Choosing a Non-Ideological President to Lead Shimer College

Michael Strong

Recently Shimer College, a small “Great Books” college in Chicago, named Susan Henking to be its president.  Henking is a respected feminist religious scholar whose best known book is the anthology Que(e)rying Religion.  She has said that “When asked I describe my ’Que(e)rying Religion’ course succinctly as ‘Que(e)rying Religion examines religion and lesbian/gay/queer lives.’” 

During the search process for the president of Shimer College that ultimately chose Henking, I had been encouraged to apply for the position by Bob Keohane, the Chair of the Presidential Search Committee.  Robert Keohane is Professor of Political Science at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University.  A graduate of Shimer, Keohane is a former president of the International Studies Association and of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and he has held fellowships from Guggenheim, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the National Humanities Center.  He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was listed as the most influential scholar of international relations in 2005 in a Foreign Policy poll.  His wife, Nannerl Keohane, has served as president of both Wellesley and Duke and is now a member of the Harvard Corporation, the governing body of Harvard University.  Bob Keohane is the ultimate establishment scholar and insider, validated in every possible way by the mainstream academic establishment. 

I would have been an interesting candidate for Shimer. A graduate of another Great Books college, St. John’s, I’ve written a book on the Socratic Method shared by Shimer and St. John’s (The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice), and spent fifteen years in K-12 education creating public school programs, private schools, and a charter school all based on this method.  A Paideia charter school I co-founded and led was ranked the 36th best public high school in the U.S. on the Washington Post’s Challenge Index.  For the past eight years I’ve run a non-profit that promotes entrepreneurial solutions to world problems (FLOW), and was the lead author of a second book that featured pieces by Nobel Peace laureate Mohammad Yunus  and the co-chair of the U.N. Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, Hernando de Soto (Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems).  I am a “Great Books” program graduate who has managed to implement our tradition effectively with public school populations and then gone on to apply our thinking to the solution of global problems, fund-raising all along the way. 

Keohane clearly saw that I would be an interesting candidate for the Shimer presidency and encouraged me to apply until he read an essay I wrote titled “The Conspiracy of Silence around the Romance of Evil,” in which I criticized academia for its silence around the 100 million Marxist murders of the 20th century.  Keohane regarded the essay as “ideological,” claiming that I had conflated Marxism with Leninism.  He went on to defend those social democrats who considered themselves Marxists.  I had made the case that Marxism “conflated the desire to help those in need with an intellectual system and political agenda explicitly based on violence and deceit.”  While Lenin certainly exacerbated this propensity within Marxism, I find it hard to exonerate Marx himself when he repeatedly celebrated violent revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat while denigrating “bourgeois morality” as merely masking “bourgeois interests.”  Without getting into a full-blown analysis of Marxism, Keohoane’s position strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.  This is especially the case when one notes that many 20th-century academic Marxists were forgiving of, or indulgent towards, the violent actions taken by Marxist regimes, even if they themselves were social democrats. 

I do believe that academia has not adequately addressed the issue of 20th-century Marxist violence.  When I was in academia in the 1980s, I frequently heard kind, bearded Marxist “social democrats” excusing all sorts of crimes by Marxist states around the world.  After the Nazis were defeated, any intellectual that was an apologist for Nazism was discredited.  After Marxism fell, the Marxist professors remained in power.   In September 1991, NYU professor and Marxist Bertell Ollman wrote in an official APSA publication: 

Paradoxically enough, the objective conditions for socialism in the USSR are now largely present, but because of the unhappy experience with a regime that called itself ”socialist” the subjective conditions are absent . . . on the other hand . . . the Soviet Union might be saved by a socialist revolution in the West as our capitalist economy goes into a tailspin.[1]

In 2001 the American Political Science Association gave him a lifetime achievement award for his lifetime of scholarly work on “dialectical materialism,” turgid Marxist nonsense that became forever obsolete in 1991.  He is hoping for a “socialist revolution in the West” to save the Soviet Union in the fall of 1991 and he deserves a “lifetime achievement award” from the leading academic political science association in 2001?  And I am “ideological” for thinking that academia has not adequately addressed the “Conspiracy of Silence around the Romance of Evil”? 

I’m sure Susan Henking is a nice person and a worthy scholar.  She also wrote an inspiring eulogy for her fellow feminist theologian Mary Daly:

For Daly, women, (W)omen—that’s what she was all about. And, even more radically, she was about women loving women, lesbians with a capital L, meaning not those of a certain sexual orientation embedded within patriarchy, but those who truly loved themSelves. . . . Her work reminds us, too, that misogyny is real (and not merely carried by men), and that the hope of a world beyond patriarchy remains our responsibility. Thus, her passing reminds us all that we must not let the radical potential of feminism—or of Lesbianism—die.

I have nothing against Mary Daly or Susan Henking.  But as someone who was accused of being “ideological” for believing that 20th century academic Marxists had not adequately owned up to the murders of 20th century Marxism, the accusation of “ideology” is interesting in reference to the president that Shimer eventually chose.  Mary Daly is infamous for her misandry - she explicitly called herself “anti-male” and refused to allow males into her advanced courses.  Most stunningly, she openly advocated for a reduction of the number of males to 10% of the human race:

WIE: In Quintessence, your idyllic continent is inhabited by women only, but the rest of the world is inhabited by women and men.

MD: I didn’t say how many men were there.

WIE: Which brings us to another question I wanted to ask you. . .  “The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately ten percent of the human race.” What do you think about this statement?

MD: I think it’s not a bad idea at all. If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore.

WIE: Yes. I find myself now thinking that’s a bit shocking.

MD: Well, it’s shocking that it would be shocking.[2]

Consider the fact that Susan Henking can write a fawning eulogy for such a scholar, and be regarded as a non-ideological candidate to lead Shimer College. 

Meanwhile, I am too “ideological” because I believe that academia has not adequately acknowledged the role of Marxism in the 100 million murders by Marxist regimes in the 20th century.  What does Keohane understand that I don’t?

Michael Strong is CEO of FLOW.

Correction: This article earlier stated in error that Bob Keohane was the chairman of the Shimer College Board. He was, in fact, the chair of the Presidential Search Committee.


Previous NAS articles on Shimer College:

Shimer Unmanned, April 20, 2010 by Peter Wood

Since When Is “Liberal” a Code Word for the Right Wing? March 19, 2010 by Ashley Thorne

Shimer College Adopts Liberty-Centered Mission Rejected by Faculty, Feb. 25, 2010 by Ashley Thorne

Four Rented Rooms and a Big Idea: Shimer College at the Crossroads, Jan. 27, 2010 by Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne

[1] Cited in Paul Hollander, "Judgments and Misjudgments," pg. 175 of Lee Edwards The Collapse of Communism, Hoover Institution Press, 1999. The author was Bertell Ollman, writing in PS: Political Science and Politics, September 1991, pg. 40. PS is APSA's journal of record for the profession.

[2] Mary Birdie, “An Interview with Mary Daly,” What Is Enlightenment?, Fall-Winter 1999.


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