I Go to the Worst College in America

The problems here are like a case study for higher education.

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Oct 6 2015, 4:00am

All photos courtesy of the author

Shimer College is the strangest college you've probably never heard of. Located on one floor of a tech university campus on the south side Chicago, its student body hovers around 80 students. It's a small, intense, and unconventional learning environment. It was also recently ranked the worst college in America.

I found Shimer during my college search, listed in a book called Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late-Blooming and Just Plain Different (a little on-the-nose, I know). I wanted a college where I could learn what the fuck postmodernism was, and, ideally, the meaning of life. Shimer was a place where this seemed possible, and I loved that the school was fundamentally self-governed—students, staff, and faculty make decisions democratically about how the school is run.

In the old days at Shimer, this meant that everyone took turns cleaning classrooms and cooking meals. Now, it means everyone in the community votes on key issues and elects representatives to, among other duties, evaluate faculty and admit new students. I loved that all classes at Shimer were Socratic discussions, capped at 12 students, and that the "professors" were called "facilitators." I loved that there were no textbooks or football teams. Shimer, as it presented itself, was both elite and a total underdog. Ultimately, the tagline said it all: "Classically radical and radically classical."

A Shimer classroom in 1960

It also seemed to be full of very smart people who spent their free time in drug-fueled orgies. The New York Times had called Shimer in the 60s a "haven for drug users," and the subreddit for the school is subtitled "Sex, Drugs & Socrates."

Looking back on my four years here, I'm not sure if it was much rowdier than most schools, or if it was just concentrated into a fishbowl-sized social scene. In our first days, we heard that parties were notorious for sex games such as the "Fruit Olympics"—which seemed to involve cutting a hole in a watermelon and seeing how long one could hold it up using only their genitalia. Faculty were rumored to attend these parties, which one professor brought up to me very casually in conversation. We also heard rumors that a high-ranking member of staff had snorted cocaine off a student's belly and then married her.

To me, Shimer represented an epic odyssey through the greatest existential questions life could offer. It was larger-than-life. Questions about Nothingness and Being would spark in the classroom and spin out wildly into dorms, parties, alleyways, bedrooms. It was incredibly stimulating.

What I didn't realize until I got to Shimer was that the curriculum was centered around what were known as The Great Books. The Great Books canon was kind of a proto-interdisciplinary program by two academics, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, to discourage the growing trend in academia of over-specialization. A Great Book had to be: relevant to the current time, able to be reread inexhaustibly throughout one's life, and self-referential—that is, the books would refer to each other and address similar questions. A handy index of these questions was compiled, entitled The Syntopicon, which listed 102 Great Ideas (things like "democracy" and "truth"). A Great Book had to address at least 25 of these ideas.

It was a very tight, consistent package. One can trace the dialectic of Western thought all the way from the pre-Socratics to Marx. It's a similar mish-mash of "dead white men" that Humanities 101 courses across the country employ—the same core that the University of Chicago and Columbia and other schools use—but Shimer is one of the last "true" Great Books colleges left.

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The core is based on the idea that "the text is the teacher"—which, in the Great Books curriculum, means the ideas worth discussing are those of white men. According to my calculations, only about 7 percent of required texts at Shimer were written by women, and about 6 percent by people of color. Women (mostly suffragists) and people of color (mostly historic African-American authors) have always been peppered in, but overall the curriculum is explicitly white, male, and Western-centric.

So when the Washington Monthly "worst college" ranking came out last year, I wasn't surprised. The ranking was weighted to focus on minority and low-income students' graduation rates, as well as how much tuition low-income students end up paying. Shimer came in last place. The suggestion that we were losing minority students was timely, given that the students of color at Shimer had just begun organizing for diversity and inclusion a few months before.

College rankings are a contentious issue. This ranking didn't count transfer students or students who graduated in more than four years (including low-income students who take time off to work), and although Shimer's cost and aid are comparable to other private schools (tuition is nearly $30,000 a year), Shimer offers only a few full-ride scholarships.

But beyond all that, I do believe that the material studied in the classroom has an enormous effect on the students in it—both at Shimer, and in higher education at large. The books we read are meant to serve as the common ground for conversation. They form the basis of our common language and mold the worldview of those who read it and trust that they're reading it for a noble reason. As a woman of color, I found that as I started to "own" my personal experiences more, there was less and less I could talk about in the classroom that was relevant to the sacred text and would be understood by my (mostly white) peers.

These are not problems unique to Shimer, although Shimer might be the canary in the coal mine of higher education.

In every class I've had at Shimer, women have struggled to speak and be heard. I've had classes where students had panic attacks and had to leave. Why should anyone pay tens of thousands of dollars into debt only to have their basic humanity disrespected?

Students protesting in 2010, when the President of the colleges, as part of a neoconservative think tank, attempted to turn Shimer into the "College of the United States"

When Shimer students of color began organizing last year, some faculty members were receptive—but others were either ambivalent or outright hostile. One professor told us he was "all for diversity," but he didn't want to alienate conservative students.

This is not a problem unique to Shimer, although Shimer might be the canary in the coal mine of higher education. Students at Oxford University began organizing this year to dismantle the infamous Rhodes scholar program, for reasons of diversity. In the words of a Rhodes Must Fall student activist: "The Eurocentricity of our curriculum is directly contributing to the colonization of the mind in an establishment which considers itself to be at the height of academic knowledge. Its academic and social cultures are creating unwitting oppressors, and so the cycle of oppression which built this establishment is perpetuated by its students."

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Shimer's President, Susan Henking, told VICE that she's "sympathetic" toward the students at Shimer who began organizing last year around lack of diversity. "If we can't have criticisms, we can't fix things," she said.

She added that there is a push to make the curriculum more diverse. "We're bringing more women [writers] of all races and more men of color into the curriculum. We have students on our board of trustees and they've done a very good job of pushing that." But she admits that it's been a slow process. On a recent campus climate survey, Henking said she was surprised to see how many complaints there were about both racism and sexism.

Shimer, along with all other colleges, will have to ask itself: Who feels safe to speak in the classroom? Who is comfortably ignored? Who is their education for, and what world does it support?

The Great Books, like most Western philosophy, rely on the idea that for art to be Great—and thus worthy of study—it has to transcend all context. Taking ideas fully out of the context of a culture and a moment in history doesn't fully work. Often it becomes difficult to even understand what the author is talking about, and it effectively silences voices of marginalized groups. It becomes difficult to perceive the biases of the author, or the editor, or just the person who put together the syllabus.

A more inclusive curriculum is not simply important for the sake of learning, but also to begin including the people already sitting around the table. If even a small, concentrated student body like Shimer's can't fix that problem, then there's little hope for higher education at large.

Follow Jo Becker on Twitter.

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