Four Rented Rooms and a Big Idea: Shimer College at the Crossroads

Peter Wood

In May 1853, an express train on the Southern Michigan Line collided with an emigrant train on the Michigan Central ten miles outside Chicago, killing sixteen, mostly German and Irish immigrants headed west. A local paper described it as a scene of “indiscriminate ruin.” Perhaps it was especially so given the hopes that had led these travelers to the American heartland. We ran across this story while looking for material on a small Illinois college founded that same year. Shimer College is in the news because campus activists opposed to its traditionalist president are predicting another train wreck.

As readers of this website know, we have a soft spot for intellectually ambitious small colleges, and the quiddities of their curricula. In today’s Chicago Tribune comes a report, “Shimer College in Power Struggle,” that quickens our interest.

Shimer is among America’s smallest colleges (102 students, 11 professors) and is devoted entirely to a Great Books curriculum. In recent years it has flickered on the edges of extinction. It gave up its old bucolic campus in Mount Carroll, Illinois in 1979 and moved downscale to Waukegan, and moved again in 2006 to four rented rooms on Chicago’s South Side at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In the last three years it has had three presidents.

The current president, Thomas Lindsay, is exactly the sort of person that American colleges and universities ought to thirst for as their campus executive. He is a University of Chicago Ph.D. who had a long and successful academic career before his appointment as Deputy Chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities. In that position he led the We the People Project—which carried forward his long dedication to the links between democracy and education. His becoming president of tiny Shimer can only be understood as an act of public service. His last academic position was as provost of Seton Hall University and before that, as provost of the University of Dallas.

President Lindsay is now focusing his considerable talents on bringing Shimer College out of its hospital ward condition. One might think this could only prompt joy among the College’s faculty members and students. But as the Chicago Tribune headline announces, many of them see his efforts as an intrusion. It’s hard not to think of Antioch College in its final days when, faced with results of decades of leftist mismanagement, a vociferous group of faculty, students, and alumni demanded yet more mismanagement. Antioch, of course, gave up the ghost. But President Lindsay and his board are determined to keep Shimer afloat.

What is the fight at Shimer all about? According to the Tribune article, it is a dispute between campus egalitarians who want the students to remain involved in the college’s governance and President Lindsay who favors a more top-down approach. Or as Ron Grossman, the Trib reporter, puts it, “The communal democracy of which Marx dreamed [vs.] the enlightened despotism that Hobbes advocated.” Well, that probably exaggerates things a bit. Marx may have his acolytes at Shimer, but the democratic Tom Lindsay is no follower of Tom Hobbes.

A better explanation is that Lindsay is disturbing the leftist complacency of a college campus. It doesn’t really matter whether an American college is large, medium, or small; nor does it matter that much whether its curriculum is vocational, free-form, or liberal arts core; nor does it matter what its official mission is—these days the default disposition is the same. The American college is an institution of and for the Left. It propagates the view that America is an unjust society dominated by the privileged few at the expense of the oppressed many. It assumes that the project of education consists of cultivating resentments and guilt, and ideally, instilling lifelong animus against the West in general and America in particular.

In that light, it is no great surprise that, left to drift during its years of decline, Shimer College has drifted left. Small as it is, Shimer has developed the same ideological reflexes as the University of Michigan or the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Can Tom Lindsay teach Shimer a new and better disposition? He has his work cut out for him. He does, however, have some puissant allies. The Shimer curriculum, after all, features Sophocles, Cicero, Shakespeare, Pascal, and Locke. It’s hard to read writers like this and conclude that the Western tradition is wholly bankrupt.

Putting aside the current contretemps, the presence of Shimer College among the three thousand eight hundred some colleges and universities in the United States warrants a little bit of celebratory reflection. The higher education establishment in the U.S. never tires of lauding the great diversity of colleges and universities that dot the national landscape. In principle, the variety is nearly endless, and there is something for everyone. In reality, the vast majority of colleges and universities in this country present a dreary sameness. The same smorgasbord of banal, watered-down, one-sided courses is taught nearly everywhere. Political correctness seeps in at every pore. Remediation (official or unacknowledged) is built into introductory courses. Grade inflation is institutionalized to carry forward the unmotivated. The hard work of conveying to students comprehensive surveys of subjects is displaced by boutique courses lacking intellectual context. And the faculty members are largely interchangeable from one campus to the next. They all have the same python-like graduate education: long and narrow, except for that bulge of specialization, where they swallow the pig.

That overmuch of a sameness has a few small exceptions. Shimer could be one of them. How did Shimer escape the mold?

We’re not sure. Shimer began as a preparatory school for young women, founded in 1853—a year after Antioch, and much in the same spirit. Two young women from New York State, Frances Shimer and Cinderella Gregory, set out for the “frontier” as they saw it to bring education to the West. Their school offered courses in “home economics and etiquette classes alongside ‘intellectual mathematics’ and the study of electricity.” This sounds some distance from a Homer to Hamilton curriculum—not that we undervalue etiquette or electricity.

Northwestern Illinois in 1853 may not have been the Wild West, but it was a land filling up with footloose immigrants who were striving to acquire some culture in the old sense. Frances and Cinderella were effectively missionaries to an educational frontier, though early on they insisted that the College be non-denominational. It was nearly a century later that Shimer began admitting men and swung into orbit around Robert Hutchins’ enthusiasm for the Great Books.

The Great Books focus cannot be said to have been a brilliant marketing move, but it did add a distinct richness to the education alternatives for American students. In a way, Shimer remained a college for immigrants, the more so as Americans became increasingly outsiders to their own intellectual heritage and civilization. That this experiment has lasted sixty years seems nearly a miracle. We hope that Tom Lindsay can take inspiration from the name of the College’s co-founder and once again rescue it from the ashes.

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