shimer great books classical education curriculum

The Curriculum of the Shimer Great Books School

At the Shimer Great Books School, our idea of education is, in a word, radical. As that which is “radical” both comes from and gets to the “root” of things, we offer a program that looks to the original aims and methods of the liberal arts tradition to investigate the roots of the human condition and how best to understand ourselves, individually and together.

We do this, as we explain in more detail below, primarily by meeting regularly to discuss these questions in small seminar courses of no more than 14 students and one faculty member. Every discussion begins with a text or object that has helped define the fundamental terms in which we have understood ourselves and our world around the world through historical time. But the direction our discussions take is decided largely by class members. Faculty serve as guides rather than experts, allowing students to develop their analytical and creative faculties in a challenging but supportive environment.

In this way, at Shimer you will cultivate habits of open-minded but critical inquiry about an exciting variety of topics, from the origins of life and definitions of beauty to the bases of our knowledge and grounds of moral judgment. In the end, you will be prepared to meet virtually any challenge, whether at work or in any other arena of life and to lead a life of insight and responsible choices. Faculty will help you develop the intellectual proficiency and versatility necessary for thriving into the 21st century while you keep in view what is both constant and new in human experience. Many of the skills we practice are broad but, for that, reliable and universally effective. Above all, we will work with you to develop

* a critical curiosity about your own and others’ assumptions, values and aims;

* the confidence and skills to work both independently and collaboratively on open-ended - even so-called “wicked” - problems;

* an adaptable outlook that is unafraid of tackling new or unusual situations and based on familiarity with the world’s major cultural traditions across thousands of years.

Our mission, simply put, is to educate active, aware and productive citizens, not of any particular place but of the world at large, locally and globally.

No Textbooks

Never in our courses do we use textbooks in which we simply rehearse received ideas and whatever current doctrine holds in any given field. Rather, all our texts are “primary sources” whose authors and artists are expressing, first and foremost, their own ideas and impressions. What’s more, all of what we read (or view or practice) addresses some aspect of humanity’s most enduring and important questions. And together, we aim to present as inclusive and incisive an approach to such question as possible.  

To be sure, you will read most of those texts that have long been at the heart of great books programs everywhere. That is, in the phrase coined by Robert Maynard Hutchins (under whom, as president of the University of Chicago, the Shimer curriculum first took shape), you will join the “Great Conversation” of the western tradition, stretching from Homer, Plato and the Bible through William Shakespeare and Rene Descartes to Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.

But you will also find that we have expanded on Hutchin’s sense of this conversation in order to reflect more comprehensively on the human condition. Christine de Pizan, Harriet Jacobs and Zora Neale Hurston are thus also among the authors we study, as are more contemporary figures such as John Coltrane, Judith Butler and Lynn Margulis, to name just a few.

What’s more, our core courses include authors and ideas well beyond the west. In brief, we seek to help build what may be a new - but for that an urgent - conversation between world traditions that includes the Qur’an, the Dhammapada, Upanishads and Mahabharata, Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Lady Murakami as well as the art, music and literature of all the world’s great cultures. As may be evident, we maintain what we might call a living canon - one which is fluid and developing in its responsiveness to our changing world at large.

No Lectures

Similarly to our reading lists, we prize a responsive, interactive approach to teaching. As noted, all our courses take the form of small seminars of no more than 14 students and a faculty member in which classwork consists almost entirely of informed dialogue between faculty and students, allowing for every voice to rise and be heard.

In addition to discussions of texts such as those cited above, however, you will also find yourself writing poetry, reading music, draughting perspectival illusions, composing with colors, and undertaking experiments in observational astronomy, fluid dynamics and chemistry. All of these activities are central to understanding not only the ideas presented in our course materials but to grasping the principles through which we both observe and shape our world. Though you will not pursue any such activities toward mastery, you may do so through other courses in North Central’s many programs. At Shimer, your aim will be to investigate and understand the range of human activity and ideas.

No Tests

We take a comprehensive approach to assessment that provides you with precise, detailed feedback. Small class sizes allow faculty to offer regular, comprehensive comments on both writing and in-class participation toward strengthening all aspects of your work. At the end of each semester, students meet in conference with all of their faculty to discuss their work to date and plan their future progress through the program.

In addition to their coursework, all students complete two comprehensive exams, once halfway through and once at the end of the program. These exams test skills above knowledge, set as they are on texts not before studied in the curriculum and on which students are asked to demonstrate their analytical and interpretive abilities rather than simply repeat ideas or facts through rote learning.

Finally, all Shimer majors complete a Senior Thesis in their final year of study based on a personal interest they develop and complete in consultation with two members of the faculty. By the time they have finished their thesis, Shimer students will have developed close relationships with a number of faculty and received comprehensive feedback through years of practice in formulating and communicating their analyses and interpretations of texts and ideas of transcendent complexity and importance.

The Shimer Great Books Major

The Shimer School curriculum is organized into three “core areas”: the Humanities, the Natural Sciences and Social Sciences, each of which designates a major program of study. A fourth major, in “Liberal Studies,” comprises courses in all these areas.

Yet while students can concentrate in one or another area, everyone begins by a suite of eight courses in each of these major areas. In the Humanities, all students study visual and musical art, fiction and poetry. In the Natural Sciences, students study ancient natural philosophy and the origins of modern chemistry. The first two courses in the Social Sciences comprise an introductory survey of psychology, anthropology, sociology and economics and a detailed examination of the Western tradition of political philosophy. Finally, all students take a two-semester sequence in the foundations of math and logic (i.e. in “liberal” or “integrative studies”). This extensive, common intellectual experience promotes students’ appreciation for learning as a collective enterprise. And it introduces students to objects and methods of study across a range of disciplines while illustrating how seemingly disparate disciplines can be combined to afford fresh, productive insights into our complex world.

Following these introductory courses, students complete the first of two comprehensive examinations. Passing this examination allows them to continue into whichever upper level sequence they have chosen to major in. In the Humanities sequence, majors study philosophy and religion; in the Natural Sciences, physics and biology; and in the Social Sciences, a two course sequence in the social thought of the 19th through 21st centuries. They then complete a second comprehensive examination, this time in their major area of concentration.

Finally, having completed their major concentration, all students return to common coursework for an intensive, two-semester capstone sequence that examines the historical contexts and conditions of possibility for some of our major core texts in the ancient and modern worlds. At the same time, they complete their senior thesis.

Here you can find a complete description of each course in the core curriculum.

Double-Majoring

Completing this comprehensive series of courses has benefits beyond its intrinsic rigor and range. All but three of the general education courses in North Central College’s Cardinal Directions general education program can be completed through any of the Shimer School major concentrations. This means that, comprehensive as they are, majors in the Shimer School allow ample room for completing another, more specialized second major.

A significant majority of Shimer School graduates complete their degree with double majors, and a significant number achieve additional minor concentrations as well. We are thus able to prepare students generally for whatever life or work will serve up, but allow them ample time as well to gain the more specialized knowledge and skills offered through the dozens of major programs of study at North Central College.

How to Apply

Shimer Great Books School at North Central College accepts home-school diplomas and transfer applications in addition to freshman applications, international student applications and veteran applications.

The Shimer Great Books School also offers its own four-year tuition scholarship. The Montaigne Scholarship is open to all incoming first-year and transfer students. On the basis of their performance in an essay on a set topic and participation in a guided seminar, students can qualify for generous tuition scholarships for the duration of their studies at North Central College. See our dedicated page on the Montaigne Scholarship for more information.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to become a student of Shimer Great Books School, explore the application process specific to your applicant type below:

A group of students around the eight-sided Shimer table.

Shimer Great Books School core curriculum (.PDF)

Old Main

List of required and suggested texts

Students and faculty talking about great books.

Shimer Great Books Blog