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Shimer College: Reflections on Teaching a Structured Four Year Curriculum
Shimer College: Reflections on Teaching
a Structured Four Year Curriculum
By Kathleen Mullaney

Editor’s Note: Shimer College, presently located within the IIT campus on Chicago’s near South Side, has been from its inception an institution whose entire curriculum consists of a study of the Great Books. Professor Mullaney taught at Shimer for many years.

Faculty and administrators who aspire to design core curricula for their colleges or universities, be they classics-based or otherwise, often find that their efforts go unappreciated by colleagues in the various disciplines. Increasing specialization in the disciplines has, on many campuses, created an undergraduate educational environment that privileges the acquisition of specialized skills and knowledge over broad-based learning. Professors in various disciplines wishing to expand their departmental course offerings may well resent efforts from a Dean or committee to require modifications of certain of their courses or even the substitution of some courses with core courses.

Many are the difficulties that accompany the designing and implementing of a core curriculum, and the majority of them are surmountable only by exceptional goodwill and creativity on the part of those involved. Professors who understand themselves as educators first and specialists second can learn to work across disciplinary boundaries in order to provide students with a sound grounding in the liberal arts.

Shimer College, lately baptized "the Great Books College of the Midwest", has a faculty with as impressive an array of well-trained specialists as any liberal arts college could wish for. Chemists, historians, theologians, anthropologists and physicists teach and learn alongside political scientists, literary theorists, poets, biologists and artists. But all members of the Shimer faculty have one thing in common: they are committed to the Shimer vision of broad-based education that prepares students for active citizenship and lifelong learning.

Perhaps Shimer’s efforts to dethrone specialization at the undergraduate level in favor of developing nimble and inquisitive minds can serve the needs of educators at other institutions who are developing core curricula, be they "Great Books" - based or otherwise. Perhaps, too, Shimer’s highly integrative curriculum and discussion-based pedagogy will serve as a model for other educators wishing to provoke serious discussion and inspire independent thinking in their classrooms.

To speak truth, it isn’t likely that many colleges are in a position to emulate Shimer’s curriculum to a very great extent at all. Shimer serves a small niche in academia, but those who love to read and love to learn flourish at Shimer. There is an extraordinary sense of community that arises from the experience of reading upwards of 200 exceptional texts in common over the course of eight semesters. This common reading experience binds seniors with freshmen, current students with those from fifty years ago. In an age where disciplinary specialization leads to ever-increasing intellectual isolation, a common core, regardless of its exact structure, can engender a sense of community among college students like nothing else can. Reading Great Books, or even just really, really good books in common is not only the way to make an academic community possible, but the best way to make a high-level academic community possible. Set the bar high, and students will thrive if they receive the correct support.

The Shimer Curriculum

The Shimer College curriculum was initially adopted in 1950 when Shimer became affiliated with the University of Chicago and the two colleges began simultaneously to teach and discuss the same Great Books. Though it has been tweaked and modified on a regular basis over the past six decades, it has not changed fundamentally from the days when it was pioneered by University of Chicago president, Robert Maynard Hutchins.

Though some reading lists have grown to include optional and substitutable texts, the core texts of the core curriculum are largely those of the "Hutchins Plan." The seminar-style, discussion-based pedagogy has not been changed, unless it has been to render it even more egalitarian than Hutchins or his friend Mortimer Adler might have envisioned. William Craig Rice, Shimer’s current president, recently referred to the College as Hutchins’s "rebellious grandchild." Though curricular improvements are ongoing, Shimer continues to offer an integrated curriculum of original sources and discussion classes, designed to further the development of the skills of thought, speech and writing.

Hutchins’ Great Books curriculum is respected at Shimer for what it is: an excellent list of important texts that somehow continue to merit and reward rigorous examination and discussion. Defending the so-called "canon" is hardly Shimer’s purpose, but, by the same token, many Shimerians are likely to agree that many of the texts they study in the curriculum do indeed seem to contain "the best of what has been thought and said." All would agree, however, that the ends of education are not achieved in having read a given set of books, but rather in having taken one’s place at the table as a participant in the conversation of ideas that have shaped Western history.

Shimer College students take the same eight Basic Studies courses and the same six Area Studies courses as well as two advanced Integrative Studies courses to complete the 16-course core curriculum. The Basic Studies courses are called the 1s and 2s because they are the first and second courses in the four course sequences in each of the following areas: Humanities, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences. The third and fourth courses in each of these sequences are called Concentration courses, or the 3s and 4s.

Students usually complete the eight Basic Studies courses within the first year and a half to two years of study. Those courses are these: Humanities 1, "Art and Music," and Humanities 2, "Poetry, Drama and Fiction"; Natural Sciences 1, "The Laws and Models in Chemistry" and Natural Sciences 2, "Evolution, Genetics and Animal Behavior"; Social Sciences 1, "Society, Culture and Personality" and Social Sciences 2, "The Western Political Tradition"; Integrative Studies 1, "Analysis, Logic and Rhetoric", and Integrative Studies 2, "The Nature and Creation of Mathematics." Click here for a list of Shimer College Syllabi.

Many students place out of IS1, or "Analysis, Logic and Rhetoric", but it is a wonderful course for teaching the basic skills of close reading and argumentation in written and oral expression. None, however, can escape the next course in the Integrative Studies sequence, the mind-bending and baffling IS2. In this course, also known as "The Nature and Creation of Mathematics," students develop rigor in reasoning and precision in expression by studying logic and axiomatic systems in the context of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries. In short, they come to understand the structure of Euclid’s tightly-reasoned geometry by walking through his proofs, and then, after agreeing that in Euclid’s universe parallel lines will never intersect, they read the Russian mathematician Lobachevsky’s equally compelling proof that they actually do, if you understand space in non-Euclidean way. This is a paradigmatic example of a key Shimer tenet: the point of education is to learn not what to think, but how to think. Both Euclid and Lobachevsky are arguably "right," students understand, given the axiomatic systems they work within. Paradoxical and perplexing though these notions are, grappling with them as a group gives students the courage to think of learning as a process of inquiry and surprises and not an encyclopedia of facts to ingest.

After completing the 1s and 2s, students take Basic Comprehensive Exams to demonstrate their readiness for the 3s and 4s. Humanities 3 is, in its current incarnation, "Philosophy and Theology (Ancient to Early Modern)" and Humanities 4 is "Critical Evaluation in the Humanities (Enlightenment to Present)"; Natural Sciences 3 is "Light, Motion and Scientific Explanation", Natural Sciences 4 is "Science in the Twentieth Century"; Social Sciences 3 is "Modern Theories of State and Society" and Social Sciences 4 is "Methodology of the Social Sciences."

Like the six basic courses, these six concentration courses are designed to challenge students with essential questions like "what is art?" and "what is justice?" and "what is stuff?", but on new levels. For example, in Humanities 1 students will look at a lot of paintings, read a little Plato and a little Tolstoy and try to articulate some thoughts about art and beauty. In Humanities 4 they will read some more Plato, perhaps Aristotle’s Poetics, some Schiller, some Kant and even some postmodern thinkers, and they will continue their discussion about the nature of beauty with new texts as interlocutors. As they learn that the questions that each book raises in its turn are usually more interesting and more inspiring than the points of view they might have defended before entering these ancient and timeless conversations, they are at once humbled and delighted at the pleasure to be taken in engaging in energetic intellectual discourse.

The jewel in the crown of the curriculum are Integrative Studies 5 and 6, or "History and Philosophy of Western Civilization: Ancient World to Middle Ages" and "History and Philosophy of Western Civilization: Renaissance to Twentieth Century", respectively. These final seminars include texts from all three concentration areas and are intended to emphasize the essential unity of the Shimer curriculum. The works in this sequence are chosen for their historical significance and their potential for integrative analysis, and they are arranged chronologically in order to demonstrate their historical relationship to one another.

Shimer’s Curriculum Review Process

The Shimer faculty regularly reviews the reading lists used to shape course syllabi. Every ten years the faculty conducts a formal Core Curriculum Review where they discuss which texts are working well in each course and which ones are not working. Sometimes classic texts take a back seat so that something new can be tried for a few years. Sometimes there is a consensus that some books just don’t work for students anymore, and it is replaced.

An example of this would be a basic "elements of music" book. As the years passed it became clear that the assumptions made by the book’s author about what a college-bound student already knows about music simply aren’t consistent with the reality of Shimer students. Perceiving this problem, a teacher can experiment with new books toward the end of the ten-year cycle to see if such a change will improve the course, and that person can recommend any changes to other teachers assigned to the same course in the next couple of semesters. Such experimentation allows new books to surface and to have their usefulness tested in a given course before problematic texts are sidelined.

As guardians of the rebellious grandchild of the Great Books tradition, the Shimer faculty does not resist the temptation to include some quite contemporary works that admittedly have not yet “stood the test of time,” just to see what such works can add to the conversation. Major twentieth century figures like Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida have a place in our curriculum, however small, but we also do not shy away from including texts that probably stand a far slimmer chance of attaining canonical status but which contribute to dialogue by introducing questions that no canonized books deal with quite so well. Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice is such a book, and Shimer students read it because the faculty finds that the basic questions it raises about gender provide interesting counterpoint to some of the other required texts in our introductory social sciences course.

In addition to regular Core Curriculum Reviews and build-it parameters for experimenting with new texts, the Shimer curriculum also allows for considerable flexibility in the creation of course syllabi. Some of the courses have short reading lists, so all the books on the list must be on the syllabus of whatever faculty member teaches the course. Some of the courses, however, have long reading lists comprised of a few required texts but even more alternate or optional texts. Faculty can choose from among the optional texts according to pre-established parameters. For example, in a course called “Poetry, Drama and Fiction” the reading list requires the teacher to assign poetry from a specific anthology, but not any specific poems. It requires one to teach Homer’s Odyssey and Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex, but one can choose freely from among Shakespeare’s tragedies. Insisting upon the Oedipus assures integrative learning will occur when the Social Sciences curriculum introduces students to Freud. Also required are "any two" from a list of novels and short stories: people tend to pick one of each, but where some will choose Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, others will prefer Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Since students will all read one of Shakespeare’s history plays in a later course the faculty has chosen always to assign one of his tragedies as the student’s first experience of the Bard. Most any Shakespearean tragedy can serve as a fine contrast to the Greek notion of tragedy as exhibited in Sophocles’ plays, and together they provide for a richer encounter with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy down the line. Additionally, it is not uncommon that elective courses on Shakespeare are offered, so teachers try to coordinate syllabi to minimize duplication.

Elective Courses at Shimer

About a third of the courses taught at Shimer are designed by faculty members and are not subject to the Core Curriculum Review process. They are necessarily discussion-based and so they cannot help but participate in the dialogue of the books discussed in other classes. These courses often give rise to senior thesis topics.

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