Shimer College Adopts Liberty-Centered Mission Rejected by Faculty

Ashley Thorne

Last month we wrote about Shimer College, a tiny Great Books school in Chicago that has been caught up in a clash of values of late. It seems the conflict is between a left-leaning faculty and student body and a tradition-minded president and board. Tom Lindsay, the College’s current president, has made himself highly unpopular by insisting on a return to the ideals of Western civilization. Most recently, Lindsay and the Board of Trustees voted on Saturday to approve a new mission statement. The new statement went up on Shimer’s website yesterday. 

The old mission read: 

The mission of Shimer College is education—education for active citizenship in the world. Education is more than the acquisition of factual knowledge or the mastery of vocational skills. It is the process leading away from passivity, beyond either unquestioning acceptance of authority or its automatic mistrust, and towards informed, responsible action. 

Lindsay said he has been working since last fall to get the statement rewritten to better reflect what Shimer actually does, and that he has held hours of meeting with students, faculty, staff, and alumni to explain the rationale behind the changes. He said the old statement was “just a bunch of trendy 60s terms” that didn’t explain “why we have a Great Books curriculum or why it matters.”  

Here is the text of the new official mission statement: 

Founded in 1853, Shimer College, The Great Books College of Chicago, is an independent, nonsectarian institution whose mission is liberal education.  The word “liberal” in “liberal education” has the same root as the word “liberty.”  Liberal education at Shimer is an education for and through liberty.  Agreeing with Socrates that the “unexamined life is not worth living,” Shimer finds the highest liberty to consist in the freedom of the mind; that is, in freedom from unexamined assumptions, for example, swings in intellectual fashion, partisan politics, and ideology.  Liberty at its peak is thus identical with the pursuit of truth.  To this end, Shimer students and faculty engage in close study of the Great Books of Western Civilization conducted through the Socratic Method.  By the term, Great Books, Shimer refers to those works of world-historical significance in the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities.  Included in the Core Curriculum are the seminal works of Plato, Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Albert Einstein, among many others. 

The Shimer community recognizes that the intellectual liberty it pursues depends on its being situated in a system of political liberty.  That is, Shimer’s cultivation of free minds simultaneously transcends and depends on the political freedom enshrined in the American Constitution.  This dependence, along with the College’s commitment to enhancing its students’ self-knowledge, leads it to require of all students the serious study of the Founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and The Federalist—as well as the other original sources that both informed the Founding and reacted to it.

The College’s faculty unanimously opposed the new statement. The members (there are nine full-time faculty members) wrote a statement to the Board of Trustees and presented it at the Saturday meeting. They wrote that the new statement enunciated “‘guideposts’ that have been resoundingly rejected by the internal community and alumni both.”  

I spoke with Stuart Patterson, associate professor of the liberal arts, about why the faculty opposed the new mission statement. “It’s been a long process,” he said. Professor Patterson said he thought it was a good idea to periodically revisit the mission statement, but that the process has been disappointing.

When Lindsay first began the discussion on changing the statement last October, he provided everyone with “guideposts,” bullet point ideas to consider, which ultimately materialized nearly verbatim in the new statement. Lindsay did not release the statement in its written-out form until less than a week before it went to a vote with the Board. Professor Patterson said that “The majority of people in the community disagreed with the overly coy presentation of ideas without someone committing to actual presentation of language” during the months leading up to the decision. So on February 7, the Assembly (composed of all current faculty, students, staff, board members, including President Lindsay) voted to stay with the then current mission statement. They decided that would be safer than something they didn’t know.  

As for the guideposts, Patterson said he had no specific objections to those points, but that the Assembly on the whole felt the new mission statement “did not represent the school to itself,” for several reasons. For starters, most people in the academic community did not see Shimer as fundamentally dependent on “a system of political liberty,” nor did they agree that the College looked so absolutely to the “Founding documents.” Moreover, he said students felt betrayed as “active citizens.” The presiding idea at Shimer is that the object of learning is to prompt activity in the world, as opposed to intellectual activity in the classroom. As Patterson put it, education should make it so that we “won’t be able to help being active in the world.”  

He also said, “The professors here are among the lowest-paid faculty of any four-year college anywhere,” who “literally saved the school by carrying it on their shoulders for decades.” In both 1973 and 1977 Shimer announced its closing but faculty members kept it alive by financing the College, hiring a new board, and getting it up to speed for accreditation. Although the mission statement has changed, Patterson says the actual mission has not changed, and that the faculty remain committed to “education for active citizenship.” 

Ultimately their disagreement was with the way the decision was handled. “Tom Lindsay has not managed the process in a very politic way,” Patterson summarized.  

According to Lindsay, faculty members had submitted different proposals as alternatives but couldn’t pass any of them. He said most agreed that the old statement was bad, but that they couldn’t agree on any one of the new proposals. 

The requirement expressed by the new statement for all students to study the Founding documents has always been in place at Shimer, Lindsay said. He explained that the new mission emphasizes the meaning of education rightly done. Indeed, its thoughtful account of liberal education, the Great Books curriculum, and the American Constitution—all pointing back to “education for and through liberty”—is written in exactly the spirit NAS believes should be standard in our nation’s colleges and universities. Lindsay elaborated on this theme in the College’s fall newsletter: 

A Shimer education is animated by the vision of a flourishing, perfected soul, a soul whose contours are made accessible to us through the contributions of the various disciplines—philosophy, politics, literature, and theology, for example. Shimer students and faculty explore together the alternative visions of human excellence as presented in the Great Books—those works whose insights are so powerful that their authors transcended the presuppositions of their historical epochs and ushered in new horizons for humankind. 

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article about Shimer that focuses on the alleged identity of an anonymous donor to the college. The article covers the mission statement controversy and reports that in its wake, “The Assembly is meeting in an emergency session on Sunday to consider two measures: One would deny the legitimacy of the mission statement adopted by the board. The other would express no confidence in President Lindsay's leadership.” 

We at NAS cannot speak for President Lindsay’s methods throughout this process, but we are certain he is onto the right idea philosophically. Higher education is true to its purpose when it transmits civilization’s legacy in an atmosphere of rational discourse and intellectual freedom. Activism and “citizenship” agency are to be side effects, not objects of higher education. Little Shimer College, with its small community and its emphasis on timeless truths, has a unique opportunity to embrace the heritage of liberal education as spelled out in the new mission statement. It is a shame that the College is divided in pursuing this aim.   

NAS hasn’t been involved in the intra-mural debates at the College, but when, prompted by an article in the Chicago Tribune, we published an article on our website generally applauding President Lindsey’s commitment to core educational values, we caught the attention of someone who found considerable fault (“everything is factually inaccurate”) with our view. Some other writers, or possibly the same writer with some other names, went on to detail our misfeasance in not conducting more in-depth research before venturing an opinion. We had, for example, used the married name of Shimer College co-founder Frances Shimer née Wood. She founded the college before she tied the knot with Mr. Shimer. That level of criticism speaks volumes about the situation facing President Lindsay.  

It sounds to us as though he has tried his best to work with the Shimer faculty but they are not in a mood to work with him. To the contrary, they are now in a mode of finding specks on every clean sheet of paper. Anyone who has hung around academe long enough knows the phenomenon:  when faculty members turn their time and attention to tearing something or someone down, they can display infinite ingenuity compounded of indignation and a sort of glee. It’s a sorry spectacle and Shimer College deserves better.  We hope President Lindsay’s board understands the situation and stays focused on the main thing, which is restoring the College’s Great Books tradition.   

As for “education for active citizenship in the world,” we endorse that idea too—and cannot, off-hand, think of any college that doesn’t. In other words, the College’s old mission statement was banal. No one educates for passive citizenship, or outer space citizenship. But out of such banalities grow certain types of mischief. President Lindsay and the Shimer board made the right decision.

* * *

Correction: This article originally stated in error that Shimer College announced its closing in 1973 and 1979. In fact these announcements were made in 1973 and 1977.

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