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The "Great Books College of Chicago" fires its president
April 20, 2010 3:45 PM   Subscribe

Shimer College, one of the smallest, oldest and most uncompromising "Great Books" schools in America, has just foiled a hostile takeover attempt and fired its president.

Shimer has weathered numerous crises since its founding in 1853, including a near-bankruptcy in the 1970s that forced it to sell its original campus in northwestern Illinois. But it has never come as close to destruction as during the last few months, when newly hired president Thomas Lindsay packed the Board of Trustees with 14 additional members who had a different agenda in mind for the college. With the tacit support of his narrow majority on the augmented Board, Lindsay initiated an increasingly authoritarian administration, contemptuously challenging Shimer's tradition of shared governance and intimating that faculty and staff who did not go along with his program would soon be obliged to seek employment elsewhere. Investigation by concerned students and alums revealed the far-right background of all the new Board members and of Lindsay himself, as well as the fact that virtually all of them were closely tied to a very right-wing and very wealthy anonymous donor. After months of discussions, debates and protests, the crisis developed into an open power struggle, giving rise to national coverage (including a particularly mendacious article in the Wall Street Journal) and uniting virtually everyone in the Shimer community -- students, faculty, administration and alums. Hundreds of alums signed an online petition calling for Lindsay's resignation and on April 18 the Shimer Assembly (a body comprising all students, faculty and administrative staff as equal voting members) passed a unanimous resolution of no confidence (with three abstentions). This virtually unanimous opposition, combined with behind-the-scenes arguments and negotiations, succeeded in converting two crucial swing members of the Shimer Board, which at a secret meeting on April 19 voted 18-16 to fire Lindsay, effective immediately.

It is unusual enough for a college president to be fired, but it is almost unheard of for this to happen as the result of an open and democratic process involving the entire community. This process has demonstrated the dynamism of Shimer's community, while at the same time opening up an unknown future. Will the tiny school be able to continue to carry out its innovative program after having bluntly rejected the strings-attached support of the wealthy right-wing clique?
posted by Bureau of Public Secrets (70 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
Crazy! Very interesting, thanks for posting this.
posted by nevercalm at 3:58 PM on April 20, 2010


what is it with right wingers wanting to destroy every fucking thing they touch?
posted by TrialByMedia at 4:04 PM on April 20, 2010 [25 favorites]


In 2006, Gallaudet University blocked the appointment of a new president after protests erupted from the student body.

In 2008, William & Mary fired its president, following an extensive right-wing smear campaign (in spite of widespread support from the faculty and student body).
posted by schmod at 4:07 PM on April 20, 2010


I wonder if it was the fact that they had a pre-existing culture of cooperation that allowed them to band together effectively to pull this off. And would they not have been able to do it otherwise.
I feel like this kind of community is something I've never experienced and that makes me sad.
posted by amethysts at 4:09 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Strange, that the post is so concerned with the right-wing links of the former president (which were in no way secret) and that one of the things that supposedly made the WSJ article "mendacious" was that it portrayed the conflict as being largely ideological.

I mean... this post doesn't do much to disabuse one of the notion that it was largely an ideological conflict.
posted by Jahaza at 4:10 PM on April 20, 2010


I wonder if it was the fact that they had a pre-existing culture of cooperation that allowed them to band together effectively to pull this off. And would they not have been able to do it otherwise.

I bet it was. Plus their overwhelming concern for the school. Good for them.
posted by zarq at 4:11 PM on April 20, 2010


[A few comments removed. Please not so much with the lazy, glib derails right out of the gate. There are other threads you can read.]
posted by cortex at 4:13 PM on April 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


This looks to be a good post on the student association's blog. It primarily responds to the WSJ op-ed but in doing so clarifies some of what was going on better than the posts that simply report that there was a vote of no confidence by such-and-such body.
posted by kenko at 4:19 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of Sanctuary.
posted by humannaire at 4:20 PM on April 20, 2010


That post will also refresh your appreciation for the WSJ.
posted by kenko at 4:20 PM on April 20, 2010


From the "numerous crises" (history of Shimer College) link: The history of Shimer College has involved a series of profound changes and crises. Because of this, the college is often symbolized by a phoenix which is reborn from its own ashes. And it looks like it'll be reborn again. (This is fitting, except I can't find any such example in a quick bit of searching).

This has been brewing for a while (facebook blog post dated November 12, 2009).
posted by filthy light thief at 4:21 PM on April 20, 2010


I shared a house in Oxford for about a year with a gang of Shimerites, and have had a vicarious soft spot for the place ever since. I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with their fundamental beliefs (the Great Books programme), but I'm glad they're there believing them. Certainly any group who might want to tangle with the Shimer community like this can't have done their research beforehand: they're tough and obstreperous and dedicated enough to have survived.

The interlopers seem more like villains from an early-seventies Disney live-action feature than people should. I wonder whether Thomas Lindsay is played by Paul Lynde.

Good for them, anyway.
posted by Grangousier at 4:21 PM on April 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


...dedicated enough to have survived all manner of threats to their existence.
posted by Grangousier at 4:23 PM on April 20, 2010


Also, if this summary of the school is accurate, it's tiny. What was Lindsey hoping to gain by controlling a school with 100 students? I'm not scoffing at the size of the school, I'm just baffled at the reason someone would try so hard to control it.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:26 PM on April 20, 2010


Ahhh...faculty and student governance that actually wins a substantive victory against powerful people out to fuck your school.

Bit of an outlier really.
posted by lalochezia at 4:28 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Perhaps he wished to expand the school once it was in his grips. Starting with a small place makes sense, doesn't it?
posted by kenko at 4:28 PM on April 20, 2010


This sort of thing seems to be going around the nontraditional lib-arts colleges. Right now there's a lot of behind-the-scenes antagonism afoot at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass., between the (largely disliked) president and a number of the students and staff. It's not a right- vs. left-wing situation there—although I think many past and present Hampsters saw the college's lame response to last year's Israel divestment controversy as a betrayal of its progressive roots; it's more the way the current president, along with the allies he's installed, appear to be intent on radically changing the college's mission.

Good for Shimer.
posted by cirripede at 4:34 PM on April 20, 2010


Somewhere the ghost of Ray Nordstrand is smiling.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:42 PM on April 20, 2010


Wow, Shimer's still around? Last I heard they had, like, thirty students. It's nice to know they still exist.
posted by koeselitz at 4:42 PM on April 20, 2010


For you comics geeks, Shimer is the alma mater of editor, CLBDF expert witness, and all-around rockstar of the indie '80s presses, cat yronwode. Class of '67. Rock on, Great Books.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:50 PM on April 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


To be honest, it's more that Ralph is not the best communicator. I spoke to him recently, and one thing I took away from the conversation is that he is sincerely baffled by how people take the stuff he says to be so inflammatory. Not that silly things don't come out of his office, and not that there aren't people on campus who are extremely angry with him, but I would hardly peg the political climate here as one of creeping fascism or incipient rebellion. And it's not like the faculty are serving as inspiring leaders themselves.

I think nontraditional SLAC presidents in general take a lot of shit, since, you know, they're The Man, and nobody likes The Man, even if The Man isn't actually directly responsible, or in a position to directly fix, a great deal of the bullshit that exists in the academic bureaucracy.

In this instance, though, clearly righteous undergraduate justice was meted out. Kudos to the Shimer campus community and the BoT for sticking together.
posted by silby at 4:53 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


According to Wikipedia, the school has ten faculty members. The packed board had more trustees than the total number of faculty. Crazy.
posted by pecknpah at 4:55 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


This sort of thing seems to be going around the nontraditional lib-arts colleges.

Shimer is, next to, say, St John's College, the most "traditional" liberal arts college in the US.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 4:58 PM on April 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Chiming in regarding Hampshire, as someone who's presently heavily involved in governance at the college. Things are brewing here, with many feeling that something big is imminent. Last semester, the faculty almost had a vote of no confidence in the President. "Shared governance" and "transparency" are increasingly becoming no more than buzzwords. After meeting with the President and being told outright by him that he and I have fundamentally different views on governance at Hampshire, I'm seriously considering withdrawing from the college - and I'm student trustee.

(On preview, sorry Silby, but while I do agree that people overreact to Ralph, after three years of working closely with him, I've really lost respect for him as a leader, and don't trust the direction he has been taking the college.)
posted by ananda gale at 5:03 PM on April 20, 2010


My father attended Shimer when it was still located at its Mount Carroll campus. That campus is a gem, it's a shame that Shimer was forced to leave it. You can see some pictures at the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies image gallery.

Humorously, my father's old dorm--- a newer building which is not part of the historic campus--- had been converted into the sleaziest honeymoon motel I've ever seen, with heart-shaped beds and mirrors on the ceilings.

Over the years he's alluded to many of the crises described in the history of the school, but until today I never appreciated how turbulent a life the small school has had.
posted by melatonic at 5:04 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a longer term observer of this controversy (and an alum of that other Great Books college) I'd like to point out that it is oversimplifying to call this a Right versus Left struggle. Lindsay seemed to be working to create a school for conservatives, where handpicked books matching a conservative viewpoint would be read, while Shimer's philosophy, and that of the Great Books movement as a whole, is to be a place for free inquiry where all ideas can be examined. Shimer takes that a further step by governing the school as a democratic Assembly in which all students, faculty, and staff have a say and a vote.

In other words, to frame this as Left versus Right (as the WSJ would like to do) is to argue that the Left is the side of the examined life, the pursuit of knowledge, and democratic rule, and the Right is the side of blind ideology and dictatorial control. Now, as a leftie I could be fine with that. But as a Johnnie and an academic I want there to continue to be schools where political ideology (of any side) is left at the classroom door when people from different viewpoints come together to discuss ideas.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:05 PM on April 20, 2010 [15 favorites]


...that supposedly made the WSJ article "mendacious"

Worth correcting the OP and Jahaza on one point: the WSJ piece wasn't an article, it was an op-ed, appearing under an "OPINION: TASTE" banner, no less. And honestly, I don't see how any thoughtful person could read the alumni dissection of that piece, including the clearly stated allegations of Lindsay's tone-deafness to the community and failure to follow the school's own procedures, and still call this a simple left-vs-right struggle.
posted by mediareport at 5:11 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Things are brewing here, with many feeling that something big is imminent. Last semester, the faculty almost had a vote of no confidence in the President. "Shared governance" and "transparency" are increasingly becoming no more than buzzwords.

silby, I take your point about how Hexter is perceived—I don't know him and certainly never had any personal bones to pick with him or his administration. (I also left Hampshire a few years ago, and I don't doubt that you are more in tune with the atmosphere on campus than I am.) However, I have to say that ananda gale's observations accord strongly with what I've heard from staff members and faculty that I've kept in touch with. It's not so much a matter of inflammatory rhetoric as governance—shutting people out of the loop, setting up cronies in key positions, things like that.

It's entirely possible that I'm not getting all sides of the situation, but I've been told too many stories about the current administration's autocratic behavior to believe that this is just about Hampshire students vs. The Man. There's a lot more to it.
posted by cirripede at 5:21 PM on April 20, 2010


Please do not jump all over me if I refer back to the Hampshire speech for boycoting Israel. I merely want to point out whether you are for it or not, that many knowledgeable folks chortle at such stuff since Israel exports so much high tech stuff that is bought by nations world-wide, none of which pay any heed to boycotts at American universities. In sum: the boycotts are meaningless.
Shimer it seems is one of the very few schools which is governed by those fully involved. In most universities, the president calls the tune because he or she manages to stack the board of trustees and they do as the president suggests.There are a few examples though in which presidents have been so outrageous in some ways that faculty, students, and even administrators turn against their leader, and that hurts fund raising and recruitment and so the president is bought off and leaves--with of course a very handsome going away package.
posted by Postroad at 5:22 PM on April 20, 2010


Worth correcting the OP and Jahaza on one point: the WSJ piece wasn't an article, it was an op-ed

Yeah, it's still an article. See for instance, the LA Times, "Submitting an article to Op-Ed" or the NY Times's Paul Krugman, "... in a recent op-ed article written with John Goodman, the president of the National Center for Policy Analysis."

And honestly, I don't see how any thoughtful person could read the alumni dissection of that piece, including the clearly stated allegations of Lindsay's tone-deafness to the community and failure to follow the school's own procedures, and still call this a simple left-vs-right struggle.

I don't think it's a "simple" matter of left/right, but surely that's a part of it. Hence the poster's "Will the tiny school be able to continue to carry out its innovative program after having bluntly rejected the strings-attached support of the wealthy right-wing clique?"

I mean... if it's not an issue than it's not an issue and they wouldn't be talking about it...
posted by Jahaza at 5:39 PM on April 20, 2010


This is pretty interesting – I'd never heard of Shimer College before, but I've always got a soft spot for collectivist, student involved education; in fact, Shimer kind of reminds me in some ways of A.S. Neill's Summerhill School.

A question, though: on this page, which links to biogs of all the Straussian/libertarian/etc. folk that Lindsay stuffed the board with, there are links to a bunch of emails from them to faculty about a meeting on Nov 15th last year. Each and every one of them expresses regret at being unable to attend said meeting, and requests that a statement be read out on their behalf supporting Lindsay, and I'm wondering why. Am I missing something, or were all these great strong conservatives just a bunch of chickenshit bullies too scared of the response they'd get if they'd had to state their views in front of faculty and students?
posted by Len at 5:42 PM on April 20, 2010


what is it with right wingers wanting to destroy every fucking thing they touch?

You have to understand that, to certain hard-core and very well funded conservatives, they are waging a holy war against all liberal thought in America. That's not hyperbole. There are conservative factions that honestly, truly believe that liberal thought is dangerous and is weakening America to its core. You've heard the rhetoric, I'm sure, and blown it off as nutjobbery. However, well-funded factions, like the crew that attempted the Shimer takeover, truly, honestly, deeply, sincerely believe every word of that rhetoric. These people are scary as all shit and they have deep pockets funding the cause. The attempted takeover of Shimer is but one battle that they, thankfully, lost.

It's more than ironic that the supposed saviors of America were undone by the democratic process.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:45 PM on April 20, 2010 [12 favorites]


Jahaza, as long as we're all clear that it was an opinion piece, I'm good.
posted by mediareport at 6:13 PM on April 20, 2010


Terrific story. I'm just sorry that the internet wasn't around back in 1974 when I was looking into colleges. I had no idea that such colleges existed, but Shimer sounds like a dream to me.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:15 PM on April 20, 2010


> For you comics geeks, Shimer is the alma mater of editor, CLBDF expert witness, and all-around rockstar of the indie '80s presses, cat yronwode. Class of '67. Rock on, Great Books.

Yronwode dropped out after one year, I believe. Hardly an endorsement.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:17 PM on April 20, 2010


I'm not scoffing at the size of the school, I'm just baffled at the reason someone would try so hard to control it.

From wikipedia:

As of 2007, Shimer ranks in the top 1% of the 3,478 U.S. colleges and universities in doctorate productivity [citation needed]

Well, the small size would make it easier to take over by trustee stacking. Plus I've got to wonder if someone is trying to make an accredited university to instruct students in a dogmatic and historically revisionist curriculum. It'd be easier I'd think to coast on an existing accreditation for a few years instead of trying to take a young earth curriculum and get accreditation.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:22 PM on April 20, 2010


The phenomenon of conservatives trying to take wholesale ownership of the Great Books isn't just restricted to non-conventional (not non-traditional) liberal arts colleges - see outlets like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. This development shouldn't be particularly surprising: most of what conservatives decry as "liberal academia" stems from post-WWII disciplines like sociology (which predates WWII but which really revved up afterwards), women's / race-based / queer studies, etc, all of which aren't covered in the "great" (read: old) books.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:19 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


So what do you think the odds are that President Lindsay and his backers think that Atlas Shrugged is one of the "Great Books" that Shimer student should be reading?
posted by octothorpe at 7:20 PM on April 20, 2010


It'd be easier I'd think to coast on an existing accreditation for a few years instead of trying to take a young earth curriculum and get accreditation.

Plenty of accredited colleges teach young earth stuff. Accreditation standards are incredibly low, and end up having a lot more to do with financial stability than intellectual rigor.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:20 PM on April 20, 2010


I was at Hampshire for a year (I was an exchange student) and I've asked around and I've been hearing the same story, that both students and faculty are unhappy with President Ralph Hexter, but for different reasons. Essentially, faculty think he's in danger of running the college into the ground, financially. Hampshire has never been wealthy, so it didn't lose much in the crash, but there's very little coming in right now in terms of donations. Making Hampshire sustainable financially is a problem that hasn't been solved (the big idea now, I've heard, is to start running Master's programs that bring in money, like MBAs for creative types or MFAs, which seems like a short term all-eggs-in-one-basket solution).

The students, on the other hand, feel that the President doesn't understand the dream of Hampshire College. Hampshire doesn't, and never has, conceived of itself as a regular college. It's founding idea was to be a different kind of college, with a different form of education. This seems like a pie-in-the-sky ideal, but Hampshire has been very successful at doing things differently. This has required some particular ways of running things, which Hexter hasn't fully grasped. Governance at Hampshire has always been a mess, but it's been a shared mess, and trying to change that is counter to the institutional culture.

Furthermore, Hexter doesn't seem to get that Hampshire has a certain reputation and status as a different kind of college, and its hopes of future success lie in strengthening its reputation for difference, not attempt to become a more traditional liberal arts college. There's an abundance of liberal arts colleges, but there aren't many that are as non-traditional as Hampshire. The college has for a while now chased US News rankings, but that has become an added focus under Hexter.

Disclaimer: All of this is stuff I hear from alums mostly, but I hear the same stories coming from different directions, and this is my understanding of what's going on.
posted by Kattullus at 7:22 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Go Flaming Smelts!
posted by Iridic at 7:52 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


What a strange story. I was recently in the running for a job as Assistant Professor of English at Shimer. I was one of the finalists, but because the timeline of their job search was long and I already had a firm offer from another school, I had to pull out of the running. I don't know if this story makes me glad I'm not going to walk into a school coming out of a major shitstorm, or sad that I don't get to join such a strong community.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:57 PM on April 20, 2010


This doesn't surprise me at all. One of the great shibboleths of conservative activism (at least back in the late 80s/early 90s when I was a regular National Review reader) is that colleges need to return to "traditional" courses of study. So places like Providence College, St. Johns College, and even Columbia University received high regard from conservatives because of their full-featured core curricula and stress on learning about Western Civilization. The thing is though, particularly with places like St. Johns, conservatives would always be befuddled about the fact that the college which was their ideal learning environment-- the place where the teachers and the students did everything that conservatives said they "should" do -- created such a liberal student body. In the end, the liberal arts are liberal, but these sorts of colleges are doing what conservatives "say" that the "ideal conservative college" should do, so the colleges are always going to make ripe targets for conservatives to remake them in their own image. It turns out that intense study of "the great books" doesn't produce conservatives? Well, conservatives are going to make sure it does, because obviously the fact that it doesn't means that the system has been corrupted by liberal professors.

I don't see why they bother. At the end of the day, the conservative movement is all about providing an intellectual justification for low marginal tax rates and industry deregulation. You're going to have an easier time convincing a bunch of business majors at USC to take up your cause than a bunch of people whose idea of a good time is reading Euclid.
posted by deanc at 8:40 PM on April 20, 2010 [23 favorites]


deanc says it well. Conservative intellectual culture is such a bizarrely antique thing in contemporary American society. George Will and Newt Gingrich dress it up every way they can, but it's still just a conveyor belt of endlessly repeating Friedmanisms. It really has nothing to do with retaining our cultural roots or reading the Great Books, unless you are Victor Davis Hanson and one of those books provides you with a tenuous historical anecdote you can use to write your column.
posted by cirripede at 9:46 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've heard of green investing, is there such a thing as anti-conservative investing? That is, not investing in companies or products where the principal owners are conservative nut-jobs trying to do hostile takeovers of liberal arts colleges.
posted by stbalbach at 9:51 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Whoa, fascinating. Both my parents went to Shimer (both eventually took degrees at the University of Chicago, with which it was then affiliated). I seriously looked into it myself and in the end found myself happier with a more typical liberal arts college (Beloit), and in later years both regretted it and did not because of the continued building of defensive walls around The Canon. I never felt Shimer was really about that, but I can definitely see how a school that was based in Great Books would seem ideal to turn into a little Bloomian utopia. I just can't imagine how anyone thought the people who already constituted the college would, y'know, stand for it.
posted by dhartung at 9:52 PM on April 20, 2010


This "Great Books" thing seems a little silly to me... how exactly is a college graduate supposed to do business in Asia, Africa, and South America if their curriculum includes exactly zero books from any non-Western tradition? Would it be a betrayal to American values to sneak a little Borges in there, a filial exemplar or two? Hell, wasn't Averroes-- exempted from this list, no doubt, for his suspected ties to Mooslims-- the philosophical midwife of the Enlightenment? I'd pay good money to avoid one of these colleges and prepare myself for the real world.
posted by shii at 10:28 PM on April 20, 2010


shii: I agree for the most part, although I do love the "Great Books" reading list just because, well, I love the stuff on it. To be fair to Shimer, they do have at least some stuff (admittedly, offered as electives) that is non-Western or non-canonical. From their selected list of recent electives:

The Buddha: Life and Teaching
Wandering Free in the Dao
Classics of India
The Tale of Genji
The Qur’an
Confucius
Japanese Poetry: Waka, Rengu, Haiku
Critical Theory
Feminist Theories
Feminist Theology
Gender and Sexuality: A Post-Structuralist Approach to Film
Screen Narrative: Anderson, Bergman, Kurosawa, Lynch

Could they do a better job of incorporating all that (and much more) into their regular curriculum? Yeah, definitely. But, it's a start, and honestly -- that's pretty good considering how small the school is.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:45 PM on April 20, 2010


shii: I am a 1998 Shimer graduate, and I read Averroes in Integrative Studies 5 (along with a very great many other texts). We also read Fanon, Freire and Achebe in the core, though the recently-ousted president clearly had those and similar readings in his sights. There was some Borges in there as well, possibly in Humanities 4... On the question of preparation, I have done business for many years in Asia, and know many other Shimer graduates who have done well on non-Western continents including Asia, Africa and South America. I would regard our Shimer education has having prepared us rather well for the global age. A firm grounding in one's own cultural traditions is of great value in understanding other cultures. (And the year of Japanese I took at Shimer didn't hurt, either.)
posted by shenderson at 11:34 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


A firm grounding in one's own cultural traditions is of great value in understanding other cultures. (And the year of Japanese I took at Shimer didn't hurt, either.)

So does that mean that this is a college for old white men...or are you saying that Dickens is closer to the cultural traditions of Americans than Ngugi?
posted by hal_c_on at 1:44 AM on April 21, 2010


shii: St. John's has you covered. They have a graduate program in Eastern classics on their Santa Fe campus.

But I'm not sure why you think a graduate of a Great Books school would be ill-equipped to do business in Asia, Africa, etc. Do businessmen in Japan grill you on The Tale of Genji before they agree to sign a contract with you? The point of a Great Books program is to teach students how to analyze and dissect and argument an develop their critical thinking skills, both things that would be necessary to succeed in a business setting. Books from non-Western traditions would be out of place not because they are deemed inferior but because including them would compromise the coherence of the program as a whole. I know several fellow St. John's alumni who did the JET program in Japan immediately after graduation and thrived there.

The "no utility" argument against Great Books schools is an old one and is unfounded.
posted by ekroh at 5:50 AM on April 21, 2010


I know you're probably not asking in seriousness, but the reason St. John's has chosen to stick primarily to the Western world in its readings is because there are too many wonderful books in the world to ever include them all in one 4-year degree, so they have chosen a sequence of books that build on one another. You can't really understand Kierkegaard unless you read the Bible, the Catholic church fathers, and the origins of Protestantism. You can't really understand US Supreme Court opinions, DeBois, Tocqueville, or Twain unless you read Hobbes, Locke, and the Federalist papers. Non-Euclidean geometry makes a whole lot more sense if you've actually read Euclid. Heisenberg and Einstein are a lot easier to follow if you began at the beginning of the understanding of the elements and the atom with Lavoisier and if you've discovered magnetism and electricity with Faraday and Maxwell and if you've explored the motion of the planets with Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton. Darwin's conclusions are clearer if you've struggled with questions of "what is life?" and "how do we distinguish species?" beginning with Aristotle.

A similar program could be built on Eastern works, and to some extent has been.

And it's also hard to argue that those of us who have spent 4 years reading amazing books are just going to stop reading when we graduate from college, or that we have ever limited our reading to what we've been assigned in school.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:54 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Since ekroh (do we know each other?) brings up The Tale of Genjii I'll point out that while I was at SJC there was a preceptorial (elective) on that book.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:33 AM on April 21, 2010


analyze and dissect and argument an develop

I'm not exactly being a stellar ambassador for great books programs, am I?
posted by ekroh at 6:33 AM on April 21, 2010


One of the things that's really interesting about this college's history is that it was founded by two young women teachers from modest backgrounds. They were both from small towns in upstate NY and had the good fortune to obtain a free advanced education at the newly founded Albany Normal School.
posted by mareli at 7:19 AM on April 21, 2010




Why should an inter-locking group of Ayn Rand enthusiasts try to take over a tiny liberal arts college dedicated to the Great Books philosophy?

1. Yes, they think that American higher education is badly in need of reform. This is just one project among many.

2. The Great Books philosophy has a certain prestige in the academic world, dating from its creation by the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins. Shimer was closely linked to the U of Chi during its early period as a Great Books school.

3. Shimer itself has a certain prestige, due to its persistence in the face of trials, its steady evolution within fidelity to the Great Books ideal and to participative education. (Of course, the ideal and the participation needed to be directed and confined within neo-conservative limits.)

4. They were trying to start up the College of the United States, an openly dedicated Ayn Rand institution. It was clear from issued statements that this was to be done by running courses under the banner of Shimer College, in effect absorbing Shimer into the project and acquiring its accreditation by stealth. The first such course was to be run in the autumn of 2010.

But as earlier commentors to this thread have observed, in Shimer they only succeeded in rousing, intensifying and uniting a deeply held community spirit and passionate devotion. All across the Shimer political spectrum, from those on the right, center and left, or indeed apolitical, came an ever-stronger united front, expressed by every democratic means available to them, opposing an inititally covert, but increasingly autocratic takeover attempt.

I have never been prouder to be a member of that community. Long may we thrive!
posted by revdron at 9:51 AM on April 21, 2010 [8 favorites]


It makes my heart swell with joy to see other Johnnies sticking up for the Great Books program. The Eastern Classics program is a gem for introducing Indian, Chinese and Japanese thought to Westerners. The undergrad program consistently turns out people who are able to think critically, a skill that is becoming increasingly valuable. I'm glad to hear that Shimer is hanging onto its version of the Program. A progressive march through the history of thought is lovely and useful. Go Shimer!
posted by stoneweaver at 10:10 AM on April 21, 2010


I was very excited to see this post this morning! A good friend of mine works at Shimer, and this whole drama has been weighing heavily on him for months.

I find in reading through these links this morning that, as bad as he'd told me it was, it was worse. Looking through the books written by the president's handpicked new trustees, there are titles like:

Against the Imperial Judiciary: The Supreme Court vs. the Sovereignty of the People
From Playboy to Pedophilia: How Adult Sexual Liberation Leads to Children's Sexual Exploitation
Ourselves and Our Posterity: Essays in Constitutional Originalism
The Right Darwin: Evolution, Religion & the Future of Democracy

And then reading about this "College of the United States" plan, which is just bizarre.

Unfortunately I guess they're still stuck with the ideologue trustees, but if the board could manage enough votes to oust the president hopefully that means the far-right clique can be kept at bay, and maybe some will give up and leave?
posted by dnash at 10:32 AM on April 21, 2010


Add more trustees, then refine the charter to kick out the ones you don't want?
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:10 AM on April 21, 2010


Do businessmen in Japan grill you on The Tale of Genji before they agree to sign a contract with you?

Happened to me once, actually, believe it or not. An interview for my first job out of college, to work with the American V.P. of a Japanese company that sold manufacturing equipment. Through a translator, he asked me about my experiences of Japanese culture, and he grilled me about The Tale of Genji. We both had a good laugh as we both admitted to never making it all the way through it.

"He says he hasn't, either; just excerpts!"
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:16 AM on April 21, 2010


Thanks for the replies from Shimer alums-- you've changed my mind completely. My liberal arts education was a hodgepodge of ethnographies and criticism, and I probably could have done well to read some great books.
posted by shii at 11:28 AM on April 21, 2010


They were trying to start up the College of the United States, an openly dedicated Ayn Rand institution. It was clear from issued statements that this was to be done by running courses under the banner of Shimer College, in effect absorbing Shimer into the project and acquiring its accreditation by stealth.

You know, if they were mere run of the mill right-wing crusaders fighting a holy war against liberal thought, I wouldn't find this half so abhorrent. Ayn Rand enthusiasts? Subverting an institution that someone else created, compromising its integrity and purpose?

If these people aren't already completely beyond any kind of redemption, if these people have a single shred of worth as human beings left -- and I'm not sure they do if they have the audacity to claim that they have any respect for Rand's work while engaging in that plan -- they need to be sent underlined and annotated copies of The Fountainhead. Because it smacks a lot more strongly of either Ellsworth Toohey or Peter Keating than it does of any of Rand's protagonists.
posted by weston at 11:29 AM on April 21, 2010


posted by Jahaza at 4:10 PM on April 20
-----------------------------
Strange, that the post is so concerned with the right-wing links of the former president (which were in no way secret) and that one of the things that supposedly made the WSJ article "mendacious" was that it portrayed the conflict as being largely ideological.

I mean... this post doesn't do much to disabuse one of the notion that it was largely an ideological conflict.
-----------------------------
To Jahaza: The WSJ portrayal was "mendacious", because the reality was that Shimer rightfully prided itself on being a forum for all points of view, and was being suborned to serve an ideological agenda. This angered conservative Shimerites as well as liberal, centrist or non-political members of the community. That is the relevance of the political allegiances of the ex-president and his chosen board members. They were intent on making a politically neutral, academically free institution into a vehicle for promoting their agenda for higher education and for America. That is not what Shimer is about.
posted by revdron at 1:37 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


4. They were trying to start up the College of the United States, an openly dedicated Ayn Rand institution. It was clear from issued statements that this was to be done by running courses under the banner of Shimer College, in effect absorbing Shimer into the project and acquiring its accreditation by stealth. The first such course was to be run in the autumn of 2010.

In fact, that class - "The Morality of Capitalism" - is being run now (at the bottom here). Marsha Enright, the woman behind the so-called "College of the United States" did envision that class as the beginning of an institute within Shimer College dedicated to the propagation of neo-Randian ideas: here's a link to a letter she wrote about the proposed institute, and here is a reference to the "College of the United States" as informed by Rand.
posted by dd42 at 2:03 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


A Shimer fundraising campaign is underway, in case anyone would like to chip in a few bucks for the Shimerian cause.
posted by shenderson at 10:12 PM on April 21, 2010


I am thoroughly in favour of both a grounding in the Great Books and the resistance shown by the Shimer students, faculty and alumni to any attempted take-over by a right-wing zealot.

I was a little confused to read this, though, on their course guide website, describing the Tale of Genji:

"The Tale of Genji is the earliest of the world's greatest novels and the only one written by a woman (although not, at first reading, a feminist one). "

Doesn't that suggest that the person who wrote this thinks that the Tale of Genji is the only one of the world's greatest novels to be written by a woman?

That seems unlikely, on the face of it, because it would be such a stupid thing to say; but I'm honestly not sure I can parse the sentence any other way... ?
posted by lucien_reeve at 7:52 AM on April 22, 2010


Maybe they meant to say world's only early novel written by a woman. Still an awkward thing to say, phrased awkwardly.
posted by amethysts at 7:53 AM on April 22, 2010


There are some pretty well-argued theories that Njal's Saga was written by a woman.
posted by Kattullus at 7:58 AM on April 22, 2010


And Harold Bloom's theory that the early books of the Bible were written by a woman!
posted by lucien_reeve at 9:11 AM on April 22, 2010


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