Monday, December 26, 2011

Shimer in 158 words: Alan Perry

Alan Perry is a 1998 graduate of Shimer College, a comedian and screenwriter, and the author of Observations from Terra Firma.

I was very excited to embark on my Great Books education. I was inspired by the founders of Second City who attended the original Hutchins program.

After settling into the ancient dormitory I headed down to orientation several blocks away. I was accompanied by Bryce. He was dressed in green and had a hood pulled tight around his face with shiny sunglasses. Tufts of bright red hair shot out into a scruffy goatee. He identified himself as a poet. At orientation I met many other new students all equally interesting and unique.

Later that night at Godot House we talked about who might graduate. Mike mentioned that statistically only two out of ten would graduate. A daunting fact as there were less than ten of us there. I knew I would have to work hard to make it. It turned out we beat the statistical odds in our class and everyone in that conversation would graduate with me.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Graduation Speech by Jason Blaesing

Jason Blaesing is a 2000 graduate of Shimer College. The following is the text of the speech he gave as co-valedictorian in May 2000.

I have to confess to you immediately that this is all rather odd. At Shimer we prepare you quite well for speaking with people, not quite as well for speaking to them. It’s an entirely different experience, as you may well imagine. So if I’m feeling a little bit ambivalent in my position up here, you can surely understand.

There really is so much to say regarding what I have come to think about my stay at Shimer. There’s even more to say about Shimer College itself. I want to keep this fairly short, so I’ll try to strike right at the core of my experience here. After all, as we hopefully learn, silence is an integral aspect of truly speaking. Many things, therefore, must go unsaid.

It seems to me that there are two things which characterize a great deal of Shimer life, and the Shimer spirit in general. These are: desire and being radical. I would like to ask the following of these: What does it mean to desire at Shimer? Or, let us speak of it by its older designation: What could Eros possibly have to do with Shimer? Where does the erotic belong? And further, what could “being radical” mean in the context of our experience here?

One could hardly deny the central role that the question plays in Shimer life. It is arguably the single most important axis around which our endeavor revolves. Shimer is based on dialogue, on coming together with the purpose of entertaining meaningful conversation. Can there be such thing as meaningful conversation without the question? Without the question – without the ability to question – conversation turns to mere talk. Talk without the question can degenerate into nothing more than chatter. Thinkers from Heraclitus, Plato, through to Martin Heidegger have placed great emphasis on the recognition of this. In Buddhism, too, right speech forms part of the eightfold path which the monk must tread. True meaning arises only in the presence of the question. Can meaningful conversation be other than the shared pursuit of the question?

The question is the beginning of inquiry. It is therefore the beginning of the coming-together that characterizes Shimer’s ideal. The question sets the tone of the inquiry, as well as providing the possibilities that this may manifest. Though it may ring somewhat odd, the question to my mind deserves more attention than the answer. If I have come to know anything at Shimer, it is that there are a great multitude of good questions, but very few good answers. Poor answers can be found in droves. A poor answer is one in which the question is foreclosed; an extremely poor answer is one in which questioning is foreclosed. With this having been said, it should not be difficult to see that the poor answer is already present within the question from which it stems. A poor question is one, according to this, which forecloses its own possibility. This implies that while all questions may be good – though I leave that purposely undecided – some are clearly more in order than others. The better question is one which, in setting it own limitations – which it does by defining the initial periphery of inquiry – simultaneously provides for its growth and multiplication. Yet, a good question need not be one that simply inspires a host of other questions. This is to say, it needn’t be judged by its numerical productivity. Sometimes the best questions lie solitary, fermenting as it were. As they do so, they gather to themselves meaning. The best question is one which embraces and culls meaning. It is quite literally a type of harvest.

The word “radical” has found fairly diverse applications in this century. Most of these coincide with various political appellations. In fact, the mere mention of the word seems to conjure images of the political more effectively than any other. I think this fact is in itself meaningful, if often overlooked. But these political designations – often hastily made – seem to me to often confuse the original – and perhaps most potent – meaning of the word. We should remember that, etymologically, “radical” derives from the Latin radix, meaning root. This is its strict meaning. Being radical means having to do somehow with roots. A kinship between this and what we have already said of the question has made itself apparent. Before I speak of this, let me turn for a moment to something else.

Desire, of course, comes in all manner of forms – doubtless all of which you may find at Shimer. But there is a particular sort of desire that informs all that we do here and it is this to which I want to look.

Our notion of desire, I think, comes largely from the Greeks, though it rarely bears its original title. The Greeks, as we know, honored desire in the form of Eros. Beyond being a mere psychological function, Eros held the esteemed position of being a god. Moreover, Eros is found to occupy a central metaphysical position in the Greek understanding of the world. It is tellingly related that Eros’ primeval birth out of Chaos occurred at the same moment as that of the Earth Mother, Gaia. Attraction and gravitation are born with arrival of Earth, of the primordial experience of matter. To the world belongs attraction. We may thus think of Eros as being a movement or an urge to movement. In desire two things move toward one another. Alternatively, Eros might be thought of as a force which holds together, which binds.

Eros as the metaphysical force of attraction was to have a long history in the Neo-Platonic tradition, subsequently finding expression in much Christian mysticism. Eros becomes the divine force which compelled the mystic towards union with God. The Christian via contemplativa, the contemplative path of monasticism, has much to say about Eros, if indirectly. The movement of Eros from its mythic understanding through the philososphic and theological is fascinating, a particular aspect of which has a great deal to do with what I have in mind to say today.

The erotic philosopher appears in numerous places in Plato’s Republic. Nowhere, however, is this more salient than in the famous educational allegory of the Cave. The metaphorical process enacted in the soul’s journey out of the cave offers an insightful understanding of Plato’s conception of paideia – the Greek word for what we now call education and from which derives our word “pedagogy.”

In the allegory, the soul is described as being lead from the darkness and semblance of ignorance to the illumination offered by the clear vision of true apprehension. If we remain at the level of this understanding, however, not much has been said other than what most so-called philosophers claim as their vocational right: the apprehension of truth. Nothing particularly profound has been told. Martin Heidegger, however, offers a reading that attempts to interpret the allegory in a more comprehensive manner. To him the allegory bears witness to the movement of the soul toward true knowledge. Heidegger claims that the emphasis belongs on the process by which the soul travels out of the cave, rather than simply on the culminating vision. What this means is that paideai – education – is that whereby the soul is continually led and directed towards the truth. It is not the apprehension of knowledge – and not the mere appropriation of it that constitutes the essence of education – but rather its ability to move the soul. The goal of this movement is not just knowledge but truth. And, for Plato, it is fundamentally clear that truth is in the final analysis to be equated with the Good. True knowledge is not neutral, but aims at the conversion of the soul toward an ethical life. As Heidegger states: “Real education lays hold of the soul itself and transforms it in its entirety by first of all leading us to the place of our essential being and accustoming us to it.” Since the goal is not principally the acquisition of knowledge, no finality is implied in this conception of education. It is continuous. It must be cultivated.

What is cultivated by true education is the desire for wisdom. Eros acts as the binding force between the philosopher as a person and that activity which makes the philosopher a philosopher, namely the pursuit of wisdom. And further, it is Eros – directed by education – which urges the philosopher in his or her pursuit. The philosopher – the lover of wisdom – is foremost an erotic character.

I have said that for Plato education exists as an ethical process. This implies that education is somehow communal, that it is not a phenomenon which occurs in isolation. This is also to say that it is a political phenomenon. If education towards wisdom must take place in a shared setting, it is of a fundamentally interactional and political nature. I said earlier that the word “radical” had primarily political connotations, and it is here that this becomes appropriate. Shimer is an educational community. We come together as a community around our education and we do so in a very particular manner. The form this coming-together assumes derives from the Platonic conception of ethical education and it is most definitely a political choice. We come together around the question. In this way, we are a radical community. We have made ourselves a radical community by taking dialogue as our organizing principle.

Dialogue itself is centered upon the question, but there is another aspect to which it is intrinsically connected. This is trust. Trust has also to do with the question. Trust lays the ground for the question itself. Questioning, in so far as it is genuine, requires trust in order to proceed. Without trust, the fundamental openness that questioning requires does not exist. Without trust, questioning turns into a game of purely tactical maneuver: this is the field of polemics and eristic, not dialogue. This is also the playing field on which much of the 20th century has expended its efforts. Pierre Hadot, the French philologist, quite descriptively termed the 20th century “the age of psychology, psychoanalysis, and suspicion.” In this way, too, Shimer is radical in its refusal to structure itself on something other than trust. 

There is another aspect in Plato’s writings to which I would like to draw attention. For me, it belongs closely alongside both dialogue and community, being an essential constituent of each. Dialogue as an ethical exercise requires that memory play an integral part. Keeping in mind – in memory – what one’s interlocutors say is in fact a kind of justice. It is, after all, only ethically proper to give heed to what is said during the course of the conversation. Similarly, part of being a community is creating a collective memory. For the Greeks as well, the act of memory was humanity’s participation in immortality. In remembering, the Greek community escaped what it perceived as the eternal futility of human endeavor – the human tragedy – and joined in the presence of the divine. A community, therefore, must remember.

Shimer College is wholeheartedly radical. It is also wholeheartedly erotic – surprising as it is, Shimer may in fact be one of the largest communities of Eros devotees in the nation.

Shimer is radical because it regards its roots – it takes great interest in them. Its meaning belongs in its roots. Shimer takes great care to look after the question – to cultivate the desire that gives rise to the question. It takes care to look after trust. And it takes care to look after its memory.

I can not begin to utter how I can thank Shimer for my experience – how I can thank all of you. Almost anything I can say appears trivial. It seems to me that simply saying “thank you” would never be enough. I think that extends to all this year’s graduates. To my mind, the best appreciation we can show is by paying heed to the roots of Shimer.

In this regard Heidegger seems apposite, for he says that thinking is thanking. If we carry Shimer with us, as we experienced and learned from it, and keep it as a root conversation, we will be doing well. In this way we may pay tribute to all that happened here, no matter how insignificant, monumental, joyful, or painful – and, as Heraclitus put it some two and a half millennia ago: “Arise into wakefulness and become guardians of the living and the dead.”

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Graduation Speech by Psyche Ready

Psyche Zarah Ready is a 2000 graduate of Shimer College. The following is the text of the speech she gave at the May 2000 commencement.

Thank you for coming to this celebration, this celebration of the people who are graduating today, this celebration of life, of Shimer College.

I think that we as Shimer Community members are fond of ceremonious undertakings and sacred traditions, often to the extent where we seem to be making a big deal out of inconsequential things, but of course, nothing here at Shimer is inconsequential. Our work here, our life here is important. We have sanctified traditions such as this, the commencement, in order to give proper due.

I lost someone very important to me this week. We all did. It has been a difficult week, the most difficult week I think I’ve ever seen here at Shimer. No one is really on steady ground and the community has been shaken at the roots. Yet I have seen here this week a presence of joy. I have seen the manner in which the students have cared for one another. I have seen community spirit take on renewed life and I have seen community spirit show its face plainly. I am proud today—proud because I can call myself a student of this wonderful place. I am proud of Shimer for staying strong even through the most wracked ocean. Shaken by sorrow, we did not forget the lessons we have learned in our classes, in our lives at Shimer.

I don’t think we often talk about what it is precisely that we love so much about Shimer. We talk about the Great Books, we talk about discussion classes, we talk about the brilliantly colorful people; sometimes we just say, “How can I ever leave this place?” or “Man, I hate leaving Shimer. I hate being in the outside world.” And no one here every questions these statements. They’re nodded to with a sympathetic turn of the eyes. So what is it that we love? I have a feeling that this week has exposed to many what it is.

I would say dialogue—and when I say dialogue, I mean love. For what is the Socratic method but love? We sit down to a table together, where no one is above anyone else—I love you. We listen to others’ words—I love you. We share our own words—I love you. We read a book, we discuss that book over hours and hours and years and years—I love you. And, of course, dialogue is more than what happens in a classroom, although that’s where it begins. This loving voice, touch, sight, thought, speech, becomes a part of us. We exude love all over the place. Did you ever wonder why we hug so much at Shimer? “I haven’t seen you since before you went to class (hug).” I think we hug because of this great amount of love-- but I also think that we do so because of a need for Shimer students to spread that well of life inside all of us wide open and to let it stream across the world. In our loving discussion classes, we do not just discuss; we delve, we pry, we dig and seek out beauty, truth. We want to find the mysteries of the world and display them across the sky, across the grass. We want to go deeper than anyone ever has. And so common speech and common hand-shake affection does not cut it—those hugs are an affirmation, a continuing affirmation of what is so often ignored or avoided in this world. We are being truly honest—we are sharing love with each other that few people dare to expose. We exist in a constantly flowing stream of love.

OK, perhaps that sounds kind of extreme. I will now speak of Shimer from an outsider’s view, to the extent that that is possible. We are a group of people who read old unread books, often out of print and with archaic translations, we discuss high and lofty ideas and abstract esoteric thoughts; complications of long, hyphenated words and semicolon after semicolon with no relevance to the ”real world”—to the things which make the system run. We surround ourselves with an ivory tower of philosophy, and we pretend for four years that we do not have to leave.

Well, I have a really good idea: let’s not leave that ivory tower. Let’s not leave that ivory tower, for I don’t really think it is one. If it is, why is it that I have never noticed the changing of the seasons as profoundly and in such detail as I have at Shimer? Why is it that on the first warm days of the Midwestern spring we sprawl ourselves barefoot on the cold grass? And why, when a storm is gathering in the night, do we sit and watch the sky, watch the tumbling of clouds and the slow introduction of thunder and the white dance of lightning until we can finally dance shrieking and laughing under a torrent of hailstones? Why is every new green leaf on the tree outside of our house noticed and praised? And why are the flowers discussed and meditated upon with such interest and pleasure? Do other schools have rumours that spread across campus that the snowdrops have bloomed?

And I don’t think that I could not ask about our deep ubiquitous passion for philosophy. Why, when we try to have a party and forget our schoolwork, is Heidegger’s Conversation on a Country Path ringing in my ears from all directions, and why can’t we stop talking about Tristan and Isolde even when our comps are over?

Why do Shimer students pass through emotions and passions together, why do we live each sorrow side by side, and why do we always know when something is wrong, or when something glorious is about to happen? Why does this day stick out in my mind: my quiet self was very, very sad, and I never breathed a word of it to anyone. But into my hands by the end of that day three students here, three shining souls, had each given me a magic stone? What is this bizarre emotional connection we all seem to have, and why are we such beauty-worshipping souls?

Enough questions. A wise woman (the woman who works at Horsefeathers) once told me, “I know I am on the right path when coincidences happen to me.” These bizarre connections are more than coincidence. MAGIC is dripping from the trees all around us, and from the eaves of buildings and from our very fingertips and tongues. For we are not living in an ivory tower here at Shimer. And even if we are, it is a beautiful ivory tower, and in it is the world. The true, living and breathing world all human beings desire. There are no trees blooming in ivory towers, and there is no holding of hands.

Of course, we do not remain here at Shimer forever. Some of us have tried. But when the time comes to move past Shimer we enter the world outside. And we take with us that love and beauty and weave it into our lives and the people and places we touch with our selves. We have been given a great gift—a gift which is an opening of eyes, and to quote my darling Sarah Delezen—a growing-into-one’s-self. Forget what you will of who slew Achilles or of the intricacies of Descartes proof. But please do not forget the blooming of the trees, or the way the wind felt across your back that first warm day of Spring. Don’t forget the love one sometimes sees hovering in the air above the benches outside where a group of your friends are talking, or that image of the clearing that finally appeared to you in your dreams. These are what Shimer is, and they are what keep us constantly coming back, if not in body, at least in spirit.

I thought about thanking individuals today. All of the kind kind souls, teachers and students alike, who have helped me personally or who have helped the community to grow. But there is no one that I have met at Shimer that I would not like to thank. I hope that you all have a wonderful day, and know that I thank you from deep deep inside me. You have given me beauty and love which have allowed my spirit to thrive, and my words to fit into the patterns I’ve always wanted to see. I’ve had a wonderful time.

Bless you all.

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