The college where thinking is still allowed
Shimer College confounds its critics, but impresses Stuart Derbyshire.
My guess is that you have never heard of Shimer College, or, if you have, you have only heard of it because in 2014 it topped one of the Washington Monthly’s ‘worst college’ rankings. In response to this ranking, former and current students and faculty of Shimer wrote eloquent defences of the education it provided. They made the important point that an education worth having is bound to be difficult, and so the relatively high dropout rate at Shimer, which contributed heavily to its ranking, was not to be seen negatively; students who cannot meet the challenge of a difficult education will drop out, they said, and that is a good thing.
The ranking of Shimer, and the unapologetic defences made in response to it, caught the attention of British writer Jon Ronson, who subsequently wrote an article about the college for the Guardian in 2014. Ronson observed that Shimer has no sports teams and no sororities, and is never, therefore, going to fare well on polls measuring extracurricular activities. What Shimer does have, however, is a small number of classrooms where students discuss art, music, poetry, philosophy, science, maths, history, society and politics.
The Shimer reading list is daunting, including Aristotle, Aquinas, de Beauvoir, Descartes, Einstein, Freud, Heidegger, Hume, Kant, Marx, Mill, Newton, Plato, Sartre and Tolstoy. No summary sources, such as textbooks, are allowed. Shimer students voraciously read the primary sources and discuss what they learn in classes with a faculty member and 12, or fewer, students. One of the publicity pamphlets from Shimer warns the prospective student: ‘The in-depth nature of a typical classroom conversation can, on occasion, cause existential crises, changes in personal philosophy and intellectual upheaval.’
Ronson found the faculty to be entirely unapologetic about Shimer’s Washington Monthly ranking. One faculty member pointed out that taking education seriously means not making it easy to get through. He lamented that the mainstream American college has become a place to get good grades on the way to slotting into the economy. ‘In the long run’, he says, ‘that kind of university is doomed’. Now Shimer had my attention. Is this place for real? Like Ronson, I also got on a plane to Chicago.
I was met by Harold Stone, dean of Shimer, along with two of his colleagues, David Shiner and Jim Ulrich. Stone led me round the natural-sciences lab, which reminded me greatly of my high-school science classroom, complete with Bunsen burners, glass bottles, periodic tables and other assorted lab equipment laid out for experimentation and study. But there was also a copy of Kafka and a ‘periodic table of Western authors’ sitting on the bench. That was different.
Stone also showed me one of the classrooms which feature a specially designed octagonal table to facilitate discussion and prevent anyone being at the head. Then there was a small admissions area where I was provided with literature about Shimer, including a useful book describing the history of the college. And that was it. The education Shimer provides is not dependent on real estate or expensive pieces of equipment. There was not even a projector for PowerPoint, because they don’t use PowerPoint.
Back in Stone’s office, we talked about the ranking, and Stone admitted that he would prefer the college be known for the good things it does, like providing graduates with an excellent track record of entering the best graduate programmes in America. There was, however, no hint of defensiveness. Neither Stone nor his colleagues spoke of altering the curriculum or the approach to make Shimer more ‘student-friendly’. Just as Ronson discovered, here was a faculty that championed a deliberately difficult education involving big ideas, and instilling the value of intellectual inquiry to transform the student body into something stupendous: vibrant, confident and intellectually flexible citizens.
I asked them if they felt Shimer’s approach could be integrated more broadly into the mainstream. Right now, many universities and colleges are experimenting with ‘blended learning’, which involves the students absorbing the didactic material before coming to class. Class time is then used for discussion, and deeper interrogation of the knowledge the students gained in advance. On the surface, at least, blended learning sounds something like the Shimer approach.
There was reasonable scepticism, largely because with a class of more than 20 students (and many university lecture halls are packed with hundreds of students), the scope for meaningful discussion is obviously limited. ‘Class sizes have to be much smaller’, said Shiner. But I pointed out that for that to happen in other universities the faculty would have to be at least doubled and probably trebled, at immense cost. Is that the right thing to do?
Here there was a little wobble. Shiner admitted that if a student wants very specific training, or wants to be ‘credentialed’ for the workplace, then the Shimer approach is probably not the way to go. Certainly some students want training and credentialing, but not necessarily all, and maybe not even the majority. Many students I meet are bored by the lack of intellectual challenge they receive and are not inspired by being continually instructed rather than educated. At the same time, many jobs that students now take in administration, retail, promotion, sales and so on require a university degree but without obvious reason; those jobs can easily be done without a higher education. Many students figure that out and resent ‘being made’ to complete a degree. Thus we have a student body that suffers boredom or resentment, or both.
University has shifted from an elite enterprise in education to a mass exercise in instruction, and that shift has deadened the experience of university education. I am not convinced, however, that the problem is class size per se. After all, the Institute of Ideas’ Academy, which runs every year, involves a group of around 200 people, who also read voraciously in preparation and have a blistering conversation over a four-day period. That dedication to the material, which is shared by Shimer students, undoubtedly has a huge impact. It also probably helps that Academy and Shimer staff are driven by a desire to challenge their students and bring out the best in them.
In contrast, mainstream university students feel little pressure to read deeply, and the faculty is disinclined to upset the student body by pressuring and challenging them. The contact time between faculty and students is consequently spent keeping the students busy and occupied, moving them from one bite-sized task to another. Students learn the facts necessary to get through a multiple-choice exam, but barely any of their values, or the core beliefs of their subject, are aired or challenged. Faculty discharge their educational duty, but rarely use the extent of their expertise to drive the students deeper into the material. Blended learning won’t necessarily challenge these problems, and might even exacerbate them.
So how do we breathe life back into the university? More faculty? Fewer students? A deliberate division between instruction and education? A new vision of what university is for? Here my Shimer colleagues were, perhaps unsurprisingly, less certain. It is not obvious how the mainstream university might be fixed, especially when the problem is so large, and those willing to accept that there is a problem are so few.
Shimer might not have the answers for the mainstream, but its commitment to its mission is inspiring. It provides an important contrast to the mainstream: an exciting and challenging educational experience that is unapologetic, unnerving and, for those who can make it, transforming. ‘The worst college in America’? The Washington Monthly could not have got it more wrong, Shimer might just be the best.
Stuart Derbyshire is an associate professor in the department of psychology and A*STAR-NUS Centre for Clinical Imaging at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He is currently heading a research group to investigate the impact of blended learning on the teaching of psychology at NUS. He visited Shimer in part to aid that research. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily shared by NUS or Shimer.