shimer great books classical education curriculum

The Curriculum of the Shimer Great Books School

At Shimer Great Books School, we empower you to encounter and comprehend subjects of fundamental importance to humanity, internalize what you have learned and then apply this study throughout your life. By cultivating the habits of intellectual inquiry and critical open-mindedness, and fostering breadth and depth in the disciplines of a classical liberal arts education, Shimer’s great books curriculum and pedagogy prepares you for a lifetime of thoughtful and informed choices.

Utilizing major original source material, our classical liberal arts curriculum equips you with crucial and foundational approaches to the acquisition and organization of knowledge. By using Socratic-style seminars as our educational pedagogy, we encourage you to develop your analytic and creative faculties in a challenging yet supportive environment. As a Shimer student, you will engage in a common course of study for approximately two-thirds of your tenure at North Central College. Here, we cultivate and maintain a vibrant, cohesive intellectual community where you will gain the courage to engage in—not run from—opposing opinions and the freedom to explore new perspectives.

At Shimer Great Books School, our goal is to develop intellectually proficient and self-directed individuals who are prepared for life in the 21st century. By emphasizing the study of historical context and change, Shimer’s curriculum primes you 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, our faculty and courses focus on the following education goals: knowledge, communication, critical thinking, application, collaboration, ethics and lifelong learning. We measure the success of our program on students’ abilities to achieve high standards in each of these areas.

No Tests

At Shimer, our unique approach to education includes a comprehensive system of assessment that provides you with appropriate, detailed and regular feedback. Our 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 extensive and timely feedback.

No Textbooks

The major features of the great books curriculum here at Shimer are the texts, the classroom pedagogy and the uniformity of academic requirements. The selected texts are original works of enduring quality, both ancient and modern. Some works studied in our core curriculum at Shimer are common to the curricula of other great books programs: Homer, Sappho, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, the Qur’an, Shakespeare and Descartes. However, at The Shimer Great Books School, we include a substantial number of 20th century authors such as Curie, Rilke, Einstein, Du Bois, Heidegger, Woolf, Hurston, de Beauvoir, Albers, Arendt, Milgram, Foucault and Butler. Here 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 Shimer’s unique 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 joining such a conversation.

No Lectures

In contrast to the traditional method of education many colleges use, our educational pedagogy is based on active rather than passive learning, on participatory education rather than lectures. The pedagogy consists of informed dialogue between faculty and students in small classes that allow for every voice to rise and be heard. At Shimer, the faculty acts as your guide, offering thought-provoking questions, suggesting fruitful approaches, and directing the flow of the seminar discussion as you analyze and evaluate the text, image or experiment at hand. Faced with compelling and sometimes conflicting arguments and perspectives presented by the many and varied texts in the Shimer great books curriculum, you will learn to read and discuss ideas with ever-increasing insight and discernment.

The Shimer Great Books Curriculum

For more than six decades, Shimer Great Books School has provided students with a unique and alternative college curriculum that presents the various disciplines of liberal learning as a comprehensive whole. Since its inception in 1950, the curriculum has diversified, sharpened and strengthened by critiques of “the canon” itself since its first formulation. The evolution of the curriculum has only expanded our perspective and deepened our pursuit of answers to humanity’s greatest questions.

The centerpiece of the Shimer Great Books School 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 four-course integrative studies sequence. These required courses account for 78 of the total credits needed for the bachelor of arts degree, with the remaining credits selected from elective courses. In addition, all students must successfully complete two non-credit comprehensive examinations, a math competency examination and a senior thesis to graduate.

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 and are eligible to take a limited number of electives without prerequisites, if they so desire. In their second and third years, 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 a student’s final term at Shimer.

By the time students reach their fourth year at Shimer, they are 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.

Students enroll increasingly in elective courses as they proceed through the great books 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.

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. 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)

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List of required and suggested texts

Students and faculty talking about great books.

Shimer Great Books Blog