America's Worst College... Or Is It?
December 7, 2014 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Jon Ronson (previously) visits Shimer College, recently named by the Washington Monthly's Ben Miller, to the chagrin of students, faculty, and even Miller himself, as the worst college in America (previously).
posted by Cash4Lead (74 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
The thing is, in the hours after the rankings were published in October, something unexpected happened. Whilst almost nobody stepped forward in defense of the other colleges on the list, Shimer fans began vociferously attacking its inclusion. One graduate wrote that it’s ‘a totally unique snowflake, and comparing it to other schools is next to impossible’. He added that he wouldn’t take his time there back ‘for all the money in the world. Looking back, I’d go into even more debt to make sure it happened.’

Nice to see Ronson quoting from dis_integration's eloquent comment in the previous thread. (Jon, if you're reading this, please step forward, so we can anoint you as MetaFilter's Own ..)
posted by verstegan at 6:48 AM on December 7, 2014 [18 favorites]


Named as the worst college in America for rich white people - not the worst college.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 6:51 AM on December 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


I don't know anything about Shimer College besides what I've read here, but at least from that it does seem like an unfair ranking. It seems like "When measured against a metric that does not measure what they're trying to achieve, they rank very poorly."

With that said, though... don't they have chairs?
posted by Flunkie at 7:05 AM on December 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


Man, I want to go spend time there now. It sounds like a very cool place.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:10 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


The college has come up before. Nearly thirty years ago ... god ... I knew a bunch of what were at the time (I think) referred to as Shimeroids in Oxford, where I was living and they were studying for the year. In retrospect it strikes me as one of the best colleges for the kinds of people who are drawn to it, who would often be much worse served by something more mainstream. The criteria for judging education these days are so broken, that coming top of a Worst College list according to those criteria can only really be a recommendation.
posted by Grangousier at 7:10 AM on December 7, 2014 [7 favorites]


Thanks, that was a very interesting read. This anecdote gives a good sense of the kind of student who would be attracted to the place:
Out in the open lounge students lie scattered around. One of them – Jibran Ludwig – recounts to me the strange tale of how he ended up here. One night two years ago, when Jibran was 15, he was sitting in an Amtrak station in upstate New York reading Plato’s Republic and getting annoyed by the translation. The Greek gods had been given capital Gs, which struck Jibran as an erroneous Christian reinterpretation, and so he decided to abandon the book and try and find something closer to what Plato had intended. It was election night. The woman sitting opposite Jibran had an iPhone. So he went over to ask her the results.

As he approached her, his Plato in his hand, she looked alarmed. “Oh,” she said after a moment. “I thought you might be one of my students and I didn’t recognize you and I felt embarrassed.” She explained that she was Susan Henking, president of Shimer, “and Plato is the kind of thing we read”.

“If the president of this college thinks I might already be there,” Jibran suddenly thought, “maybe it’s where I should be.”

After that night, Shimer was all Jibran could think about. And now, two years later, he’s made it. They accepted him without a GED certificate or school diploma, which is lucky because he hadn’t gone to high school. He lived in an eco village in Missouri called Dancing Rabbit and his education consisted of him walking around the village asking people to teach him. Some of them agreed, he says, but a lot said no because they were too busy with administrative meetings, and Dancing Rabbit has a lot of administrative meetings.

“The day after I arrived,” Jibran tells me, “I was sitting here, surrounded by people I could relate to, talking about interesting things, and I just noticed that I felt completely at home.”
By the way, if anybody else wondered about the name Katya Schexnaydre, it's more commonly spelled Schexnayder, and it's "of German origin under French influence. It is probably a German occupational name for a maker of jackets and jerkins, from Middle High German schecke, Middle Low German scheke ‘jacket’, ‘jerkin’ + Middle High German, Middle Low German snider ‘tailor’." It seems to be Cajun (Google finds hits like Schexnayder's Acadian Foods and "[Acadian-Cajun] Azelie Granier Schexnayder").
posted by languagehat at 7:17 AM on December 7, 2014 [26 favorites]


The description of the list that Shimer is at the top of (list number 4 in the original article about the rankings) says:

These are all colleges that have a moderate to high percentage of Pell Grant students but are not particularly racially diverse. They charge high prices, but those costs do not translate into student success.

But it's so small, and has basically no endowment (and has had weird political infighting in recent years, too), that it is somewhere between a special case and an incredibly unlikely survivor. They are trying to do something amazing, but without the resources to make it entirely work, and then are being ranked against places with very different missions and with more resources. It isn't the most useful way to judge their success, perhaps, but neither is it a mistake to look at things like graduation rates and diversity and see how they are doing.

While it's good that the journalist actually went there instead of just writing an easy lulz piece, it's a shame that there wasn't a way to base the article on a longer stay. One day isn't much to talk about what is actually a really complex situation, as well as it would have been interesting to look at what might be better metrics for assessing the school's performance and success.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:18 AM on December 7, 2014 [7 favorites]


They accepted him without a GED certificate or school diploma, which is lucky because he hadn’t gone to high school. He lived in an eco village in Missouri called Dancing Rabbit and his education consisted of him walking around the village asking people to teach him. Some of them agreed, he says, but a lot said no because they were too busy with administrative meetings, and Dancing Rabbit has a lot of administrative meetings.

Did this sound to anyone else like the beginning of a particularly unpromising fantasy novel written by someone who had read too much Gaiman?
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:21 AM on December 7, 2014 [43 favorites]


The criteria for judging education these days are so broken, that coming top of a Worst College list according to those criteria can only really be a recommendation.
I don't think that's quite true. I think it's pretty valid for the typical student to want to know if a college is expensive and has a high drop-out rate, meaning that students are really likely to leave without a degree and with a lot of debt. But in the case of Shimer, a student could perfectly rationally understand the reason for the high drop-out rate and still decide it was the right place to go.

I guess I do wonder if Shimer is viable. St. John's seems to be in much better shape, and maybe the US can't sustain three great books colleges. The idea that it's the worst college in America is laughable, though.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:23 AM on December 7, 2014 [7 favorites]


I just could not believe that Shimer is the worst college in America under any circumstances, because Adam Kotsko teaches there, and everything he writes about his teaching and his classes sounds simply fantastic. I'm a pretty hard core atheist (not a "New Atheist", just to clarify) but I actually read his theology posts and links. I went to a highly regarded small liberal arts college, and nothing I took was nearly as thoughtfully organized or as complex in argumentation as Kotsko's syllabi. Now, the guy could be a simply shitty teacher, but that's not what I hear from internet acquaintances.

I think it's pretty typical of a metric evolved in the US that it would single out a tiny non-commercial non-profit liberal school that is virtually anarchist as the worst, rather than, say the University of Phoenix.

One thing that struck me - the new article talks about the whiteness of Shimer and how that's a problem both in terms of access/fairness and in terms of intellectual diversity. That strikes me as a very legit complaint and not something to take lightly, but at the same time, my tiny highly regarded etc school was super, super white and had some serious racism problems plus no institutional approach to dealing with them. I think race and diversity are great metrics, but not sufficient to ding Shimer alone, which at least, like, has some acceptance of anti-racist ideas unlike my alma mater when I went there. (I really regret that I was too young when choosing colleges to understand that I needed to choose for diversity - I was really naive and assumed that any good college would be diverse and anti-racist because, uh, it was good, right?)
posted by Frowner at 7:30 AM on December 7, 2014 [18 favorites]


More seriously, I was a little bothered to read:

Even Ben Miller, the list’s compiler, seems remorseful that Shimer topped his list. ‘I think their story is at least partly due to small sample sizes,’ he emails. Then he reiterates this twice more in other emails to me.

So, he compiled the data, created the list, decided that the top entrant was probably there as an artifact of the way it didn't really fit the statistical model and then said "what the hell" and included it anyway? Can we do a list of the Worst Journalists in the United States?
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:32 AM on December 7, 2014 [36 favorites]


> "Did this sound to anyone else like the beginning of a particularly unpromising fantasy novel written by someone who had read too much Gaiman?"

I'd give it a shot based on "Dancing Rabbit has a lot of administrative meetings." Extra points if eco village administrative meeting organization skills on the part of Our Hero eventually prove crucial to defeating the demonic horde.
posted by kyrademon at 7:38 AM on December 7, 2014 [7 favorites]


Many alumni Scientology classes also passionately defend the experience and attack the critics.
posted by humanfont at 7:44 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I followed the Adam Kotsko link and was amused by this tweet from him:

It's disturbing how many people say, "Shimer College is exactly what a school should be, therefore it will never work."

As an alumna of Goddard College, I have a soft spot in my heart for liberal arts schools run according to very unusual models while constantly on the verge of closing/losing accreditation. A place like this would be a great fit for my 10-year-old someday, but I don't know how we'll advise him when it comes time to make a decision.

My 13-year-old, who has homeschooled his whole life, is now in a program for teenagers that is sort of similar: there are scheduled classes, but the teens help decide what will be included. Some of the classes are taught by the teens, others by the director of the center, and others by volunteers from the community. But classes are run more collaboratively than otherwise; for instance, there's a Wild Edibles class being led by the director, but she's not an expert. She ran across a book on the subject and wanted to explore it, and some of the teens wanted to do that, too, so they've been learning together this fall and winter. It's a great fit for my kid. The teens seem to be a mix of kids who've previously been homeschooled and kids for whom regular high school wasn't working out.
posted by not that girl at 7:58 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


I almost went to visit Dancing Rabbit with a friend of mine one time. I kind of wish I had; he's dead now, and to my knowledge he never made the trip, and I have wondered how differently the last few years of his life might have gone if we had.

I know the story's not about that, but as a detail it sure jumped out at me, and as more than a colorful aside. I think I know and have known a lot of the kinds of people who might pass through a place like Shimer. They're not so far on the map from free schoolers and homeschoolers and the kinds of people who go through stints in monasteries or communes or what have you. Not to try and stereotype all of these groups - just that there's a certain set of shared differences.

And yeah, it's kind of stupid to try to rank a thing like this with traditional colleges. Though I think it is fair to criticize things that get people way into debt.
posted by brennen at 7:58 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I went to Shimer in the late 80s. I'd given University of Illinois a shot but was turned off by enormous lecture halls and mind-numbing textbooks, so Shimer seemed like the perfect answer.

At first, the Socratic method was cool. Small groups of us, bouncing thoughts and ideas off each other and dissecting the "meaning" of everything. It reminded me of those groovy 2:00 a.m. discussions you have on a Saturday night with your tipsy friends where you think you're solving the world's problems.

How long can a person really stand those kinds of endlessly circular discussions, though? My limit was about three months. That's the point where I began to get seriously frustrated that I was going deeply into debt just to practice my critical thinking skills. The time I spent there probably accounts for my intense aversion to hipster discussions that take a mile-high view of the world around them and talk about how they could make everything better if only people would listen.

The place was run (at that time) like a hippie commune. The lines between students and professors were so blurred that, um, recreational socializing (take that as you will, your definition will most likely be correct) was the norm and not the exception. Drugs and free love could have been the school's official motto.

I stuck it out a couple of years before finally throwing in the towel and switching to a more traditional college. Yes, it meant more busy work for me and I can't say I learned anything substantial, but at least I didn't dread going to class anymore.

I don't regret the time I spent at Shimer. I learned sone things that still stick in my brain even now. But recommend it to a student today? Not a chance in hell.
posted by _Mona_ at 8:00 AM on December 7, 2014 [34 favorites]


So, he compiled the data, created the list, decided that the top entrant was probably there as an artifact of the way it didn't really fit the statistical model and then said "what the hell" and included it anyway? Can we do a list of the Worst Journalists in the United States?

If a school is teetering on the edge of just being able to make it, it strikes me as unconscionable.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:05 AM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


I met a bunch of Shimer alums when I first moved to Chicago, not having heard of it before, but it sounded interesting to me as someone who was exposed at a formative age to a lot of ideas about unschooling and so on.

I was pretty sure that I'd heard that in the past couple years Shimer had been taken over by a wealthy group of Ayn Rand people intent on setting up some kind of Bob Jones University for libertarians. But there is no mention of this in the Jon Ronson article. Did I imagine that?
posted by enn at 8:24 AM on December 7, 2014


I'm currently reading Martin Duberman's book about (the no-longer-in-existence) Black Mountain College, and Shimer kind of sounds like a less-arts-oriented, more academic extension of that tradition. I wonder how Black Mountain would have ranked on that Washington Monthly list. Probably pretty poorly also-- despite a list of alumni and faculty that is pretty much a who's-who of midcentury heavy hitters in the arts.
posted by dersins at 8:33 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Re chairs at Shimer: Yes, there are chairs. The photo is somewhat misleadingly captioned; it actually shows a meeting of the Shimer College Assembly from 2010. That particular meeting, held in the school's main lounge, drew so much attendance that there were not enough chairs to go around, which is why you see people standing and sitting on the floor. Even at Assembly, that isn't usually necessary.

Actual classes at Shimer are held around octagonal tables while sitting on what I would say are fairly comfortable chairs. Here is one picture of a typical Shimer class, from some years back.
posted by shenderson at 8:40 AM on December 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


I stuck it out a couple of years before finally throwing in the towel and switching to a more traditional college. Yes, it meant more busy work for me and I can't say I learned anything substantial, but at least I didn't dread going to class anymore.

I don't regret the time I spent at Shimer. I learned sone things that still stick in my brain even now.


I wonder whether a better model for Shimeresque nontraditional colleges might be a more junior-college thing, where students do this intensive Socratic critical thinking academy thing for two years with the understanding that they'll be able to transfer to a more traditional university with two years worth of credits against their general education requirement and maybe some low-level core classes for particular majors based on the specific curriculum.
posted by Etrigan at 8:42 AM on December 7, 2014 [8 favorites]


I was pretty sure that I'd heard that in the past couple years Shimer had been taken over by a wealthy group of Ayn Rand people intent on setting up some kind of Bob Jones University for libertarians. But there is no mention of this in the Jon Ronson article. Did I imagine that?
No, you didn't imagine it, but I think it was really short-lived.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:48 AM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


I was pretty sure that I'd heard that in the past couple years Shimer had been taken over by a wealthy group of Ayn Rand people intent on setting up some kind of Bob Jones University for libertarians. But there is no mention of this in the Jon Ronson article. Did I imagine that?

The link in my comment above discussed this as of 2010 (spoiler: the right wing takeover failed but remained an issue); I'm sure there are much deeper articles on this available because the whole situation sounds fascinatingly weird.

If a school is teetering on the edge of just being able to make it, it strikes me as unconscionable.

From what I read earlier, Shimer has been on the edge of financial ruin since its very beginning in the 1800s, and yet has managed to never go under. I'd worry about how they can stay in compliance with the increasingly expensive federal regulations (eg Title IX) in a situation where they are completely tuition-dependent and have had declining enrollments in recent years, but it's also a situation where one glowing "this experimental college will change your kid's life!" article could instantly double their enrollment, too.

I wouldn't write the place off, but unless there was a clear path to graduate without significant debt I'd never advise a student to go there either. That said, I want them to succeed, because there should be more, not fewer, weird great-books schools like Deep Springs and St Johns, as well as places that are deliberately welcoming to students with extremely nontraditional backgrounds.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:50 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Correction to my previous comment: the photo in the article is from a meeting of the Shimer Assembly in 2009, at the start of the troubles that came to such a remarkable conclusion in 2010. That's my headless torso in the doorway.
posted by shenderson at 8:52 AM on December 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


I wonder whether a better model for Shimeresque nontraditional colleges might be a more junior-college thing, where students do this intensive Socratic critical thinking academy thing for two years with the understanding that they'll be able to transfer to a more traditional university with two years worth of credits against their general education requirement and maybe some low-level core classes for particular majors based on the specific curriculum.

Deep Springs would represent the tiny and super isolated version of this approach.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:52 AM on December 7, 2014 [6 favorites]


That's my headless torso in the doorway.

Though I've more than reached my limit of useful things to say on this subject, I'd just like to point out that that would be a wonderful first line for a They Might Be Giants song.
posted by Grangousier at 8:58 AM on December 7, 2014 [25 favorites]


I wonder whether a better model for Shimeresque nontraditional colleges might be a more junior-college thing, where students do this intensive Socratic critical thinking academy thing for two years with the understanding that they'll be able to transfer to a more traditional university with two years worth of credits against their general education requirement and maybe some low-level core classes for particular majors based on the specific curriculum.

I attended a school that had a great books/Socratic program embedded in a more traditional university. It allowed for a substantial core of the traditional degree program to be taken that way for students who qualified (it had a higher GPA expectation), but not the entire thing. This allowed for diversity in the way that students preferred to do school, and it was also subsidized by the larger university, so it wasn't at risk of going under on its own merits. Additionally, it became a more "well-rounded" degree program for hiring purposes later, as it also met a substantial number of traditional degree expectations. I always thought that was a good model for supporting something like this.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:16 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Nice to see Ronson quoting from dis_integration's eloquent comment in the previous thread. (Jon, if you're reading this, please step forward, so we can anoint you as MetaFilter's Own ..)
posted by verstegan at 2:48 PM on December 7 [+] [!]


Ha, from the way the article is framed, it sounds like dis_integration's defence of the school is the whole reason for it being written:
One comment I read was especially intriguing: ‘I’m unemployable, maybe, and debt-ridden, but it was worth it.’ I flew to Chicago.
posted by rollick at 9:27 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


From what I've heard secondhand, I believe this may in fact be the case: Ronson read the MeFi thread about the "Worst Colleges" list, saw all the pushback about Shimer, and got curious enough to make the trip. So I guess it's a good thing there are so many Shimerians on MeFi!
posted by shenderson at 9:30 AM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: How long can a person really stand those kinds of endlessly circular discussions, though?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:36 AM on December 7, 2014 [35 favorites]


Whoa, not that girl, Wild Edibles taught by someone who learned from a book? I am sure that they mostly can't go too far astray if they stick with green plants, but I worry a lot about that director's ability to id plants in the field.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:43 AM on December 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


MeFi comments being quoted in a piece in The Guardian and also being retweeted by Neil Gaiman makes the internet feel like a really really really small world.
posted by dis_integration at 10:01 AM on December 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


I think I would have preferred a program like the one that SpacemanStix describes. Another school that I've envied is Rice University, which organizes the school into residential colleges, a la Oxford or Cambridge.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:06 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder whether a better model for Shimeresque nontraditional colleges might be a more junior-college thing,

Or a grad school thing. First prove you can jump through the hoops and get a college degree, so you can check the right boxes if you ever do need to get a regular job. Then spend 8 or 10 or 12 years thinking great thoughts with smart people.
posted by miyabo at 10:11 AM on December 7, 2014


If my résumé were to become tainted with an expensive degree in worthlessness from the infamous Worst College Anywhere Ever, I'd probably be on the defensive too.

The idea of Shimer seems like it'd be great for augmenting a more traditionally schooly-school experience, but, like, well...it already kind of is, especially in smaller, close-knit programs, especially when there's a pub nearby. (My expensive degree in worthlessness is from the thankfully not-yet-infamous Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. It's like that.)
posted by Sys Rq at 10:16 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


They accepted him without a GED certificate or school diploma, which is lucky because he hadn’t gone to high school. He lived in an eco village in Missouri called Dancing Rabbit and his education consisted of him walking around the village asking people to teach him. Some of them agreed, he says, but a lot said no because they were too busy with administrative meetings, and Dancing Rabbit has a lot of administrative meetings.

Did this sound to anyone else like the beginning of a particularly unpromising fantasy novel written by someone who had read too much Gaiman?
posted by GenjiandProust


This is a splendid (and startling!) demonstration of a strange and enviable ability I'm having trouble adequately characterizing -- perfect pitch for the subtle harmonies of mind, perhaps? -- because here's what the Shimer professor Frowner admires has to say in the blog post she links in her comment, made ~10 min. after GenjiandProust's:
This is especially exciting because being a fan of Neil Gaiman is one of the most reliable indicators of being a good fit for Shimer! Why not apply today or — if it’s too late for you to enjoy a Shimer education yourself — support our work?
posted by jamjam at 10:27 AM on December 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


Made of Star Stuff: Whoa, not that girl, Wild Edibles taught by someone who learned from a book? I am sure that they mostly can't go too far astray if they stick with green plants, but I worry a lot about that director's ability to id plants in the field.

Not able to go too far astray if they stick to green plants? I'd say you're in at least as much danger eating random plants as you would be eating random mushrooms, for example. Water hemlock in particular is extremely common and quite deadly, but there are plenty of others.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:31 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


The early history of the school is interesting. It was started by two young wood, Frances Wood Shimer and Cinderella Gregory, both of whom had been teaching since they were in their teens.

I wrote about them and other successful nineteenth century New York teachers in my dissertation.
posted by mareli at 10:31 AM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


The Worst College in America title should go to Southern University: New Orleans.

Prior to the storm, it had a 6% SIX EFFING PERCENT six-year graduation rate - the lowest for any college or university in the entire United States. (Hell, it's worse than most for-profit schools!)

And before you mention that it's a public HBCU in one of the poorest states in the union, please keep in mind that Grambling's 6-year rate is 31%, and Southern University: Baton Rouge's is 32%.

Its students would have been better served going to Delgado - NOLA's halfway decent community college.

There is/was literally no reason for SUNO to exist.
posted by The Giant Squid at 10:48 AM on December 7, 2014


One of my favorite professors in college used to theorize that the ideal university would be one where every professor sat at the foot of a tree, and students would wander around and sit at the tree near the person they wanted to learn from that day.

I'd totally take that over the insanity that is academic pricing now. I also feel sorry for the students today, the aimless drifting and exploration that accompany being an open major would never fly now in the face of crushing tuition and long-term debt.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:12 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Why is the graduation rate at Southern University at New Orleans so low?
posted by Flunkie at 11:30 AM on December 7, 2014


This sounds awesome. Possible downside: the whole Great Books thing is kind of a conservative Our Great White Male Western Culture thing, historically. A very intellectual, broad-minded kind of conservatism that you don't see that much of these days, but still. That being the case, it doesn't surprise me that it was targeted by a bunch of libertarians for takeover, and it impresses me that that takeover was thwarted.

If the college recognizes significant amounts of Greatness that are not western, white, upper-class, male, et cetera, et cetera, that would allay my concerns about it.
posted by edheil at 11:50 AM on December 7, 2014


Searched around a bit for info on Southern University at New Orleans. The administration says that the low rate is at least in part due to Katrina (although The Giant Squid said that 6% number was pre-Katrina), but also that many of their students take longer than six years to graduate and thus aren't counted towards the six-year graduation rate (the average time to graduate is eight or nine years, due to remedial courses frequently being necessary and also many of the students simultaneously working, raising a family, and going to college). Quoting from one of the things I found from them:
This past May, 486 men and women received degrees from our institution and yet only 21 will be counted in our graduation rate. In 2011, 442 more earned their diplomas yet SUNO receives credit for just 14. Those numbers do not reflect what is really going on inside these walls under conditions that many others would find daunting to say the least.
posted by Flunkie at 12:06 PM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm curious to hear from people who went to Shimer specifically about their science education. I see that the syllabus has you reading a lot of things that are just plain wrong (e.g. Lamarck). This seems to me somewhat different from the "read the primary sources" idea in various other topics - e.g. you want to learn philosophy by (in part) reading Plato and St. Augustine directly rather than reading textbooks about what they wrote, hey sounds great, but reading Lamarck... doesn't seem so great if your goal is to actually learn scientific reality. In the typical scientific education, Lamarck's ideas would be a few paragraphs at the start of the book, mentioned briefly in class on the first day.

I'm not trying to put this method down, but it just seems fundamentally different to me when applied to the sciences. So I guess I'm wondering: When you read Lamarck (and I just mean Lamarck as an example), did you feel you were furthering the scientific portion of education? Or was it more just another way to exercise your critical reading skills and such, with the fact that it happens to be in a scientific field just a minor detail?
posted by Flunkie at 12:19 PM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I don't think Shimer students would be any more likely to confuse Lamarck with actual biology than they would be to confuse Lucretius with actual chemistry. These do end up being more "history of science" courses than what would generally be considered "science" courses elsewhere, although each course does have some lab/experimental component. The courses are basically oriented to understanding/critiquing/testing various historical theories -- phlogiston, Lamarckian evolution, etc.

IMO it would be possible to do a "Shimer-like" natural science curriculum that would bring in more actual contemporary knowledge -- reading influential recent papers and so forth -- but that would require a really substantial overhaul of the curriculum.

A lot of Shimerians go on to scientific and technical fields -- among my dozen-or-so fellow 1998 graduates I can count an astronomer, a biochemist, and a database management expert -- so I don't think the approach fails us too badly. For my part, I can certainly say that the intellectual skills I acquired at Shimer made it possible for me to take and pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam (usually taken at the end of a four-year engineering degree) with very little in the way of conventional STEM coursework.
posted by shenderson at 12:38 PM on December 7, 2014 [7 favorites]


> reading Lamarck... doesn't seem so great if your goal is to actually learn scientific reality.

I would say quite the reverse. Learning how to tell the difference between a correct theory and a plausible but wrong theory is of key importance in becoming a strong scientist.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:40 PM on December 7, 2014 [9 favorites]


languagehat: By the way, if anybody else wondered about the name Katya Schexnaydre

Bit of a derail, but any idea whether there might be a connection to the name Schikaneder / Schickeneder? That's the first association that came to my mind.
posted by syzygy at 12:41 PM on December 7, 2014


I would say quite the reverse. Learning how to tell the difference between a correct theory and a plausible but wrong theory is of key importance in becoming a strong scientist.
I don't disagree with this, but I think you're vastly overstating the case, possibly in a misguided attempt to defend the system from incorrectly perceived attack. Plenty of science schools have turned out plenty of "strong scientists" without giving Lamarck anything more than passing mention.
posted by Flunkie at 12:45 PM on December 7, 2014


If the college recognizes significant amounts of Greatness that are not western, white, upper-class, male, et cetera, et cetera, that would allay my concerns about it.

Shimer's curriculum regularly includes W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and since my time at least there has been a regular Feminist Theories elective, regular enough that it is almost a core course.

I'm curious to hear from people who went to Shimer specifically about their science education.

There is no doubt that Shimer offers less of a science education than a history of science education. (For example, you'll never have to take a calculus course, but you will read those parts of Newton's Principia Mathematica where he invents the calculus, and if you wanted to take advanced mathematics you could certainly arrange a tutorial with a professor or take elective credit at IIT.) Then again, a great deal of this book is often used in Nat Sci 3 and Nat Sci 4, and a Shimer grad has the rare honor of having read, for example, Einstein's paper on the photoelectric effect and Mendel's "Experiments in Plant Hybridization" instead of the textbook accounts.
posted by dis_integration at 1:10 PM on December 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


~edheil: As a St. John's alumnus (which is very closely related to Shimer in its outlook), I can tell you that diversity is at least acknowledged in Great Books colleges, to the extent that they're able. In my case, we read Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois, which admittedly isn't very much; but the fact is that it's hard to develop a Great Books curriculum that gives you a feel for the sweep of Western thought without leaving out many worthwhile authors that have come on the scene relatively recently. And note that St. John's is focused on Western thought specifically; one could build a Great Books curriculum out of eastern authors (indeed, St John's has a graduate program on eastern classics). And Shimer seems to branch out to embrace non-Western authors: Kotsko, mentioned above, teaches a course on the Koran.

It's true that Great Books schools and curricula are fetishized by the Right, mainly so they can bash the addition of women and POC authors into university reading lists. But I would contend that engaging with (not idolizing) the Western canon is vital to the project of liberation for women, minorities, and others. As Ralph Wiley put it, Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus--that is, for all their dead white maleness, the Great Books have something to offer for people of all ethnicities and genders.
posted by Cash4Lead at 1:18 PM on December 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


Plenty of science schools have turned out plenty of "strong scientists" without giving Lamarck anything more than passing mention.

I don't think anyone is saying that Lamarck is required to be good at science, merely that reading Lamarck doesn't automatically make one bad at science.
posted by Etrigan at 1:25 PM on December 7, 2014


And I, in turn, am pretty sure I wasn't saying that reading Lamarck automatically makes one bad at science.
posted by Flunkie at 1:29 PM on December 7, 2014




<The Worst College in America title should go to Southern University: New Orleans.

Even though SU is not a good university, it's complicated. My institution had a relationship with SU where students would visit us and present talks and we would explain what we did and give them a tour of our facilities. And we would take promising students on internships for a couple of months.

I first wondered if something was fishy when the *same* students came year after year for the tour. Our intern was the same guy for three years. He was working toward a Ph.D at S.U., and the work he did with us formed the backbone of his dissertation. This was because (we found out) a science building had been built on campus, but there was no equipment or supplies for the laboratory in which he worked. We had to teach him what to do, how to do it, why to do it, and then we had to basically do it for him because his level of training was so low.

I felt very bad about the whole episode, especially when I heard about the low graduation rate at SU. However, our intern was a really nice guy. He came from a family where no one had ever gone to college, and if it hadn't been for SU he would never had gotten a degree. He was a scholarship student, so he didn't incur any debt in school. After graduation, he got a job with an institution set up to provide jobs for people who had gone through internships similar to the one he had with us and is, to the best of my knowledge, still employed.

I would never recommend that anyone go there, but it's absolutely true that if it weren't for this program, I never would have had any interaction at all with this kind of student. In the end, I can't whole-heartedly condemn the experience.
posted by acrasis at 2:45 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder whether a better model for Shimeresque nontraditional colleges might be a more junior-college thing, where students do this intensive Socratic critical thinking academy thing for two years with the understanding that they'll be able to transfer to a more traditional university with two years worth of credits against their general education requirement and maybe some low-level core classes for particular majors based on the specific curriculum.

That's Simon's Rock to a T.
posted by beezer_twelve at 3:13 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


lupus_yonderboy: I would say quite the reverse. Learning how to tell the difference between a correct theory and a plausible but wrong theory is of key importance in becoming a strong scientist.

There are two main parts of learning a science; there is learning the theory and philosophy of science and there is learning enough of the background and lab procedure about any specific field to actually accomplish anything. A 'great books' course seems like it could be very good at the former but might have trouble with the latter, particularly since most modern discoveries are made by large teams or entire institutions that don't have any individual celebrity scientist to write a great book.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:17 PM on December 7, 2014


Shimer is clearly not for everyone, and it sounds like it's probably not a good fit for students who are going to want to go to grad school in a science. But according to the comment John Cohen linked to, they have an agreement that allows students to take classes at IIT, so they certainly can get lab science classes if they want them.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:21 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm one of the mythic people who graduated from St. John's and now has a PhD in and works in science. After graduating, I joined AmeriCorps, in which I learned a ton of field and lab skills in ecology. Then I did a post bacc year and took Organic Chem, Stats, and an upper level Bio class, none of which I had any trouble following despite on paper lacking all of the pre-requisites. Then I got a master's (which is pretty common in Ecology, even among people with a BS in Biology). Then I got a PhD.

To be snarky: Having read Darwin and Mendel and understanding how the foundational theories of modern biology came to be, everything else really is just details. Having read fucking Kant and fucking Hegel, nothing anyone has ever thrown at me in science has ever seemed hard to read.

To be serious: I went to grad school with lots of people with a BS in Biology from great traditional schools, ivy leaguers, seven sisters, etc.--most of them didn't remember half of what they had supposedly learned. And, most importantly, once you get to grad school, you are working in such a tiny subdiscipline that it's very likely nobody learned anything about it in undergrad and they certainly didn't learn the field/lab techniques that professional scientists use.

St. John's and Shimer and other great books programs really do graduate people who can read well, formulate ideas well, and discuss well, and those are skills that translate well into doing science. They also translate well into being a MeFite (Hello, Legions of Johnnies and Shimerians!)
posted by hydropsyche at 3:32 PM on December 7, 2014 [12 favorites]


Very good article, wonderful thread - people should really question whether higher education is actually worthwhile, you'd be better off learning a trade in many cases.
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:51 PM on December 7, 2014


fucking Kant and fucking Hegel
This is indeed the proper terminology.
posted by shenderson at 3:56 PM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


He was a real pissant (and very rarely stable).
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:15 PM on December 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


people should really question whether higher education is actually worthwhile, you'd be better off learning a trade in many cases.

People undertake it without any real goals, mainly because it's what they're expected to do, and come out on the other side with $60k in debt and a poli sci degree or something, and may still have no idea whatsoever what they are going to do. That's a bad plan.
posted by thelonius at 4:57 PM on December 7, 2014


> Bit of a derail, but any idea whether there might be a connection to the name Schikaneder / Schickeneder?

Just a coincidence, I'm pretty sure.
posted by languagehat at 5:09 PM on December 7, 2014


Worse than Faber?
posted by jonmc at 5:50 PM on December 7, 2014


St. John's and Shimer and other great books programs really do graduate people who can read well, formulate ideas well, and discuss well, and those are skills that translate well into doing science.

I couldn't agree more. I did a great books type of BA, then went to grad school in a more technical field, and now work in an applied STEM kind of role, which at least on paper is unrelated to both my undergrad and graduate degrees. But as hydropsyche says, if you've had to read Kant and Hegel, pretty much everything seems easy in comparison. (I will confess, however, that although I read both Kant and Hegel, I understood neither at all and have successfully blocked both from memory.)

I've found the Western canon (and the associated criticisms of that canon) to be fantastic preparation for the technical work I do, to the point of being at least as well, if not better, prepared than the people who went to big schools and specialized early. (It's actually a real frustration to me that most people never touch any of those books and so are less able to see the theoretical or historical intellectual connections and trajectories underpinning the extremely practical work we are doing. I use concepts from theorists like Foucault and Bourdieu during project development and management at least as often as I use math or technical concepts from grad school or post-grad trainings.)

But I also had the advantage of going to a school with enough of an endowment to be able to give non-wealthy students like myself extremely generous financial aid, so I could graduate in four years with very minimal student loans, and that had the name recognition to smooth my way into a top graduate school. All of the advantages of the great books education disappears if you are burdened with huge loans or never graduate, or if the degree does not open the right doors after graduating. The Shimer classes sound great, but I worry that many of the students may not be as well served as they deserve.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:51 PM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


Then I did a post bacc year and took Organic Chem, Stats, and an upper level Bio class, none of which I had any trouble following despite on paper lacking all of the pre-requisites. Then I got a master's (which is pretty common in Ecology, even among people with a BS in Biology). Then I got a PhD.

To be snarky: Having read Darwin and Mendel and understanding how the foundational theories of modern biology came to be, everything else really is just details. Having read fucking Kant and fucking Hegel, nothing anyone has ever thrown at me in science has ever seemed hard to read.

To be serious: I went to grad school with lots of people with a BS in Biology from great traditional schools, ivy leaguers, seven sisters, etc.--most of them didn't remember half of what they had supposedly learned. And, most importantly, once you get to grad school, you are working in such a tiny subdiscipline that it's very likely nobody learned anything about it in undergrad and they certainly didn't learn the field/lab techniques that professional scientists use.


Do you think your successful results were because of your great books education, or because you're exceptionally smart and dedicated? Hakeem Olajuwon is in the basketball hall of fame and he didn't play basketball at all until he was 15, but I don't think the lesson from that is "If you want the best basketball education, don't start until you're 15." Closer to the point, I'm not sure that the median college student breezes through their professional science preparation because it's so easy now that they understand Kant and Hegel (to stick with our trope). I understand Kant and Hegel better than most and I think organic chemistry is really hard. I also taught many students who were only somewhat closer to getting something useful out of Kant than they were to flapping their arms and flying to Koenigsburg.
posted by Kwine at 9:11 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't know why people think it's a bad thing for Shimer to be listed as 'Worst College'. Honestly, anybody who is making choices of college even partially based on any of those lists would probably be a horrifically bad fit for the school and deterring them is good for both Shimer and the kid. And the amount of publicity they are getting is quite likely going to turn into an extra few students a year for the next few years, which sounds like a big gain for them. I mean, how many of those kids quoted in the article sound like they had ever even seen a list of 'worst colleges', let alone given them any consideration?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:06 PM on December 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


Do you think your successful results were because of your great books education, or because you're exceptionally smart and dedicated?

I don't really know how to answer that... Some days I think I'm pretty great, but most days I have a huge case of imposter syndrome, like most women in science. I have not gone on to a brilliant scientific career in which I change the world, but I like what I do, and I think I do it well (on the days I'm not filled with despair).

I think that SJC made me much much better at reading difficult things and liking things specifically because they are difficult. I hated Kant and Hegel both, to be honest, and I don't know how well I ever understood either of them, but I'm not sorry that I tried.

But I also don't think the argument above should be discounted regarding the importance of understanding the history and philosophy of the science that one studies. Understanding how the underlying ideas of "The Modern Synthesis" in biology came to be, understanding how we got from Aristotle's idea of "natural history" to Bacon's idea of a scientific method, and seeing how a mind like Einstein's worked out heuristic models of relativity were deeply formative experiences in how I think about and do science. I think I'm a better scientist because I read those books and had those discussions than I would be if I had a more conventional undergraduate education.

And the more I teach in a conventional undergraduate biology major, the more I am persuaded of this. What I'm teaching is not unimportant or bad or a waste of time, but I'm constantly looking for ways to give my students what I got within the confines of a more conventional education.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:06 AM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


This place will never get ranked America’s No1 party school (which is currently the University of Pennsylvania, according to Playboy).

whut
posted by Chrysostom at 7:15 AM on December 8, 2014


Honestly, anybody who is making choices of college even partially based on any of those lists would probably be a horrifically bad fit for the school and deterring them is good for both Shimer and the kid.

Yeah, I didn't comment on this earlier, but even assessing "the poorest-performing colleges" begs a lot of questions, such as, how are you defining performance?
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:41 AM on December 8, 2014


I'm unemployable, maybe, and debt-ridden, but it was worth it.

Funny, because I dropped out of a large public university that usually makes the Top 5 here in Canada and I'm pretty much the same boat. If I had spent those years sitting around an octagon discussing dead philosophers, it might have been worth it. At least then I could be broke and have some clue about working through a few of these great books.

Trying to assemble knowledge on a subject you have no grounding on whatever almost entirely from the internet is often daunting, to say the least. While there are excellent resources out there, the vast majority of secondary sources are often either of dubious quality, missing necessary context, or even more confusing than the actual text. A work like Republic that has sections quite problematic for the 21st century often attracts loads of internet nuts. If it's something like Timaeus, a work with the magic trifecta of religious themes, difficult abstractions of nature, and the authoritative appeal of The Master, then the internet rabbit hole can go quite deep. If the text is slightly obscure, then the public domain translation is usually another challenge.

Of course, Young Athenians of Classical Antiquity actively sought out wise elders for tutelage. However, I doubt too many of the creepy old men looking for sex on today's Virtual Agora are all that keen on long discussions about the dual nature of love. It's like they don't even care about virtue!
posted by Seiten Taisei at 12:00 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


Incidentally LinkedIn is an amazing tool for finding out what kind of pathways people took in life (with the massive caveat that it is a very biased sample, but hey). If I do a search for Shimer graduates, I get people all over the place -- advertising, law, real estate, health care, IT -- it doesn't look bad at all.

Then I randomly clicked on about half a dozen (all the public profiles). None of them appear to have actually graduated from Shimer. It seems to be pretty common to go to Shimer for a couple of years, then transfer to a big state school, then go to grad school, then go on to great things. I guess that's OK as long as the students are aware of it going in.

Incidentally, LinkedIn would be a GREAT tool for figuring out which college to go to. You could find people who are doing roughly what you want to do, look at how they got there, and even message them! I wonder if high school counselors are having students use it yet.
posted by miyabo at 2:08 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


Miyabo -- yes. LinkedIn with the basic pay subscription ($20 a month or so) is a cool tool for vetting the validity of proposed step on a career path. For some (but by no means all) career paths it breaks down at the very highest levels, but it's remarkably good for many career paths all the way to the top and it's good for almost all career paths to the middle-upper level.
posted by MattD at 3:17 PM on December 8, 2014


Do you think your successful results were because of your great books education, or because you're exceptionally smart and dedicated?

Although it wasn't directed to me, I've been reflecting on this question more generally, as a Shimer alum.

Somebody commenting on the Guardian article mentioned how extraordinary it was that Shimer appeared to have a lengthy track record of taking high school dropouts and turning them into PhDs. It is extraordinary -- but it's also true that these aren't just any high school dropouts. Whether they've borne up through the full four years of high-school misery or not, the people who find their way to Shimer tend to be pretty intense, nonconformist, bookish seekers. They tend to have "a lot of potential," as the saying goes. On the other hand, it's a kind of potential that only a very few other schools (mostly other radical liberal arts colleges like Marlboro or Reed, etc.) are even particularly interested in tapping.

I think it's safe to say that for many who come to Shimer, including me, the odds of realizing more than a fraction of our potential without Shimer would have been very low. That may in part explain the intense loyalty that so many of us feel toward the school.

On that note, 1990 Shimer grad David Koukal, now chair of the philosophy program at UDM, has written a number of eloquent essays and speeches about Shimer. Here is a relevant excerpt from one of them:
Despite my less than stellar academic record, Shimer accepted me into their Weekend Program, and after my first semester I never looked back. I totally immersed myself in the life of the College, learning, laughing, loving, and making the most worthy of friends along the way: friends like Aristotle, Shakespeare and Nietzsche within the covers of books, and many more outside these covers [....] You came to me, and you taught me the Great Books, but you also taught me about love and a level of commitment and devotion that is so uncommon in our time. [....] Without you, I would have remained ignorant of the wonder of philosophy. Without you, I would have never found myself in the private room of an Oxford don, who with typical British understatement one day told my astonished ears that I “should think about graduate school.” Without you, I would have never thought of taking up this advice and further pursuing my passions, which have led me back to the sacred space of the college classroom. Without you, I would have never discovered just how large the world is, within which I found nothing less than my very self. I owe you everything. And I thank you.
posted by shenderson at 9:16 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


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