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The New York Times
writes a
bout Shimer College
4 November 2007


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Small Campus, Big Books

Sally Ryan for The New York Times

READ. REASON. REVIEW. Students at Shimer College in Chicago discussing philosophy and Martin Heidegger’s “Basic Writings.” Professors (like Harold Stone, above left) are on the sidelines.

Published: November 4, 2007
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.

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 and Czeslaw Milosz. “So shoot me down if you think I’m wrong.”

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.

If a student wants frat parties or football games, this is the wrong spot. For voracious readers, it could be paradise. Great-books colleges “are about the big questions of life,” says Ronald O. Champagne, interim president. “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.

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.

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.

The great-books philosophy is rooted in the belief that classics provide a broader, richer education than the prevailing fragmented curriculum. “Plato and Aristotle 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.

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.

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.

The impetus for the great-books curriculum dates from the early 20th century, influenced largely by John Erskine, who taught literature at Columbia from 1920 to 1937. He argued that ancient Greek and Latin “are not dead languages unless we assassinate them.” Another pioneer was Robert Maynard Hutchins, 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.

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

York University, Toronto
M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.