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.
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.
“We do it because we believe in Shimer,” he 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.
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?”
That prompted a wide range of theories, observations and, of course, disagreements. Challenging the views of other students is welcome, even demanded. Barbara Stone, dean of the college, says the students quickly learn that they can trust their classmates to help them with difficult material. “No question is considered stupid,” she says. “So, when they don’t understand something, students will turn and say, ‘Who can help me with this?’ ”
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.
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.” Mr. Krug is planning to study philosophy in graduate school, perhaps ultimately to teach.
Dorm rooms at Shimer, shared with I.I.T. techies, are more cluttered than most because Shimer students have so many books. 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.
Students say the size of the college can make life claustrophobic, especially when it comes to dating (I.I.T. offers some variety there). 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.”