is traditionally said.
i am trying to be honest, i do not know how much you care.
Shimer, we have all heard the arguments, about my personal freedom of inquiry and the oppression of the academic world.
Shimer, these are frightening, nearly unchallenged ideals we hold amongst ourselves
Shimer, these ideals have consequences.
Sooner or later, we must all face the abyss of freedom
we have held as our irrefutable dogma.
Shimer, before we go out to change the world, it is necessary to stop and ask why it should be changed,
to what specific end, and how we think we know this.
Shimer, this is the point at which we fold back upon ourselves into an infinitely regressing abyss of assumptions which seem to stand on nothing - perhaps this is an error.

Shimer, i have pined for sound convictions.
i am well aware how open to refutation i am.
That anyone with the smallest sense of certainty
can very easily brush me aside with a host of weighty words
can say i have succumbed to pessimism or any number of other ism's.
Shimer, you are aware that if i had brought you a message of hope, that too would have been easily refuted.
Shimer, is this correct?
When i maintain a position, however tentative,
i become a target - an easy target.
Shimer, we are all easy targets.
This does not help at all.
Shimer, it is a relatively simple thing
to destroy the argument of another.
It is something else altogether to build for ourselves,
with its inevitable confrontations with doubt and uncertainty.
Shimer it may be obvious that we need the courage to build.
But where are we to find this courage?
I must confess i have not found it from this institution
nor have i found it in myself alone.

Shimer, i would like to talk about community.
it is the most grievously misused word at this school.
More so even than dialogue or dialectic.
It is likely that this happens because we only ever bother to talk about community in its negative juridical sense.
As if the only aspect in which we are a community is when we are offended, as a body, by the actions of an individual agent against us. As if we only ever see solidarity when a 'they' attacks the 'us'. Shimer, this is not community.
Shimer, community is something which must be tended.
community is something which we make amongst ourselves.
Shimer, i knew there was community when i was hungry, and my fellow students fed me.
Shimer, i knew we made community between us, when one had trouble, and the others listened, when the others cared,
not because we were community,
not in the negative sense of duty,
but because, after all, it was not too much trouble,
and we needed one another.
I knew there was community when it was three in the morning,
i reeled with insomnia and someone had a pot of coffee brewing,
was willing to sit and talk with me about Goodall and Weber,
when we cared enough to plan the revolution together.
Shimer, there was community when i could share my thoughts,
and you could share yours, and we could en-courage one another.
en-courage. courage, courage is bestowed by the community we make between us.
Shimer, this is not a joke.

Shimer, i see a world atomized, reduced to pieces by the progress of mankind. The fragmentation of this world is impossible to ignore, and it is nearly inconceivable to act in the face of it.
The pieces are hungry for more pieces.
But there is no nourishment in pieces.
Understandably, no one wants to become the snack of the pieces.
no one wants to be an easy target.
perhaps, this is why i feel so bitter,
this is why i wonder what to say,
the cause grows daily more ambiguous,
discipleship seems daily more absurd.
what remains is you.
what remains is myself.
what remains is the occasional community between us.
and what remains of hope is a moment
a decision
when one has courage
takes a step
becomes an easy target
and the other doesn't take the shot
pulls the punch
not for the greater good
not out of a sense of duty
not because they hold ideals greater than themselves
but because, after all, it is not too much trouble
and we need one another.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Graduation Speech by Rebecca Sundin (1999)

Rebecca Sundin is a 1999 graduate of Shimer College, where she attended Shimer's Weekend College program. She is currently a Trustee of Shimer College, and a customer service manager for

When I was first asked to speak at graduation, I was told that many students like to reflect upon their general experience at Shimer and talk about what that experience has meant to them. Those who know me well and who have already heard my reflections realize that were I to do this, it could take several hours. So instead, I’ve tried to think about the most valuable lesson that I have taken from my Shimer experience. And after considering the matter carefully, I realized that the most valuable lesson I have gained has not come from any one text or class – it is much more fundamental than that.

As Shimer students, it is often difficult to explain our motivation for pursuing a liberal arts degree to people who are not involved in the school. A common question that non-Shimerians pose is “How are you going to use a degree from Shimer?” And while I’ve heard many different and eloquent responses, my favorite response was given by one of my fellow graduates – he tells people, “I’m going to use my degree any time I want to think about something.” I like this response for several reasons. First of all, it’s clever – and it usually prevents people with poor intentions from pressing the matter. However, it succinctly explains even more than that. It is an honest response telling the rest of the world that Shimer cares about teaching its students how to approach significant issues. And Shimer teaches us how to do this in our class discussions.

Everyone knows that this model of class discussion is what makes Shimer unique. While there are other schools that may also teach the great books, Shimer is dedicated to teaching its students how to engage in conversations about them. For the past three years, I feel I have been very fortunate to take part in these discussions. Not only have I learned how to think about ideas, but I have also learned how to participate in valuable conversation. The techniques of participating in good conversation are the most valuable assets I will be taking with me as I leave Shimer.

After having experienced classroom discussion at Shimer, it is difficult to think about taking classes anywhere else. However, many of us aspire to attend graduate school, and therefore must prepare ourselves for more “traditional” models of education. When I began my graduate program last fall, I was mentally preparing myself for lectures and class notes. I thought that there was little hope for the kinds of discussion that I had become accustomed to at Shimer. I was wrong. True, I do have to attend lectures and if I wish to make a verbal comment, I’m required to raise my hand. But the very first thing my program director told my graduate class was that we needed to think about how we were going to enter the “conversation.” Instead of verbal discussions, he said we would be conducting discussions through our written work. I was extremely happy to hear about this written conversational model. But, there is one catch. He said that we not only have to decide the content of our writing, but we also have to choose a specific audience that we wish to address. Additionally, we are required to make our contributions relevant to the audience whom we are addressing.

He then went on to explain that there are many conversations already in progress and that the most conventional way of building our careers would be to choose one and join in. He had the very best intentions in giving us this advice. He admitted that this model was necessarily exclusionary and that to start a new conversation or a different model of conversation would be difficult at best. He also encouraged us to think about the implications of joining an elite community of experts that withdraws, at least in part, from the larger community of scholars.

I am bringing up this issue today because I think that most people in this room will be facing it – in either an academic or professional setting. While Shimer has been accused of “elitism,” all one needs to do to participate in this community is read the text and prepare questions. Anyone with a serious interest in the great books would be welcomed here. That isn’t necessarily true of the other conversations taking place in the academy today. Extremely thoughtful contributions, which are at the same time of interest to the experts, are required if one is to have any part in these communities. Shimer, I believe, has prepared all of us to participate in these small communities of experts. But I think Shimer has also taught us to carefully consider what that participation would mean.

So far, I fear I may have painted a negative picture of the conversations taking place in the academy. I don’t think that it would be entirely fair for me to do this. On the one hand, there just may not be that many people interested in the precise genetic code of the common fruitfly or the importance that gender roles play in determining who can be considered a Romantic poet. Also, the jargon, which is sometimes accused of being impenetrable, usually emerges as a kind of shorthand intended to facilitate discussion – not to exclude people from participating. And yet, as well meaning as these conversations might be, the language that is employed is often very difficult to comprehend and can act as an insurmountable barrier for even the most intelligent people.

Considering the large number of conversations taking place in the academy, I think it is reasonable that the people in this room will find one, if not several, of interest. I think that with a Shimer background, students will have much less difficulty in participating. I also think that the people here today will want to participate. Because weekend students must wait three weeks before having class discussion, I believe that weekend students know how the desire for higher level conversation can build as well as the frustration of not finding someone who is willing to discuss the issues immediately. The conversations taking place in the academy and our Shimer classes act as a kind of outlet for this desire – both give academics and professionals a forum for voicing new ideas. Unlike Shimer, however, in the conversations of the academy, there may be such a thing as a dumb question. The academy’s conversations assume a level of proficiency that is automatically above the heads of the majority. They also do not spend time helping interested people gain proficiency. One must act on one’s own initiative – through graduate school and hours of independent study – in order to participate.

Again, let me state that I think Shimer students are prepared to do just that. However, what I’m suggesting is that as we join these conversations and become experts in our fields that we not forget the community at large. I’m asking that we remember our experiences at Shimer and have patience with those who have interest in our subjects, but do not have the driving passion that causes them to spend the rest of their lives immersed in interesting questions of genetics, literature, social science, history … well you get the picture. Many experts would respond to my request by saying that they are so busy solving highly technical problems that they simply do not have the time to spend explaining their ideas to non-experts. However, I’m asking that we remember academics such as Albert Einstein – the icon of the academy, one could argue. As busy as he was revolutionizing the world of physics, he still found the time to write Relativity – making his highly technical theories available to the interested public. In closing, I would like to ask that in addition to participating in highly specialized conversations, that we all resolve to take the skills we have honed at Shimer, our willingness to listen, our abilities to respond thoughtfully in conversations, our general classroom demeanors, and use them to communicate with others in the larger community.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Graduation Speech by Jeff Sader (1992)

Jeff Sader is a 1992 graduate of Shimer College, where he attended the Weekend College Program. The following is the text of the address he gave as valedictorian at the Fall 1992 commencement.

Last spring I attended the commencement for the weekday college and listened to Jay Somers talk about the opportunity Shimer presented him through its Early Entrant Program. This program allows bright and ambitious teenagers a chance to leave high school before they graduate and begin their college career early.

I am a beneficiary of another Shimer Program called the Weekend College or the Really Late Early Entrant Program. When my mom first dropped me off at college in the fall of 1970 at another school, I'm sure she didn't imagine that I'd be accepting my degree in Waukegan 22 years later. But here I am and, I'm happy to say, so is my mom. I'm happy because she was actually on her way to Gurnee Mills Mall but took the wrong exit.

Today I am grateful for a lot of things. That the Weekend College gave us the opportunity to get a liberal education in a way that made sense to us, involving us as whole people, putting the emphasis on the learning process itself. I'm grateful that Shimer attracts a committed and caring faculty and staff who are truly the heart and soul of the school. I'm grateful for our friends and family who are indispensable to Shimer students if only to provide a sympathetic ear when we sound the universal Shimer complaint, "I Can't Read All This!" On this count I want to thank my wife, Jeni, who put up with four years of whining but never failed to be supportive.

To express my gratitude for all these things and in keeping with the dignity of the occasion I would like all of you to join me in the Shimer cheer.

Give me an "S".

By the way, since this is a Shimer cheer, it is heavily annotated. I'll read the notes as we go along. Here's the first one.

The S stands for Socratic Dialogue. This is the primary method of education at Shimer. We meet in small groups and discuss a text which we have all carefully read. Through this exchange of ideas and perspectives we try to grasp the author's meaning. There is one law that applies to these discussions. The less an author is understood, the louder is the dialogue.

Give me an "H".

The H stands for Hegel. Hegel is the subject of the loudest discussions in the curriculum.

Give me an "I".

The I stands for Ignorance. Socrates claimed that no one was wiser than he because he at least understood his own ignorance. A Shimer degree certifies that we have achieved an advanced level of ignorance.

Give me an "M".

Unfortunately, the footnote for the M is entirely in Latin and I have no idea what it means, so we'll skip it.

Give me an "E".

The E used to stand for Ethos, but John Keller objected and it has been changed. It now stands for Extra-Curricular Activities. Shimer has none but we needed the E for the cheer.

Give me an "R".

The R is for Remembrance. As we graduates leave today we'll take with us many memories: Orange Horses, Fireside discussions. Nearly having our diplomas say Roosevelt University. Hours of discussion. Hours and hours of discussion. A lot of good humor that seemed to complement the heavy topics so well. Struggling with difficult concepts that actually left bruise marks on the brain. School plays. Communal meals. And we'll remember those who made all of this possible: Aristotle, Plato, Galileo, Shakespeare: Shimer's own DWEM team. I've only named a few. If I try to name them all I'll leave somebody out and, you know, Dead White European Males have feelings, too.

Well, that's the end of the cheer. There's actually a couple more lines, but in Shimer fashion, I will allow you to draw your own conclusions.

Before I go, I would like to mention one more thing I learned at Shimer. And I know this is true because it has been confirmed in my observations and conversations with many faculty members and past graduates. Four years of Socratic-style dialogue leads to countless years of Socratic-style poverty.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Shimer College: A Challenge Posed" by David Koukal (1990)

David Koukal is a 1990 graduate of Shimer College, where he attended both the Weekend College and Oxford study abroad programs. He is now an Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Detroit Mercy, where he also co-directs the Honors Program.

The following is the text of the address he gave as valedictorian at the Spring 1990 commencement.

Good Afternoon.

In an attempt to quell my fears of speaking today, Sean McAleer, the speaker from Shimer’s last commencement, offered me some sage advice. First, he said, take deep breaths. Second, remember that there is no one outside the building protesting your foreign policy. And third, bear in mind that the people to whom you are speaking are not strangers but your friends. As usual, Sean’s logic was flawless, so allow me to salute all of you--fellow graduates, faculty, members of the board, family, and well-wishers--under the authority of that most pleasant word: “Friends.” Friends, thank you for coming to share this day with us. Welcome.

Up until last week, I often felt that if I were ever asked to speak on an occasion such as this, I would have something of interest to say. However, when Dave Shiner called to offer me the opportunity, I admitted to him in so many words that I would be both honored and terrified; honored for obvious reasons, terrified because now that the task was before me I was no longer so sure of the worthiness of anything I might say. In general, we don’t like speechifying at Shimer. The assumption of a position not immediately open to challenge is very un-Shimerian, and I find myself a little uncomfortable in such a position. Yet I’ve come to view this speech as the last of a long series of challenges, challenges being a great deal of what this school is all about. Had I politely refused Dean Shiner’s offer, I know I would have been relieved, but nonetheless disappointed in myself at having refused a challenge. So I stand before you honored, and more than a little anxious, hoping to speak to you with a humility learned in the Shimer classroom, where everything is subject to challenge.

Though perhaps I speak only for myself, I suspect that the first thing that Shimer College challenges is a new student’s faith in his choice of undergraduate institutions. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I had great difficulty taking Shimer seriously at first. After all, when I first started “investigating” Shimer, the campus consisted of three old houses on Sheridan Road and the dormitory on Franklin and North. The faculty and student body was, and still is today, small in number, and, shall we say, “different” in temperament. I wasn’t sure how to take a school that was so decidedly odd, a school that flew in the face of what I conceived a college to be. What I thought I saw was a group of people merely “playing” school. In short, to say I had my doubts would be an understatement.

Yet after two years of investigation I enrolled, and a semester later I made the more momentous decision to return and take my degree from Shimer. Today, four years later, I stand here making up exactly one fifth of this rather intimate graduating class, while in June the University of Illinois at Chicago – a “real” school, impeccably accredited -- will be awarding undergraduate degrees to almost 2700 students. In light of this disparity some may ask why anyone would take a chance on this tiny school, this odd place that seems to be in perpetual crisis.

Speaking strictly for myself, it was not so much a choice as it was a leap of faith, at least initially. The curriculum, though very attractive to me, was not enough to rationally convince me to attend a college so obviously in distress; basically, I took a chance on Shimer. As time passed, however, my faith was reinforced by the realization that my physical and spiritual conceptions of the University were mistaken. When I was at Oxford, one of the earliest Universities, I was surprised to discover that the campus of an average Oxford college is hardly any bigger than Shimer’s, and that some were actually smaller in physical size. And beyond the fact that Shimer’s curriculum coincides in many places with the curriculum of the medieval scholar, there is, I think, a shared spirituality that has allowed this college to survive and even flourish, despite times of great crisis. To be a scholar in the Middle Ages was to commit one’s self to a small community of impoverished learners subject at many times to forces beyond its control. I can’t help but feel that the spirit that held these medieval communities together is of the type described by Robert Pirsig as the University of the Mind, a spirit of learning unencumbered by walls, roof, or physical space, a continuing body of reason that has the audacity to proclaim that learning, when all is said and done, needs only “mind” and that “place” is of secondary importance. It seems to me indisputable that this same spirit has sustained Shimer College, and continues to do so. It explains how this college has moved from a decaying campus in Mount Carroll ten years ago, and how it arrived in Waukegan to begin learning anew in three old houses on Sheridan Road. This spirit prevails; where we sit today is evidence of its presence. It is this aspect of Shimer College, this spirituality, that brings it much closer to the ideal of the medieval university than the highly-specialized and sometimes impersonal entity that the modern university has become. I also cannot help remarking that a convocation ceremony involving 2700 graduates is bound to take considerably longer than a ceremony involving only five. I admit to an intense satisfaction that this convocation is taking place in a room that could not even begin to accommodate the U of l’s graduating class; and somehow, I believe that this fact comforts you, the members of the audience, as well.

Beyond the comfort I took in this medieval spirituality, I found that my doubts were further dispelled when I went to Shimer convocation ceremonies. Not that the mere trappings and ritual of academia legitimatized the college, though I admit to an almost childlike awe of this ceremony. Rather it was the sense of community prevalent throughout the ceremony, an intense feeling of involvement that seemed to emanate equally from the graduates, faculty, and audience alike. As I became more a part of the Shimer Community and experienced more convocations, I found that the intensity of this feeling increased. I found that I had shared something with people receiving degrees, something normally not shared among most people: namely. I had become acquainted with their minds. Together we had accepted the most primary challenge that Shimer College poses to its students: to touch ideas with our own minds, with no intervention or mediation. The sense of kinship fostered by this activity is intense, an intensity that extends far beyond the classroom, an intensity that tends to make convocations rather emotional events. For what takes place in the Shimer classroom is nothing less than a better understanding of the world, and by extension, a better understanding of one’s self. Suddenly it became very important that I should attend convocations, since it was apparent to me that I could never have achieved this better understanding without the people on the commencement platform. We had grown together in ways beyond measure. More than classmates, they were aspects of myself, and when I came to their commencements I came as a way of saying both thank you and goodbye, a curious mixture of gratitude and sadness. “Seeing them off” was, at times, very difficult for me, but this wistful sadness is of the kind that accompanies the best of memories.
This departure from the Shimer community is perhaps the most profound challenge that at a Shimerian will face, for it is apparent to me that we are re-entering an explicitly non-Shimerian world. This odd little school attracts a wide variety of people, but it seems that the one thing they all have in common is an intuition that something is missing from an education that merely tells one how to do a job. Shimer does not turn out professionals; rather, what we produce here are generalists, people with a passion for the broad spectrum of ideas that identify us as human, people who see work as only one aspect of what a human being is capable of. Society may ask “Of what use is a generalist?” One may as well ask “Of what use is history?” “Of what use is art?” Philosophy? Literature?

The answer is that none of these things is useful in the practical sense of that word, but I think that few would deny that these things seem to enhance the human condition in a very profound way. Like music, these things do not “produce” anything nor are they meant for mere consumption; they are playgrounds for the mind, designed for interaction. I think it was Nietzsche who said that a world without music would be a mistake. Drawing on this unimaginable concept I would go further and say that the world would be flawed in the absence of art, philosophy, history, or literature, for it is these things, among others, that make humans act humane. If a generalist must have a “job” then let the generalist be charged with playing in these playgrounds. Let him avoid what Nietzsche called an “indecent haste,” that urgency to place one’s self on a ‘career path” that essentially signals the end of play and the beginning of a life of mere work and acquisition. A generalist, especially a Shimer generalist, knows that this play should never end, and I believe I speak for my fellow graduates when I say that this commencement is regarded not as an end to play, but as the beginning of a different type of play. What we have learned at this odd little school is that true learning has more kinship to play than it does to work, and that the moment an education starts to feel like work, it stops being a true education. And to a world that sees no use for the generalist, a world that insists on asking the “serious” question of “Who will take care of things, who will run the world while you play?” let us answer “We will. We’ll help run the world and get things done, but don’t ask us to stop playing. Because this too needs to be done.”

Whether a Shimerian decides on a professional or an academic life, the fact remains that he is taking his new-found sense of play into a world that has largely forgotten the Western tradition, a tradition that has played a major part in the history of that world. Nothing is so damaging to the Shimerian sense of play than confronting this forgetfulness. A Shimer alumnus once told me only half-kiddingly, that if I ever found her in the dark Platonic cave of dogma and opinion, that dark place of unexamined thoughts and beliefs, I was to leave her there. She explained that she had been quite happy there, that things were easier in the place where no one questioned what seemed to be a self-evident reality. The fact that Shimer had placed her in closer proximity to the light of truth had only put her in the position of having to acknowledge things that no one else could see. This, she explained, seemed to cast doubts on her sanity, both in her own mind and in the minds of those around her, an altogether unpleasant feeling.

I found this to be a rather provocative admission on the part of a Shimer graduate, and I still haven’t really come to terms with it. I know precisely the feeling she is talking about, but would I prefer a return to the cave from where I now stand? Instinctively, I’m inclined to believe that once one has left Plato’s cave in a journey towards the light of truth, there is no returning; there seems an irreversibility to this process. But assuming for the sake of argument that I could return to a state of unexamined beliefs, would I?

Ultimately, I have decided that the answer must be “no,” for I believe that the benefit of knowing why we think what we think, and believe what we believe, outweighs the occasional discomfort one may experience in a world that has forgotten. This abiding curiosity into the fundamentals of things seems to be the difference between mere “being,” and a more active “becoming,” and if anything my beliefs have been strengthened rather than weakened by this endeavor. For the past four years I’ve become acquainted with my intellectual ancestors, and in a sentimental and perhaps silly way, the experience has been like discovering relatives that I didn’t know I had. I feel somehow rounder, more whole, for having conversed with them. In short, my education here has been profoundly gratifying; this odd little school about which I had so many doubts has transformed me in ways I didn’t think were possible. My only regret is that I have to leave.

Before I close I must thank my family and friends, who have supported me in many ways while I’ve been immersed in this Great Conversation. I remember times when I would leave the Weekend College on a Sunday afternoon practically vibrating with excitement; I would arrive at either my parent’s or a friend’s house, and babble incoherent and probably sophomoric thoughts. Thank you for tolerating me, though I don’t know how you did it at times. Thank you for understanding, and for allowing me to roam awhile. You were never far from my thoughts during my journey.

Let me also thank the custodians of the spirit which made this place possible, the faculty and staff of Shimer College. It is a special place, a good place, a place that matters. Almost two thousand years ago Saint Augustine wrote of a small group of learners that I am sure possessed the same spirit that you have brought to this place.

In describing this community of scholars he wrote:
We could talk and laugh together and exchange small acts of kindness. We could join in the pleasures that books can give. We could be grave or happy together. If we sometimes disagreed, it was without spite, as a man might differ with himself, and the rare occasions of dispute were the very spice to season our usual accord. Each of us had something to learn from the others and something to teach in return. If any were away, we missed them with regret and gladly welcomed them when they came home. Such things as these are the heartfelt tokens of affection between friends.

And last, once again I must thank you, our friends in the audience, on behalf of my fellow graduates. Your presence here today speaks of a similar affection, an affection which has greatly enhanced an occasion very dear to our hearts.

We thank you.

This address was previously published in the monograph In My Beginning is My End: Commencement Speeches at Shimer College, pp. 31-41.

Editor's note: In 1991, Shimer regained full NCA accreditation, which it has retained ever since.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, March 4, 2011

Graduation Speech by Alan Botts (1988)

Alan Botts is a 1988 graduate of Shimer College. This is the text of the commencement address he gave as valedictorian in May 1988.

First, my thanks to David and to the rest of the faculty, who have taught me so much about learning. Thanks to President Moon and the Board of Trustees, who have had the determination to keep Shimer afloat all these years even as internal strife and external pressures have continued to shove against our open doors. Thanks to my mom and my family, who have always helped me ground myself in the real world and in nature. Thanks to my fellow students, whose love and friendship have given me courage to confront myself and to build values that are my own. . . .

. . . I have been in San Francisco for some time now, working with children who have suffered from abuse. It has given me an opportunity to think -- not about "Shimer stuff" -- but about one of the biggest problems we have: addiction. I don't mean drug addiction. Addiction means having things done for you. Being served. It is an escape from responsibility for one's self, which by its spiraling mechanism weakens people's ability to take care of themselves. . . .

. . . The world is too big to feel important nowadays, and problems are too big for young people to feel capable of affecting them. In the absence of importance and capability, when it is necessary for good feeling, young people look to artificial good feeling. . . .

. . . In these times the world is huge, as big as the earth, and the problems are all over, and they're ours. Everything is big, schools are big, cities are big. It is so difficult to feel important. The problems are big as well, and not easily solved. Yet they threaten us with each night's newscast. . . .

. . . Young people are overwhelmed. These problems are dark clouds hanging directly over our heads, toward which we grow and grow without stopping -- as children do grow. But it's so much easier, for the moment, to duck down and bury one's head in the sand, to hide in the comforts of television, and drugs, and fashion, and romance, and textbook summarizations -- to exclude oneself from the business of life, and to leave the tough decisions to others. . . .

. . . We are in danger of becoming a society of addicts, not addicted just to drugs, but to all things which separate people from the reality of doing things for themselves. . . .

. . . The freedom which America has created is a largely material one. The American way is to be separate from the basic skills of maintaining human life, presumably in the hope that with our spare time we would be able to accomplish great deeds and think great thoughts. But this too has become an addiction, and has contributed to the feeling of weakness. . . .

. . . As people feel weak, they feel bad, don't like themselves, and give in to more numbing addictions. As society does more and more for young people, they lose the ability to do things themselves, and are in fact in danger of forgetting that it is possible for them to do things for themselves. . . .

. . . The greatest challenge that young people face nowadays is feeling really good about themselves, and in learning what they can do that will foster that good feeling. Feeling good means feeling important and capable. . .

. . . The Shimer education realizes this. It asks people to think for themselves, which gives them an important and capable feeling. A necessary part of feeling good is feeling important and capable. As people feel better, they feel stronger, have more energy to do things themselves. . . .

. . . I came to Shimer weak, and not liking myself. I became strong and learned to like myself. . . . That is all I have to say. . . .

Labels: , ,