U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Shimer or Nothing”: Chicago, the Great Books, and Shimer College in the 1970s

Lacy_Book-Cover_FinalThis excerpt from my book manuscript, meant for chapter six, was unfortunately cut during the last round of revisions. The piece is from an even longer section (also cut) where I offered a few rays of sunshine in a chapter that is mostly about the decline of the great books idea in the 1970s. That sunshine derived from the staying power of great books in the Chicago area. Although my book contains numerous citations of Chicago and various Chicago-based institutions (the city is mentioned on 39 pages), I had to cut a significant passage about Shimer College. Like St. John’s College (in Annapolis and Santa Fe), Shimer is one a few schools where the entire curriculum is based on great books. Although Shimer only recently moved to the city itself since 2006, it was located in nearby Waukegan, IL—about 40 miles north of Chicago—from 1978 to 2006. Before Waukegan it was in Mount Carroll, IL, which is about 135 miles west of Chicago. The piece below explains Shimer’s significance to Chicagoans beyond geographical proximity.

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Illinois and Chicago’s affinity for the great books idea endured through the Seventies even as sales of Britannica’s set declined and pluralism, or even multiculturalism, began to emerge as the dominant educational paradigm. The Chicago-great books relationship is especially important if one accepts Richard Jensen’s worthy, although somewhat dated, argument that Illinois is a “microcosm of America because its history exhibits basic conflicts” that correlate well with the overall “shaping [of] American society.” The “story of conflict and accommodation” that characterizes Illinois and Chicago,” especially in what Jensen called its post-1968 “postmodern” period, mirrors American history in the Seventies. [1]

Chicago’s affection for the great books idea found expression in many registers, but manifest in a special way through the city’s concern the fate of great books-based Shimer College. Rather than the top-down, universalist common-sense realism of Adler, the “local knowledge” of Shimer staff, students, and alumni constituted a regionally-colored common-sense great books liberalism—a culturally “organized body of considered thought,” in the spirit of Clifford Geertz, historically conditioned and defined by its relationship with Chicago and the Midwest. [2]

Although founded in 1853 in Mount Carroll, Illinois, Shimer College’s link to the city began in 1895 with a University of Chicago affiliation. That early connection involved Shimer feeding students to Hyde Park. But a second and more substantial link, involving the great books idea, came into being in 1950. That year Shimer instituted what it referred to as “The Hutchins Plan,” consisting of “the adoption of an integrated curriculum of original sources designed to further the development of skills of thought, speech, and writing.” It also “served as an exemplary basis for lifelong learning.” [3]

That connection served Shimer well for many years. But in the 1970s the college experienced financial and enrollment troubles—dropping from 450 students in 1966 to about 100 in 1978. It faced three closing scares in the 1973-1977 period. On two occasions only heroic fundraising efforts from alumni, faculty, students, and Mount Carroll residents saved the school. Finally, in 1978, the school was able to reorganize its debt—enabling the sale of its red-brick, Georgian-style Mount Carroll campus and a move to Waukegan in early 1979. In 1978 it also opened a branch campus in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood called, at the time, “The Uptown Community Learning Center.” The move to Waukegan enabled Shimer to better recruit students from the Chicago area. [4]

Shimer’s links to Chicago transcended even ‘The Hutchins Plan’ and Uptown. Many Chicagoans seemed to have a direct and indirect personal connections to Chicago. The local papers provide some evidence of citizen interest. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, published an astounding 94 articles on Shimer between January 1970 and December 1979: 85 articles, 5 editorials, and 4 letters to the editor. It is hard to know precisely why the Tribune followed Shimer’s story so closely. Was it the product of an overzealous editor or staff member? Reader demand? Effective Shimer staff propaganda? Or momentum in relation to Hutchins, Adler, the University of Chicago affiliation, and the history of the great books in Chicago? In any case, there existed an outsized emotional connection between the school and the city.

Prompted by the first potential closure attempt in November 1973, the Tribune attempted to explain the links between the school and Chicago in November editorial. After noting the school’s “experimental, innovative” nature and many changes (women-only to coeducational, two-year to four-year, Baptist to Episcopal affiliation, and record 59-game basketball losing streak), the paper observed that “for a small school in a small town, Shimer has made considerable news.” The Tribune made special mention of the Harvard Education Review’s assessment that the college, with its great books curriculum, held “an ideal intellectual climate.” Then the Tribune noted local emotional connections: “Many Chicagoans have put some of their lives into Shimer, not only as students but as trustees. The place has attracted unusual people, and been hospitable to a variety of experiments. …Its student leaders proclaim, ‘We are not simply inconvenienced by having to transfer else” “Either Shimer or nothing,” the editorial concluded, “a mindboggling thought.” [5]

Letters to the Chicago Tribune’s editors, from before and after the editorial, expand on the “Shimer or nothing” sentiment—and help further to flesh out the Chicago connections. Recent Shimer graduate, Mary Caraway (1973), fittingly appropriated the words of a great text—Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—to say that “the only way this nation can continue to be of, for, and by the people is to foster the growth of schools like Shimer College.” In a literal rendering of the spirit of a liberal education, she reflected that “the goal of a Shimer education is to prompt the student to discover that if a person is to be free, he must be able to think. …[The] aim is not to ‘ace’ exams, ‘psych out’ teachers, and put down ‘the masses,’ but to come to a congenial appreciation of the heritage of his country.” Caraway concluded: “At Shimer one develops what is profoundly more important than technical skills: the love of the process of learning.” Another voice from the crowd, Reef Waldrop, who was apparently a college professor of some stripe, wrote that “it shakes me to read that Shimer College is closing.” His fervent hope was that “smallness” in higher education was “not a part of our past”—to Waldrop “human warmth and informality” were necessary in an age of “mass media.” Another letter writer, Henry Molnar, was “stunned and numbed” about the news. [6]

Shimer alum and Tribune writer, John Maclean, noted Shimer’s “small classes,” intimacy, and “dedication to teaching with original source materials” (read: great books). He also argued that “over the years” Shimer had become “a place of second chances for a group of students who could be called educational misfits.” Some were flunkouts, others had “poor records,” and a small cohort were very young students—ages sixteen, or even fourteen on one occasion—who were intellectually ready for college. Like others, Maclean offered that Shimer exerted “a power…far out of proportion to its small size. Those who love it do so greatly, and with reason.” For Maclean, Molnar, Waldrop, and Caraway, it was “Shimer or nothing.” And the great books idea played a large role in that sentiment. In a final, mid-December 1973 editorial, reflecting on the Shimer crisis and its resolution, the Chicago Tribune concluded “The country needs more Shimers, not fewer.” [7]

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Notes

[1] Richard Jensen, Illinois: A Bicentennial History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), xiv-xviii, 169-170. For a general survey of Illinois history, see Roger Biles, Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005).

[2] Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, 3rd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 75-76.

[3] William H. MCNeill, Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago, 1929-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 166; “History,” Shimer College, available here.

[4] Diane Amann, “Pupils Flock to Uptown’s New College,” Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1978, N_B5; “The Background,” Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1978, 8; “Shimer College Plans Uptown Branch,” Chicago Tribune, July 16, 1978, 36; Michael Hirsley, “Shimer Moving to Wuakegan,” Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1978, A10; Michael Hirsley, “Shimer College Moving to Campus in Waukegan,” Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1979, N4; Jeff Lyon, “For $2.2 Million, College Yours,” Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1979, B1; Bonita Brodt, “Students Not Surprised: Shimer to Reopen for 3d Time,” Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1977, 12.

[5] “Last Rites for Shimer College?” Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1973, 24.

[6] “Shimer’s Demise,” Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1973, 20.

[7] “Shimer Clings to Life,” Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1973, 22; John Maclean, “Shimer: A small place—but loved,” Chicago Tribune, December 24, 1973, 6.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Is it pronounced “Sheyemer” or “Shimmer”? I had no idea it existed. How many great books schools are there? The only one I’m really familiar with is St. John’s, which I’m guessing is the most prominent .

  2. This was a great read, as always. I took a gander at the list you posted and I was more than a little bummed to see there wasn’t such a “Great Books” school in Georgia. Was there a geographic link between all these places, as in did the towns these schools lay in have similar characteristics?

    Or is this something you answer in your book, giving me another reason to read it? 😉

    • Thanks Robert. You might be my only reader, but I couldn’t ask for better.

      On your question about geography and the places in the link, the short answer is no. The “great books movement” that I outline in chapter one of the book was aided by the formation of the Great Books Foundation in 1947 and hence became national. When Marplan conducted its “awareness study” in 1962, they found awareness was widespread. That said, it did seem to be more of an urban than rural phenomenon. But I’m saying that mostly because that’s the evidence that exists. If I had the time and money, I wish I could do a larger, national oral history project that captures the varieties of encounters with the great books idea. I’m thinking it should be a “Story Corps” type thing where interested parties could simply record both their histories with the great books idea and what it has meant to them. I’m thinking I’d capture some rural and small-town experiences that way. Perhaps I need to write up that proposal and get on it. – TL

      • Ah, I gotcha. I figured it was just a national movement. And yeah, the oral history idea sounds like a great one.

  3. Thanks for this….I’m a 60’s alum, sort of lost touch with the school as my life complicated in my 20’s …..Fun, easy, clean read….

    • Stanman: Has anyone from Shimer contacted you about reflecting on your experiences? Did they ever solicit you for an interview, written or otherwise? …Just wondering in relation to my comment above to Robert. – TL

  4. Well praise the Lord and pass the dissertational ammunition!

    Tim, you have not solved THIS problem for me, but you have certainly and serendipitously provided a light-bulb moment for me related to a completely different problem.

    What have you done that was so marvelous? In your comment above, you linked to this page listing “great books” programs at colleges. I noticed that the page was composed/maintained by William Casement, who wrote a monograph and a couple of journal articles in the early 1990s dealing with the then-recent Stanford “Western culture” debate. (Quick and dirty summary: Casement’s take on the curricular change at Stanford falls into the narrative-of-declension-because-relativism model.)

    So I find it fascinating that Casement, who has paid a fair amount of attention to Stanford’s “great books”/”Western Civ” history, does not list the “Structured Liberal Education” program at Stanford, which has been a regular part of the curriculum since 1974.

    SLE predated the “Western Culture” curriculum that was the subject of controversy in the late 1980s, and SLE kept on trucking after Western Culture became “Cultures, Ideas, and Values,” and after CIV became “Introduction to the Humanities,” and after IHUM faded from the scene to be replaced by a program called — I kid you not — “Thinking Matters.”

    All that curricular shuffling is so much inside baseball, of course — though I’ll try to interpret the signs for readers of my dissertation. But after skimming over the various programs listed on Casement’s page, it seems pretty clear that the SLE program at Stanford should meet the criteria for some of the selective honors programs Casement lists as “Great Books Courses.”

    I don’t know if I’d call the absence of Stanford’s long-standing program an “exclusion” — I’m sure Casement is making no, um, canonical claims for his list. But it’s a very interesting absence, given Casement’s early interest in the Stanford controversy.

    So thanks for this!

    • Glad to be of accidental service. Serendipitous help is the best kind! There’s no risk of seeming paternalistic or showy. Casement sent me that list after he found my post on Great Books Liberalism here (two summers ago). – TL

  5. So I find it fascinating that Casement, who has paid a fair amount of attention to Stanford’s “great books”/”Western Civ” history, does not list the “Structured Liberal Education” program at Stanford, which has been a regular part of the curriculum since 1974.

    SLE curriculum:

    http://slesyllabus.pbworks.com/w/page/14417779/SLE%20Schedule%20Current%20Quarter

    Close enough, esp the first 6 weeks. At least the student is issued the necessary armor to survive the battles that are about to come with her wits somewhat intact.

    Would that Stanford were the standard, the minimum not the optimum.

    [Too many movies, though, mostly crap. It’s lazy, showing movies. These kids or their parents are paying big money: 2 hours of classroom time equals a year’s subscription to Netflix. Do the math.]

    Und so:

    [Aguirre kicks ass, though.]

    WEEK ONE Judaism and Christianity in the Middle Ages

    Tuesday, January 7
    3:30 Augustine’s Confessions Professor Lee Yearley (Religious Stuides)
    6:00 The Talmud Rabbi Mira Wasserman

    Wednesday, January 8
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Music of the Middle Ages Professor William Mahrt (Music)

    Thursday, January 9
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Movie: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928; 82″)

    Readings:
    Augustine, Confessions (Books I-V, VII, VIII, X)
    The Talmud (selections distributed at the lecture)

    BACK TO THE TOP

    WEEK TWO Medieval Encounters

    Tuesday, January 14
    3:30 Medieval Iberia Professor Vincent Barletta (Comparative Literature and Iberian and Latin American Cultures)
    6:00 Al-Ghazali Professor Alexander Key (Arabic and Comparative Literature)

    Wednesday, January 15
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Aquinas Dr. Greg Watkins (SLE) (pdf of lecture slides)

    Thursday, January 16
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Movie: The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957; 98″)

    Saturday, January 18 ***SLE OUTING***
    SLE trip to see Tristan & Yseult at Berkeley Rep, 8pm show. 6:15 campus departure.
    (If you are NOT able to attend, please list your name here)

    Readings:
    Ramon Llull, “The Book of the Beasts”, excerpts (pdf)
    Al-Ghazali, “Deliverance from Error”, in Path to Sufism
    Aquinas: “On Kingship”
    Aquinas: Summa contra Gentiles and Summa Theologiae (Selections from both)

    BACK TO THE TOP

    WEEK THREE Dante

    Tuesday, January 21
    3:30 Dante 1 Dr. Elizabeth Coggeshall (SLE)
    6:00 Dante 2 Professor Robert Harrison (Italian)

    Wednesday, January 22
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Medieval Art Professor Bissera Pentcheva (Art and Art History)

    Thursday, January 23
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 SPECIAL EVENT: A discussion of Tristan & Yseult with Professor Marisa Galvez (French)

    Friday, January 24
    Noon SPECIAL EVENT: Talk and discussion with Multimedia Artist, Sandow Birk (pizza lunch)

    Readings:
    Dante’s Inferno
    Audio (optional):
    To listen to Canto I in Italian, click here
    To listen to Canto V in Italian, click here

    BACK TO THE TOP

    WEEK FOUR The Renaissance I: Doubt and Discovery

    Tuesday, January 28
    10am 1st version of Dante paper (one copy in tutor’s box; electronic copy to section leader)
    3:30 Boccaccio Professor Joshua Landy (French and SLE)
    6:00 Machiavelli Professor Alison McQueen (Political Science)

    Wednesday, January 29
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Las Casas and the New World Professor Manuel Vargas (Philosophy and Law (USF))

    Thursday, January 30
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Movie: Aquirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972; 93″)

    Readings:
    Boccaccio, The Decameron (selections)
    Machiavelli, The Prince (pp. 3 – 72)
    Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (also in your book, The Prince), pp. 89 – 94 (I: Introduction, ch. 2), 107 – 12 (I: chs. 58 – 59), 114 – 18 (III: chs. 8 – 9) PLUS HANDOUT (I: ch. 4 plus II: preface and ch. 2; click here to download the pdf)
    Las Casas pdf and Sepulveda pdf
    Aguirre letter

    BACK TO THE TOP

    WEEK FIVE The Renaissance II: Religious Reform

    Tuesday, February 4
    10am 2nd version of Dante paper (one copy in tutor’s box; one copy in section leader’s box)
    3:30 Luther and the Reformation I Professor Laura Stokes (History)
    6:00 Luther and the Reformation II Dr. Barbara Pitkin (Religious Studies)

    Wednesday, February 5
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 History of the Book Professor Elaine Treharne (English)

    Thursday, February 6
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 The Scientific Revolution Professor Jessica Riskin (History)

    Readings:
    Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian” (pp. 47 – 96)
    Luther, “Bondage of the Will” (click here to download selections)

    BACK TO THE TOP

    WEEK SIX The Renaissance III: Self-Fashioning

    Tuesday, February 11
    3:30 Shakespeare’s Hamlet Professor Joshua Landy (French and Comparative Literature; SLE)
    6:00 Montaigne Professor Lanier Anderson (Philosophy)

    Wednesday, February 12
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Introduction to Art Library Research, with Head Librarian Peter Blank

    Thursday, February 13
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Writing about Art Dr. Christy Junkerman (Art and Art History (SJSU))

    Readings:
    Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
    Montaigne essays: “Of the inconsistency of our actions” (pdf); “Of giving the lie” (pdf); “Of the art of discussion” (pdf)

    BACK TO THE TOP

    WEEK SEVEN The Birth of Modern Philosophy

    Tuesday, February 18
    3:30 Descartes Professor John Perry (Philosophy)
    6:00 (TBD)

    Wednesday, February 19
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Locke Professor Debra Satz (Philosophy)

    Thursday, February 20
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Movie: Danton (Wajda, 1983; 136″)

    Readings:
    Descartes, Discourse on Method (pp. 1-44) and Meditations on First Philosophy (p. 54-103)
    Locke, Second Treatise of Government

    BACK TO THE TOP

    WEEK EIGHT Enlightenment and Revolution

    Tuesday, February 25
    10am First version of painting paper due (hard copy in tutor’s box; electronic version to section leader)
    3:30 The Enlightenment Professor Dan Edelstein (French and History)
    6:00 The French Revolution Professor Keith Baker (History)

    Wednesday, February 26
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Rousseau Dr. Jeremy Sabol (SLE)

    Thursday, February 27
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 Movie: Marat/Sade (Brook, 1967; 116″)

    Readings:
    Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”
    Sieyes, “What is the Third Estate?” (pdf)
    Rousseau, “Discourse on the Origins and and Foundations of Inequality among Men” in A Discourse on Inequality (pp. 55 – 137)

    BACK TO THE TOP

    WEEK NINE The Nineteenth Century I: Romanticism and Industry

    Tuesday, March 4
    10am 2nd version of painting paper due (hard copy in both tutor and section leader boxes)
    3:30 Romantic Poetry Professor Blakey Vermeule (English)
    6:00 Schleiermacher Professor Brent Sockness (Religious Studies)

    Wednesday, March 5
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 The Industrial Revolution Professor Zephyr Frank (History)

    Thursday, March 6
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 SLE PLAY!

    Readings:
    Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience (look through this online version)
    Wordsworth poetry (click here for instructions)
    Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (click here for selection)

    BACK TO THE TOP

    WEEK TEN The Nineteenth Century II: Freedom and its Discontents

    Tuesday, March 11
    3:30 Madame Bovary Professor Joshua Landy (French and Comparative Literature; SLE)
    6:00 Nineteenth Century Art Professor Michael Marrinan (Art and Art History)

    Wednesday, March 12
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 JS Mill Dr. Peter Mann (SLE)

    Thursday, March 13
    3:15 Discussion Seminars
    6:00 An evening with poet Louise Gluck

    Readings:
    Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
    J.S. Mill, On Liberty
    Louise Gluck, Meadowlands

  6. Abridgements mine:

    WEEK SEVEN The Birth of Modern Philosophy

    Tuesday, February 18
    3:30 Descartes Professor John Perry (Philosophy)
    6:00 (TBD)

    Wednesday, February 19
    6:00 Locke Professor Debra Satz (Philosophy)

    Readings:
    Descartes, Discourse on Method (pp. 1-44) and Meditations on First Philosophy (p. 54-103)
    Locke, Second Treatise of Government

    WEEK EIGHT Enlightenment and Revolution
    Tuesday, February 25

    3:30 The Enlightenment Professor Dan Edelstein (French and History)

    6:00 The French Revolution Professor Keith Baker (History)

    Wednesday, February 26
    6:00 Rousseau Dr. Jeremy Sabol (SLE)

    6:00 Movie: Marat/Sade (Brook, 1967; 116?)

    Well, that’ll be the kids’ biggest WTF week of their lives.

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