Shimer Great Books School

Home is where ... Shimer Great Books School chair speaks on finding home

Nov 27, 2017

During North Central’s Homecoming Week in October, Shimer College alumni attended a welcoming event to visit the new home of the Shimer Great Books School. It was an occasion to reflect together on the whole notion of having a “home.” Before June, we’d been our own College, in something like our own home in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. I say “something like,” since we were technically tenants there on the campus of our landlords, Illinois Tech. But even tenants can grow attached to a place, and we had. In the relatively short ten years that Shimer College had been in Bronzeville, we’d brought our own distinctive touches of color, warmth and care to the unique junction in American history that is the corner of 35th and State Street.

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The road to “home”

Before we moved to Bronzeville in the summer of 2006, we had had our “own” home, along Sheridan Road in Waukegan. That is, we owned a motley set of Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Italianate, Prairie-style, and basic-brick-box buildings on one city block whose common backyards had been patched up into a fair approximation of a traditional college quadrangle. Shimer College had built this home for itself over roughly 30, mostly lean years, relying on an extraordinary spirit of common enterprise in pursuit of rigorous, student-centered learning. But the story of Shimer’s unique curriculum and pedagogy and the community of learners it helped sustain in Waukegan, and thence to Bronzeville and now Naperville, began more than a hundred years earlier and some hundred and twenty miles to the west, just up the banks of the Mississippi in Mt. Carroll, Illinois.

It was in Mt. Carroll in 1853 that two women, Frances Wood and Cindarella Gregory (yes, that’s how she spelled it), founded the Mt. Carroll Seminary, originally as a co-educational secondary school. Through the rest of the century the school struggled against insolvency before it was taken over by the newly-founded University of Chicago in 1896 to become the Frances Shimer Academy for women (Wood having married Henry Shimer in 1858). Then, in 1950, after a few lively decades as a “Junior College and Preparatory School,” Shimer finally became a College.

The occasion for the creation of Shimer College was the school’s adoption of the “Great Books” undergraduate program championed by the President of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins. The curriculum emphasized what Matthew Arnold famously called “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” the classical canon of philosophy, social science, natural science, math, logic, and the expressive arts. And this curriculum of “primary sources” entailed a pedagogy that relied on students themselves to direct their own discussions in small seminars, with light guidance from typically younger University faculty. Often their readings in Plato, or Dante, or Einstein would be supplemented with more recent texts by “secondary” authors on similar issues. But the heart of the endeavor was the dialogue, or what Hutchins called “The Great Conversation,” the project of keeping the great ideas alive and well and relevant to students’ lives.

With classes made up largely of bright, energetic “early entrants” who’d skipped a year or two of high school, Shimer College thrived, even out on the edge of the Illinois prairie. In 1963, Time Magazine published a review citing it as one of the country’s most “unknown, unsung and unusual” colleges characterized by its out-sized intellectual climate. But in following years enrollment began to drop and the cultural and political fervor of the later 1960s destabilized the College’s administration. By 1973 and then again in 1976, the College faced bankruptcy and only through the combined efforts of faculty and students did it survive to finally leave the Mt. Carroll campus and take up in Waukegan in 1977.

Arguably, throughout the school’s trials up to and through its move to Waukegan, and thence to Bronzeville and now Naperville, it’s been the intense commitment to the curriculum and its egalitarian spirit of open, responsive dialogue and lifelong learning that’s allowed the Shimer community to persevere.


Through radical change, one thing remains

Anyone who has spent any appreciable time in any of the places I’ve named has heard this story, at least in brief outline. So, my point isn’t to reveal new facts or ideas, but rather to dwell on long-established ones about the many “homes” that “Shimer College” has had. I put the latter in scare quotes only to continue to press the point that the single institution known by that moniker between 1950 and 2017 has a much longer history of continuity within often radical change. The continuity, in brief, can be readily and easily attributed to a commitment to “community.” It’s a word we all use a lot, and which, as Raymond Williams has observed, “seems never to be used unfavorably.” And though I certainly won’t be the first to start, I want to draw attention to Williams’ caution that the notion of community conveys little specific content in terms of the wide variety of relations it’s used to describe. At worst, the term simply, and sometimes cynically, bypasses often problematic or even non-existent relations to bathe them in (as Williams puts it) “warmly persuasive” rhetorical cheer. But at its best, and as I’ve typically known its use at Shimer, the notion of community allows us to speak with one voice about a whole complex of relations defined by the search for the extent to which both authority and responsibility can be shared.

The heart of the community, in other words, is the curriculum and its pedagogical commitment to common inquiry and open dialogue. Since its inception in 1950, the curriculum has diversified considerably, including now many trenchant critiques of “the canon” itself and the dominant social order that underwrote its first formulation under Hutchins. Yet even such critiques help us recognize the value of the dialogue afforded by the very idea of a canon of “great books.”

As you might imagine, I could go on. But I’ll end (for now) by observing that community as I’ve described it at Shimer is what I think has made, and will continue to make, a home to which we can continue to return. What is now known as The Shimer Great Books School has been housed in many places over the years, and has changed in many ways as an institution. But throughout the change it has remained a community, and it is that aspect of its history that has made all its many residences its successive “homes.” And with an already warm welcome from the North Central College community we join here, I have great confidence that we will find a way to make our community at home once again.

- Authored by Stuart Patterson Chair, Shimer Great Great Books School at North Central College. 

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