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Chicago’s Great Books School, Shimer College: A Status Report, Commentary, And Suggestions

November 27, 2007

In October 2006 and January of this year, I reflected here on Chicago’s own great books school, Shimer College. For both posts I was interested, perhaps even concerned, about the college’s move from Waukegan to the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago campus.

This brings me to a recent New York Times article on Shimer. Published November 4, the piece is titled “Small Campus, Big Books” and authored by Dirk Johnson. Here are some excerpts from the piece—interspersed with commentary, pictures, hyperlinks, and suggestions.


– “There is a saying at Shimer College: If there are too many people to fit around the table, the class is too big. With an undergraduate student body of 70, this is one of the smallest liberal arts colleges in the United States. It has no lecture halls, and not just because of the enrollment. There are no lectures. Books, not professors, are considered the teachers, and the path to learning relies on the Socratic method of discussion.”

TL: Technically this isn’t true. You must have someone leading a maieutic [Greek, short for maieutikos, or midwifery], Socratic-style discussion. The teacher-midwife brings forth ideas from the books as objects of discussion.

– “Walk into a class at Shimer — with students talking earnestly, sometimes painfully, about the meaning of a classic — and you might think you had stumbled into a group therapy session for young literati. ‘I’m standing on fragile ground when I say this,’ began one student, sounding a bit tentative, straining to draw a connection between the writings of Primo Levi [Right] and Czeslaw Milosz. ‘So shoot me down if you think I’m wrong.’ “

TL: This kind of tentativeness is absolutely appropriate for college. It demonstrates the uncertainty of the entire endeavor of chasing for knowledge. It’s not pretentiously being a kind of “young literati,” it’s being smart. We need more of this informed uncertainty in U.S. intellectual life.

– “Founded in 1853 in the Illinois prairie town of Mount Carroll, Shimer was reinvented as a great-books arm of the University of Chicago, nearly went belly up in the 1970s — it was $1 million in debt at one time — and has moved twice. Today, virtually all its classes and academic offices are housed at the Illinois Institute of Technology, on a floor it rents in S.R. Crown Hall, Mies van der Rohe’s glass-and-steel legacy on Chicago’s South Side.” [Corrected by NYT on Nov. 11: Because of an editing error, an article in the special Education Life section last Sunday about Shimer College in Chicago, one of the smallest liberal arts colleges in the United States, misidentified the site of classes. They are held in a building on South State Street — not in S. R. Crown Hall, Mies van der Rohe’s glass-and-steel legacy on Chicago’s South Side.]
– “If a student wants frat parties or football games, this is the wrong spot. For voracious readers, it could be paradise.”

TL: It sounds like paradise to me!

– “Great-books colleges ‘are about the big questions of life,’ says Ronald O. Champagne, interim president [Right, in green]. ‘Our students learn that the questions are more important than the answers. Who are we? Where did we come from?’ “
– “For these students, college is not vocational training. In a method known as shared inquiry, they wade together through a core curriculum of masterpieces in literature, science, philosophy and mathematics, steeping themselves in the works of Homer, Darwin, Kant, Shakespeare and Einstein, among many others. At Shimer, there are supplemental problem-solving materials for subjects like algebra and a rudimentary science lab.”

TL: Here’s a secret: If you attend Shimer but hope for a science-based professional school later (i.e. medicine), you’ll need to take a few science classes as a post-bac at another school.

– “But for the most part, the handful of small institutions known as great-books colleges rely on original sources. They include Thomas Aquinas College, just north of Los Angeles; Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H.; and, the most prestigious, St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M.”

TL: St. John’s as “most prestigious?” Hmm… Oldest yes, but not strictly the most prestigious.

– “Each college has a distinct feel, from the historic quad of the Annapolis St. John’s to the quirky coziness of Shimer to the ethos of strict discipline at Thomas Aquinas, where Mass is offered in Latin and visiting a dormitory for the opposite sex is grounds for expulsion.”

TL: I had no idea that Thomas Aquinas had such a—ahem—Victorian sensibility.

– “The great-books philosophy is rooted in the belief that classics provide a broader, richer education than the prevailing fragmented curriculum. ‘Plato and Aristotle [Left] and Newton and Einstein are probably better teachers than any faculty member we could find to employ,’ says Christopher B. Nelson, acting chairman of the board at Shimer and president of St. John’s.”

TL: Nelson and others need to stop saying this. It’s both ridiculous and not true. Teachers at great books schools matter a great deal, and they always have. I realize there is a kind of branding going on behind the sentiment, but if we could all do it on our own—or even wanted to—why go to Shimer, St. John’s, or Thomas Aquinas?

– “The canon wars of the 1980s caused many reading lists to be expanded beyond dead white men to include works by women and authors of color. But at great-books colleges, classic still means old-fashioned Western Civ. Shimer is something of a rebel among them, with a multicultural curriculum that includes Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Goodall and W. E. B. DuBois.”

TL: Johnson is not doing these schools any favors by starting with the great books to make his comparisons. The Great Books Foundation, which was initiated by Robert Hutchins, Mortimer J. Adler, and others 60 years ago this year, advocates for more than Western Civ. offerings. The truth is this: Even though these schools advocate for great books curricula, each school’s founding ethos is different. Shimer is a liberal arts school that morphed into a great books school. Thomas Aquinas is a conservative Catholic college that uses the great books to connect their religious beliefs to the world at large. St. John’s is a liberal arts school where the great books have been a part of the reconstituted curriculum since the late 1930s. That school is rooted in the same community of discourse that started the Great Books Foundation. St. John’s and Shimer share some similarities, but Thomas Aquinas is very different.

– “While only a few colleges operate purely on the great-books curriculum, many incorporate the approach. At Columbia, which played a pivotal role elevating the great-books movement in the early 1900s, undergraduates take a core curriculum of classics. St. Mary’s College of California and Notre Dame have distinct great-books programs.”

TL: I’m glad Johnson pointed this out. It alleviates a bit of the false dichotomy of classifying great books institutions as “pure” or not. History shows us that there is no pure great books curriculum. And even more intense great books curricula, such as those in these three schools, cannot be homogenized.

– “The impetus for the great-books curriculum dates from the early 20th century, influenced largely by John Erskine [Right], who taught literature at Columbia from 1920 to 1937. He argued that ancient Greek and Latin ‘are not dead languages unless we assassinate them.’ “

TL: Ah, another popular reference to the great books idea that begins—falsely—with Erskine. My dissertation is getting more valuable every day.

– “Another pioneer was Robert Maynard Hutchins [Left], who envisioned a day when the classics approach would permeate all of American higher education. In 1950, while under Hutchins’s leadership, the University of Chicago essentially took over Shimer and revamped its curriculum.”
– “Although it no longer has ties to the university, Shimer still uses the ‘Hutchins plan,’ a required curriculum based on a core reading list of 80 semester credits. Shimer students take another 40 hours of electives, also based on great books.”

TL: This is almost funny. There neither is nor ever was a “Hutchins Plan.” The University of Chicago, under the influence of Mortimer J. Adler, used a plan in the 1930s that was a modification of Columbia University and John Erskine’s General Honors course. In the 1940s the University of Chicago adopted a loosely-related great books/core course program, but that plan was not a great books-based curriculum such as what is used at Shimer today. If anything, Shimer’s plan today is perhaps like St. John’s, not Chicago’s. It’s only called the “Hutchins Plan” because they have designated it as such.

– “In its long history, Shimer has known peaks and valleys, and it fights for survival still. In the early 1960s, Time magazine helped burnish its national reputation by describing it as one of the most rigorous liberal arts colleges in America.”
– “But the college suffered a critical blow when passenger train service to Chicago was halted, and the rural campus became isolated.”

TL: I didn’t know this.

– “It didn’t help that the college had developed a reputation as a haven for drug users.”

TL: Or this! Hmm…

– “Enrollment, which had peaked at about 400, fell sharply. In 1973, facing severe financial problems, the board of trustees voted to close Shimer. But a group of loyalists put up a fight, raising $300,000. Professors took pay cuts. Shimer was spared.”
– “The college moved to Waukegan, Ill., in 1979, at the invitation of the mayor, who had some empty buildings to fill and believed the cachet could help invigorate the old factory town.”

TL: Now we’re into standard Shimer history.

– “Shimer also got a boost in the early 1990s, when Lynne Cheney, then chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a core-curriculum advocate, helped the college win a sizable grant. Nonetheless, the college continued to struggle, and the Waukegan campus began to seem, in its own way, as isolating as its original setting.”
– “Shimer moved again last year, to Chicago, hoping the location would make it more enticing to students as well as more visible to donors. Already, the college reports a significant uptick in contributions, although there’s also been a slight dip in enrollment.”

TL: I’m sorry to hear there’s an enrollment dip. If the move was going to be effective, I would hope that’s corrected in Fall 2008. If not, I think that Shimer will probably simply merge with IIT (if the latter will have them).

– “It is clear that Shimer must grow if it is going to remain viable. The president who last uprooted the college has left for a job at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mr. Champagne, a former president of Saint Xavier University in Chicago, will stay on until a replacement is found.”
– “Tuition is about $23,000. Pay remains low for the 14 professors. According to Don Moon, who, as the college’s president in the ’70s, led the fight to keep it open and still teaches there, salaries tend to start at about $35,000 and top out at $55,000.”

TL: For a full-time academic position in Chicago, that’s incredibly low. I absolutely hate to suggest this, but perhaps they need to raise tuition in order to raise perceptions of the school’s quality?

– ” ‘We do it because we believe in Shimer,’ [Moon] says. He adds that faculty members accept poor wages because working conditions are so good — interested students, no turf wars and a wide range of intellectual exploration. ‘Someone might teach quantum physics or molecular biology one semester and teach St. Augustine the next,’ he says.”

TL: At some floor, however, faculty have to live with cost-of-living realities in the city of Chicago. Loving what you do, in an academic setting, ought to be able to pay the bills.

– “Teachers at great-books colleges help stimulate discussion, which is driven by the students. They are encouraged to explore possibilities rather than find specific answers. In Jim Donovan’s science class, ‘Origins,’ he held up the assigned reading, The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the paleontologist who was also a Jesuit priest. ‘How are we going to pick this apart?’ Professor Donovan asked. ‘What’s this guy’s message?’ ” …
– “Students drawn to Shimer include both valedictorians and high school dropouts. ‘We have a lot of eccentric people here,’ says Rubina Isaac, a senior. ‘The more eccentric, the better.’ What the students share, besides a love of books, is a disdain for the conventional style of education. Many say they did not have a good high school experience.”

TL: This points to a consistent problem with great books-based colleges. The kind of students who appreciate that curriculum tend be older. In general, liberal arts and great books schools need to do a better job of selling the liberal arts to high school students. That begins with selling those curricula to high school counselors. And this leads to another problem. Teaching programs, in my experience, seriously devalue great books programs. Those curricula are seen as weird or eccentric in teaching certification programs (which are now also testing focused), so h.s. counselors and teachers don’t understand great books schools.

– “Ted Krug, a senior, didn’t think he would fit in at a more traditional college. ‘I never found a niche in high school,’ says Mr. Krug, who had attended a private school in suburban Baltimore. At Shimer, he says, ‘there are no divisions,’ and students ‘don’t think in terms of black and white, right and wrong.’

TL: Except at Thomas Aquinas!

– “Mr. Krug is planning to study philosophy in graduate school, perhaps ultimately to teach.”

TL: If I had any stereotypical notions of the destination of a great books-school graduate, Krug’s plans fit my assumptions.

– “Dorm rooms at Shimer, shared with I.I.T. techies, are more cluttered than most because Shimer students have so many books.”

TL: What a ridiculous observation. Are you trying to tell me that IIT students don’t generally have problems with clutter? I think the author is overplaying the eccentricity paradigm here.

– “Up and down the hall, doors half-open, students sit around talking about what they are reading — shared inquiry in action. Students write papers, including a senior thesis, and take tests, though not of the multiple-choice variety. Shimer doesn’t require entrance exams, but it has recently begun demanding that students be in the top quartile of their high school class or on the ACT or SAT. Entering freshmen this year had an average G.P.A. of 3.3. About 80 percent of students are working toward liberal arts degrees, 10 to 15 toward science degrees.”

TL: I’ve not seen those percentages before. What of the other 5-10 percent?

– “Students say the size of the college can make life claustrophobic, especially when it comes to dating (I.I.T. offers some variety there).”

TL: Ah, this points to another problem: Do great books schools, in general, underestimate the need for a college experience? I’m not suggesting that they all take on basketball or football programs, but perhaps more social fraternities/sororities are in order? Or what of service programs?

– “Kyra Keuben, a new graduate, says she was drawn to the tight-knit community. ‘What clinched it for me was that the admissions director knew every student, knew their backgrounds, their histories,’ she says. ‘We’re a family here. We fight sometimes. But we love each other. And we take care of our own.’

TL: Geez. That sounds like the Corleone family.


Despite my criticisms here and there, Dirk Johnson’s piece is a good one. Of course you can’t expect someone (me) who wrote his dissertation on the history of the great books idea to not quibble. But, my dissertation wasn’t on Shimer’s history. I covered the larger issues associated with the great books in the United States.

Although I’m not a Shimer alum, I’m concerned about the school’s future. If its enrollment doesn’t increase, I don’t see how Chicago’s own great books school will survive the decade. It would be a shame if one of the geographic homes of the great books idea—thanks to Hutchins and Adler—could not support a school like Shimer. – TL

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  1. Really neat article!

    I am studying education policy right now (although if I had my dream I would be studying history of ed) and can say for certain that schools of education are somewhere between dismissive and hostile to a great books curriculum. I've been the lone defender of the concept in the face of postmodernists, Freirian activists and other touchy -feely personal growth types of curricula.

    Any chance I could get a copy of your dissertation? (protoscholar at gmail dot com)


  2. Anonymous permalink

    I'm also interested in the history of education and was hoping to get a copy of your dissertation if that is possible. Thanks.


  3. Dear Rebecca and Anonymous,

    Right now my dissertation, titled “Making a Democratic Culture,” is available primarily through ProQuest's Digital Dissertations. There are hardcopies in the libraries at Loyola University Chicago and the University of Chicago. I don't know that the one at U of C is available for circulation, as it was a gift to the Special Collections Research Center.

    – TL


  4. think-rich permalink

    Thanks for the information on topics.I was excited by this article.
    Thank you again.

    College online for good ideas.


  5. Hi Tim,

    I'm an adjunct faculty member and grants writer at Shimer, and I really enjoyed reading your well-informed post.

    Folks at Shimer might want to have you come give an informal talk, if you're local. Let me know if that sounds interesting to you.



  6. Dear Julia,

    Thanks for coming by. I live in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood. Please feel free to contact me via e-mail to set something up ( I clicked through to your Blogger profile, but didn't see an e-mail address there.

    – TL


  7. Hi Tim. I work with Julia at Shimer–as the Assistant Director of Admission. I landed here after graduating from St. John's and working in the accreditation of liberal arts colleges for a while, and am, as you might imagine, fascinated with the history of the Great Books and their current implementation at Great Books Colleges myself. It looks like you're very curious about us, and I'd love to show you around here sometime, arrange for you to sit in on a class, and, say, tell you more electives here at Shimer–since Noah didn't seem to see that reply to his comment on your earlier post. Maybe we could arrange something like this before your talk. I'm Cassie at shimer dot edu.


  8. Dear Cassie,

    Thanks a million for coming by and the compliment. It's great to hear from a St. John's grad!

    Since Julia's post, we've already been in touch via e-mail. Hopefully something can work out.

    – Tim


  9. Wonderful article. I am what is called a “non-traditional student,” i.e old. I returned to college when I was 56 to complete my BA and I'm still working on it at age 61. I'm attending a very large Chicago University, but I sure wish I had known about Shimer College! It sounds like heaven. You can barely find a really good humanities class where I'm at and the school is more and more “consumer” driven rather than “academic” driven. Glad to read about this refreshing school.


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