The Curriculum of the Shimer Great Books School
The Shimer Great Books School aims to empower students to encounter and comprehend subjects of fundamental and enduring importance to humanity, to internalize what they have learned and to apply the products of this study throughout their lives. The Shimer academic program and pedagogy are designed to enable its students to achieve these aims. By cultivating the habits of intellectual inquiry and critical open-mindedness, and fostering breadth and depth in the disciplines of the liberal arts, Shimer prepares its students for a lifetime of thoughtful and informed choices.
The Shimer Great Books School utilizes major original source material that presents students with crucial and foundational approaches to the acquisition and organization of knowledge. By using Socratic-style seminars as our educational pedagogy, we oblige students to develop their analytic and creative faculties in a challenging yet supportive environment. Students engage in a common course of study for approximately two-thirds of their tenure at North Central College, and we cultivate and maintain a vibrant and cohesive intellectual community in which students with markedly different vocational aspirations discourse with each other on the basis of a common fund of intellectual subject matter.
Shimer’s approach to education includes a comprehensive system of assessment that provides students with apposite, detailed and regular feedback. Shimer’s goals, objectives, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment methods form an intentional and coherent whole, with core courses linked to each other vertically and horizontally. This structure is reinforced by extra-course requirements such as comprehensive examinations and a senior thesis, along with a comprehensive writing program and regular faculty-student conferences that ensure feedback that is extensive and timely.
The goal of the Shimer Great Books School is to develop intellectually proficient and self-directed individuals and to prepare students for life in the twenty-first century. By emphasizing the study of historical context and change, Shimer primes students for the demands of a rapidly changing world. Our classroom pedagogy requires development of competencies such as adaptability, independence, critical analysis, and ability to work collaboratively, which are among the skills most sought in the contemporary workplace. Given Shimer’s mission and aims, the faculty has designated the following as its educational goals: knowledge, communication, critical thinking, application, collaboration, ethics and lifelong learning.
The major features of the curriculum and pedagogy of the Shimer Great Books School are the texts studied, the classroom pedagogy and the uniformity of academic requirements. The texts that are studied are seminal, original works of enduring quality, both ancient and modern. Some works studied in Shimer’s core curriculum are common to the curricula of Great Books programs: Homer, Sappho, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, the Qur’an, Shakespeare and Descartes. The Shimer Great Books School includes a substantial number of twentieth century authors such as Curie, Rilke, Einstein, Du Bois, Heidegger, Woolf, Hurston, De Beauvoir, Albers, Arendt, Milgram, Foucault and Butler. We believe that recent texts of superior quality should be studied as contributions to what Robert Maynard Hutchins (President of the University of Chicago under whom the Shimer curriculum originally took form in the 1940s and 50s) termed “the Great Conversation”—including writers and artists who cast doubt on the very idea of such a conversation.
Shimer’s educational pedagogy is based on active rather than passive learning, on participatory education rather than lectures. The pedagogy consists of informed dialogue with faculty members supporting students in analyzing and evaluating the text, image or experiment at hand. At Shimer, the faculty acts as a guide, offering penetrating questions, suggesting fruitful approaches, and directing the flow of the seminar discussion. Faced with compelling and sometimes conflicting arguments and perspectives presented by the many and varied texts in the Shimer curriculum, students learn to read and discuss ideas with ever-increasing insight and discernment. The small size of each Shimer class allows every student’s voice to rise and be heard every day.
The uniformity of academic requirements presents the various disciplines of liberal learning as a comprehensive whole and has been an essential feature of Shimer for more than six decades. Required courses account for 78 of the total credits needed for the bachelor of arts degree, with the remaining credits taken in elective courses. In addition, all students must successfully complete two non-credit comprehensive examinations, a math competency examination and a senior thesis in order to graduate.
The centerpiece of the Shimer curriculum is its core that comprises two-thirds of the course of study for the bachelor of arts degree. The core consists of six-course sequences in the Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences, a two-course sequence in Mathematics and Logic, plus a 4-course Integrative Studies sequence.
Full-time students at Shimer usually enroll in three or four three-credit courses each term (usually ten courses an academic year). Most enroll exclusively in Basic Core courses (the 100 level courses) in each area, during their first year; they are eligible to take a limited number of electives without prerequisites, if they so desire. In their second and third year students complete their Basic Core Studies and then take the Advanced Area Core Studies (the 200 level courses) in each area. The Advanced Integrative Core Studies sequence, including Integrative Studies 451, 452, 453, and 454, as well as Thesis Prep 494 and Thesis 496, are taken during the student’s final terms at Shimer.
By the time Shimer students reach their fourth year, they are well prepared for the four course capstone sequence: Integrative Studies. This brings together major works in all areas of the arts, sciences and letters throughout the long intellectual tradition of the Western World broadly understood.
Students enroll increasingly in elective courses as they proceed through the Shimer curriculum. Elective credits comprise 42 of the 120 total credits needed for the bachelor of arts degree. Students who graduate having earned at least 30 elective credits in a given area (Humanities, Natural Sciences, or Social Sciences) are formally recognized as having earned a “concentration” in that area. If they qualify for graduation without having 30 elective credits in a given area, their bachelor of arts is granted in Liberal Studies.