Peter W. Schroth: "Never Grow Up"
Peter W. Schroth is a 1966 graduate of Shimer College and a member of the Board of Trustees of the College. The following is the text of the address he gave to the graduating class at the May 2000 commencement, where he followed student speakers Psyche Ready and Jason Blaesing.
Never Grow Up
Peter W. Schroth1
Address to the graduating class of Shimer College
21 May 2000
As President Moon just pointed out, the new millennium is still seven months away, although there is something to be said for the two-party system: one at each end of Year 2000. In substance, however, I think the new era – which may be looked back on as a century or a millennium, it’s too soon to tell – began around 10 years ago. Geopolitics changed completely with the collapse of Communism. Hegel could have called it the “end of history,” (cf. Fukuyama (1992)) or preferably the “end of a history,” because a different history, with an altogether different kind of participants, has begun.
Communism collapsed just in time for the Republicans to claim the credit, but in fact the Soviet Empire fell of its own weight, not because President Reagan or any other politician knocked it down. The U.S.S.R government committed a slow and horrible economic murder-suicide, taking many of its neighbors with it, but their economic systems died just in time to miss being run over by advancing technology and globalization.
Nation states appeared in Europe around 1300 – the King of the French or of the English became the King of France or of England – and I think they started to disappear in the 1990s. Projects like Europe 1992 and NAFTA would require many years or many decades to erode the nation states, but the internet and Americanization or globalization, which are almost synonyms, have already, in about 6 or 7 years, done half the job of making nation states irrelevant. In technology and finance, the rate of change has accelerated and its rate of acceleration is accelerating. If you bought your state-of-the-art computers or put up your state-of-the-art website four months ago, it’s obsolescent, and if your technology is two years old, you’re about to go out of business. If you are the dictator and kleptocrat of some God-forsaken place whose starving peasants still live in 14th century conditions, you are about to be overthrown, because your subjects are learning from the Internet how others really live.
Now, then, you graduates have just spent four years or so discussing Sophocles and Augustine and Buber and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Darwin and Newton and Schrödinger and Durkheim and Piaget and Marx and Marcuse and Fanon and Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare and Goethe and meanwhile, according to Moore’s law, computer power has roughly sextupled. Your friends who have been studying engineering and computer science think you are quite mad. You may have heard that there are 200 jobs competing for each new technology nerd and 200 PhDs in comparative literature competing for each teaching job in their field. You may be thoroughly tired of the jokes about liberal arts graduates asking whether you want fries with that, especially if your parents have been telling them.
Please don’t feel that way, because the truth is the opposite. You have just spent those four or so years building an extraordinarily solid foundation for the rest of your life. The engineers and computer science grads are better prepared for right now, but you are far better prepared for tomorrow. You have the context for learning almost anything and you are skilled at wrestling with the real thing, as opposed to the dumbed down textbooks. You are ready to go on with lifetime education, whereas most other new college graduates have learned a trade, or less, and haven’t really even started to become educated. So many fine minds, wasted, because they never heard of Shimer College!
Most of the people I meet in business consider they completed their education, then began their careers. They grew up! Education is for kids! I had to fight this, when I joined the bank in 1984, because I immediately enrolled in an MBA program, to get myself up to speed in the business world. It wasn’t just that the bank wouldn’t pay for my MBA courses – Management thought I was wasting time on courses, time I should have spent working, meaning nights and weekends. “Why does a lawyer need an MBA?” was asked as often as “Why does a lawyer need a computer?” – it took 6 months of begging to get a computer on my desk, because Management thought secretaries should type, not lawyers. Now all that changed in the 1990s: not only does everyone at the bank have a computer, or two or three, but over a quarter of its employees in the US have taken at least some courses toward the MBA, and the bank pays their tuition.
However, most of Management would not even consider taking more courses in anything itself. They say, “We’re too busy making money.” They mean, “We’re grown-ups. That chapter of our life is behind us.”
Please, Shimer graduates, never grow up.
Your Shimer College has a better curriculum, in some ways, than my Shimer College, in Mount Carroll, had in the 1960s, because it has been fine-tuned and adjusted. I thought of calling the current version the “Shiner curriculum,” which has a catchy sound, even though it’s unfair to President Moon and the rest of the faculty. There’s a much bigger objection, however, which is that both you and I owe 95% of the Shimer curriculum to Mortimer J. Adler and Robert M. Hutchins, who designed its predecessor at the University of Chicago; but even they weren’t altogether original, because Adler based his work on the great books program designed by Frank Erskine at Columbia University around 1920. My Shimer College had some U. of C. professors, like Robert E. Keohane; do you still use “The People Shall Judge”? (Keohane et al. (1949).) Professor Keohane was my mentor, who told me to go to the University of Chicago Law School and then become a law professor, which I did. Do you know that Hutchins appointed Adler to the Law School faculty, where the two of them changed the style and redesigned the curriculum in ways quite analogous to what they did with the college? Do you know about Adler and Hutchins and the Syntopicon (Adler (1949)) and the “Great Books of the Western World” (Hutchins (1952))? (Which, by the way, are prominently shelved in President Moon’s living room.) How about Adler and Hutchins and the Paideia, named for something Mr. Blaesing2 mentioned, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica? (And I found both the EB version of the Great Books and the EB itself in your beautifully restored Prairie Room.) Do you know of the Committee on Social Thought? Do you know how similar Shimer is to St. John’s College, whose program was designed by Scott Buchanan, who had worked with Adler and Hutchins in the University of Chicago College? Did you know Hutchins was Chairman of the Board at St. John’s?
I’ll assume you know all this; probably some of you are even Robert Maynard Hutchins Scholars, you have a building named after him, and I think you all read some Adler in Integrative Studies 1 (Adler (1940)). But I’ll tell you who doesn’t know it: the U. of C. College graduates who have been campaigning to bring back what they call “the real University of Chicago,” meaning the Shimer curriculum. There’s a website on this at www.realuofc.org. The webmaster of a different site, this one devoted specifically to Hutchins (“Hutchins’ University of Chicago”), didn’t know it until I told him, although he knew a lot about St. John’s. But look here: in Milton Mayer’s otherwise wonderful, 500-page memoir of Hutchins, I couldn’t find Shimer mentioned even once. In contrast, Mayer has a very favorable description of St. John’s, including the statement that, as of about 1990, St. John’s “was still the only college of its kind in the world.” (Mayer (1993), p. 173.) Or look at Mary Ann Dzuback’s biography of Hutchins, in which I found only two sentences mentioning Shimer. Here’s the better one: she says that about 1949, Frederick Ward, then Dean of the U. of C. College, “explored acquiring a campus, like the Frances Shimer College in Lake Forest, Illinois, which eventually adopted the curriculum, but remained independent.” (Dzuback (1991), p. 158.)3 She, too, has a good deal to say about St. John’s. In 1963, Time magazine called Shimer College “Unknown, Unsung and Unusual” (“Unknown, Unsung and Unusual”) and every word of that remains true today.
My bank is the subsidiary for sub-Saharan Africa of HSBC, which is one of the world’s largest banks. In the financial statements of HSBC Holdings plc, HSBC Equator Bank plc is invisible, because all the numbers are rounded off one or two orders of magnitude bigger than our totals. Rounding off in a similar way, we can say that nobody in the United States has ever heard of Shimer College. However, I could round off in the same way again and say that none of the intelligent life forms in the universe have ever heard of the star around which our little planet revolves, or, for that matter, of our obscure galaxy. Something is wrong with this picture, because colleges like Shimer and St. John’s are the best preparation there is for higher learning.
Let me be very specific about that last claim: the best possible preparation for a U.S. law school or a U.S. MBA program is the sort of balanced, general education, based on close reading of original sources rather than on textbooks, that you have just had. I suspect that the same is true in many or most other fields and that report, two years ago, that we had the third highest percentage of graduates going on to PhDs is suggestive (Abderholden (1998)), but my claim about law school and business school is based on direct, first-hand experience as a student and a professor in both.
I’d like to tell you just a little about law schools and business schools. In both cases, the typical program in the United States is quite different from the typical program elsewhere. In both cases, the typical U.S. school does a much better job for its students than does the typical law or business school anywhere else in the world. In both cases, what is especially good about the U.S. schools is the features they share with Shimer College.
The first year of a typical American law school is the best graduate education I’ve ever heard of, and probably the best year of graduate education in the world. It slips a bit after that, but consider that first year: all required courses, providing a balanced overview of the main ideas on which all the Common Law legal systems are built. It’s about 100% original source materials, the opinions of judges in real cases, not textbooks. Most of the opinions typically used are the enduring, “leading” cases written by the great judges. It’s all discussion classes, no lectures, and they even insist on calling it “Socratic method,” partly because people like Hutchins and Adler told them to and partly because they don’t know the difference between what they do and the real Socratic method, because they’ve never heard of Shimer College. According to George Anastaplo (1992), by the way, Hutchins “liked to say that the law school was one place in a university where a student might learn to read.”
I could go on with this, telling you about how law schools teach analysis, logic and, of course, rhetoric, and how many law schools require a capstone, integrative course in legal philosophy, but let me switch over to the MBA instead.
The standard American MBA is mostly required courses, horizontally and vertically integrated to provide a general education in all the fundamental areas of business and management. Unlike Shimer and the law schools, there’s very little attention to the great writers in the field and business schools are far behind Shimer and the law schools teaching writing, but there is one more major similarity: the best learning experiences in graduate business schools are the cases, which in this instance means immersion in the original materials, the real situations of real companies, taught in discussion classes that, once again, are thought of as “Socratic.”
I’ll conclude this with my modified version – modified about to the extent the Shimer curriculum has been modified over the same time period – of some advice Professor Keohane gave me in 1966. I’ve subsequently found strikingly similar ideas in the writing of President Hutchins (see especially the radical tract Hutchins (1936)) and Professor Adler (e.g., Adler (1990)), so I think I’m on pretty solid ground here. Education is a lifetime enterprise. In a 1990 lecture at Harvard, Adler said, “sometime after sixty, I have gradually achieved a sufficient understanding of the great ideas and a minimum measure of wisdom to regard myself as a generally educated human being.” (Adler (1990).)
There are four key elements to a strong start on your lifetime of adult education.
The first element is Shimer College. I know I’ve been preaching to the choir on that text, so I’ll move on to the others.
The second is a corresponding general education in all the fundamental materials of the field in which you plan to work. This would be, for example, the first year and about half of the second and third years of law school, or all the required courses in a standard MBA. This is the “liberal arts” of law or business, the indispensable foundation for common discourse. There should be something like this in every discipline, but, if I can believe my colleagues, in many graduate schools, it isn’t done.
The third element is specialized training in your field. For some lawyers, there may be enough of this in the remainder of law school, but I think most lawyers need considerably more than that. Some, but I think not enough, go on for an LLM degree in a specific area of law, such as taxation or banking. After the MBA, which is only a two-year program, some go on for an MS in a specific field of business, such as finance or human resources.
Finally, you need to be educated by experience. Humans in their late teens and early twenties have a genetic tendency to think they are more capable than humans who are older than they are. A particularly pernicious form of this gene is linked to the Y-chromosome. As Shimer graduates, you are better prepared for the unexpected than most other college graduates, so if you happen to find yourself once or twice in situations where you figure it out faster than others, you may be strongly tempted to believe that you have x-ray vision and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Trust me on this: however capable you are today, you will be much more capable after several years of applying what you have learned, and more capable yet if you keep on learning and applying for twenty or thirty years at least.
Experience will educate you also about the value of some parts of your formal learning that seemed pointless at the time. Please, go back and study from time to time during your life. You don’t have to go back to school, because you are quite capable of continuing your education on your own, but there are efficiencies in letting the professional educators help you.
So I agree with Ms. Ready:4 don’t leave! Take Shimer with you! However you carry out the details of your adult education, remember the structure and the methodology and the love handed down to you from Frank Erskine and Mark Van Doren and Robert Hutchins and Frederick Ward and Robert Blackburn and Robert Keohane and David Shiner and all the others whom you know but I don’t, and, not least, President Moon.
Make the world your Shimer College.
And never, ever grow up.
1. A.B. "with great distinction" 1966 and Doctor of Humane Letters 2000, Shimer College. Also J.D. 1969 and M.Comp.L. 1971, University of Chicago; S.J.D. 1979, University of Michigan; M.B.A. 1988, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Professor of International Finance, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Hartford, Connecticut. The author may be contacted at Schroth@attglobal.net.
2. Jason William Blaesing, the first of two student speakers at this graduation ceremony.
3. The other sentence is also disappointing and misleading: "Moreover, the Hutchins college program was compelling enough that a number of collegiate institutions, including Shimer College, Notre Dame, and others, incorporated all or parts of it in their programs." (Dzuback (1991), p. 282.)
4. Psyche Zarah Ready, the second student speaker at this ceremony.
Abderholden, Frank (1998), "Shimer Shines as Starter for Ph.D.s," The News Sun, Lake County, Illinois, 6 Jan. 1998.
Adler, Mortimer J. (1940), How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education (New York, Simon and Schuster).
Adler, Mortimer J. (ed.) (1952), The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica). The second edition is entitled The Syntopicon: An Index to the Great Ideas (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990).
Adler, Mortimer J. (1990), "The Great Books, the Great Ideas, and a Lifetime of Learning," Lowell Lecture, Harvard Extension School, 11 April 1990, reproduced at http://www.dce.harvard.edu/pubs/lowell/madler.html.
Anastaplo, George (1992), "Lasting Contributions of Hutchins, Esteemed Educator," http://web.archive.org/web/20000612214213/http://realuofc.org/history/mayer.html.
Dzuback, Mary Ann (1991), Robert M. Hutchins: Portrait of an Educator (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Fukuyama, Francis (1992), The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press).
Hutchins, Robert Maynard (1936), The Higher Learning in America (New Haven: Yale University Press).
Hutchins, Robert Maynard (1952), Great Books of the Western World, 54 vols. (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., in collaboration with the University of Chicago.
"Hutchins' University of Chicago," http://bayarea.net/~kins/AboutMe/Hutchins.html.
"In Search of the Real University of Chicago," www.realuofc.org.
Keohane, Robert E. et al. (eds.) (1949), The People Shall Judge: Readings in the Formation of American Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Mayer, Milton (1993), Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press).
"Unknown, Unsung and Unusual," Time, 19 April 1963, p. 76.