As the storm clouds cleared on Friday evening, a crowd gathered in the Growling Rabbit café in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood to discuss the history of Great Books education. The symposium was headlined by three professors from Shimer, Chicago's Great Books college: Stuart Patterson, Barbara Stone, and David Shiner.
Despite the foreboding weather, there was standing room only during the event, and many participants eagerly availed themselves of the Growling Rabbit's justly famed baked goods. (Your humble narrator enjoyed a delicious slice of chocolate cake.)
After an introduction by co-organizer and Shimer College student Brenton Stewart, Stuart Patterson spoke on the general background of liberal arts education and the tension between the college and university concepts. A college, in the original sense of the word, is a collegium: a group of people reading together, and presumably reading more or less the same things.
Tracing the origins of the modern-day research university to von Humboldt in 19th-century Germany, Patterson observed that after the Civil War, American higher education began to shift away from the old seminary/college system to universities roughly on the Germany model. The university became a "place for the incipient professions to organize themselves." The earlier college curricula had involved equal lethal doses of classics and mathematics for all students -- an approach that, as David Shiner later noted, "was increasingly at odds with the realities of daily life int he United States" in the late 19th century. Under the university-style curricula advanced most notably by Charles Eliot at Harvard, students at last "did not have to do what everyone else was doing anymore."
Shiner observed however that Eliot "kind of threw the baby out with the bath water", in that Harvard students in this period could graduate without any advanced coursework, simply taking beginning courses from different disciplines. This shift to the modern university system brought about reactions, including in the person of Eliot himself, who in later life put together the Harvard Classics, one of the first efforts to create a single-shelf canon. However, by the 1920s, the elective system pioneered at Harvard had become standard nationwide.
It was against this backdrop that the first rumblings of the modern Great Books movement emerged with John Erskine's course at Columbia, taken (and subsequently taken over) by Mortimer Adler and Mark van Doren. Van Doren and Adler went on to establish the People's Academy in Greenwich Village, after World War I when there was a strongly felt need to "regain our footing" and establish a shared cultural foundation. From Adler, the trail of Great Books education leads to Robert Maynard Hutchins, the University of Chicago, and of course Shimer College itself.
Shimer, of course, is not generally seen as the standard-bearer for Great Books education. That honor goes to St. John's College, with its twin campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, and St. John's came in for considerable discussion during the evening. David Shiner recalled how, when he was serving as director of the Shimer-in-Oxford study abroad program last fall, he had fallen into conversation with an Oxford resident about Shimer's Great Books curriculum -- to which the other had responded, "Oh, you mean like St. John's?"
As Shiner put it, while St. John's, whose Great Books curriculum dates to the 1930s, is "kind of orthodox Great Books," while Shimer might, in the words of Shimer facilitator Albert Fernandez, be considered "reformed Great Books."
The discussion then turned to the history of Shimer itself, and the historical currents that led Shimer first to adopt the Great Books curriculum as part of its massive self-overhaul in 1950, and then to the gradual drift of Shimer away from the University of Chicago in the later 1950s. After Hutchins' departure to run the Ford Foundation in 1950, the University of Chicago cut back aggressively on the radical curricular changes that Hutchins had put in place; at Shimer, on the other hand, in Patterson's words, the faculty "decided to keep doing what they had been doing."
Barbara Stone, the third of the night's speakers, returned to the theme of the distinction between college and university. Having a considerable background in German studies, she also stressed the difference between the German model, a sort of "master teacher" approach, and the more open American model. Democratic ideals lie at the heart of the tension between the university and college: the assumption of the modern liberal arts is that better education yields better citizens: "in a democracy, we want educated citizenship."
Turning to contemporary times, Stone observed that the Great Recession has had a considerable impact on the liberal arts, just as the Great Depression did. More than ever before, questions are raised about what the financial gain is from having a liberal arts education. And while many of the "reformers" of today, including the nation's president, have benefited from liberal arts education, they seem to want to pull the rug out from under the coming generation, consigning them to narrowly job-oriented training.
After more additional discussion and questions than can comfortably fit into this modest electronic space, the symposium ended. The crowd dispersed into the damp and cool Chicago evening, well-nourished in body and mind.