Shimer College - Help
July 16, 2006 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone know about "Shimer College"?

My daughter is thinking about applying and I don't know much about it. I tried searching previous threads and googled it, other than a very small college and it being "A great books school" I don't know much more about it. My main concern is that she will be marketable after she graduates. Her hope is to be a High School English Teacher.
posted by ok to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Never heard of it before. But it's got a decent website and the Wikipedia article suggests it is well-respected. (Notice at the end of the Wikipedia article, that there are plans in the works for its campus to move to Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago, in the near future).
posted by jayder at 10:34 AM on July 16, 2006

Shimer is beyond 'very small'. They have 125 undergrads. My dad grew up in waukegan, and he always told me it was the smallest college in the US, although that's probably not precisely true.

Shimer has a pretty strong reputation, and I don't think that a Shimer graduate would be unmarketable in most cases, but as an employer, I would wonder about someone who chose such an insular college experience, no matter how high-quality the cirriculum. She should also be aware that they are moving most of the undergrad classes to the Illinois Institute of Technology on the south side, a far cry from quiet Waukegan.
posted by ulotrichous at 10:49 AM on July 16, 2006

Well, my school wasn't anywhere that small, but I went to a little liberal arts college that not many people out here have heard of. The marketability issue doesn't really exist, in my mind.

This is what employers care about:
1. Is it an appropriate degree from an accredited college or university? (So, probably education or something else with education certification for your daughter.)
2. Has this applicant been involved in clubs, work study or internships that show her interest in this field?
3. Does she seem capable of doing the job?

Beyond that, it doesn't really matter -- especially in education.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:00 AM on July 16, 2006

It is based on a "great books" curriculum much like St. Johns College in Santa Fe, NM. If you are a very independent learner, want to attend a tiny college, and you are particularly interested in fields in the humanities, the curriculum may suit you. Looking at the faculty and staff, however, I noted that there are very few Ph.Ds that are full-time and presumably tenured or tenure track. (That said, those that have Ph.Ds went to excellent schools.) I think you would be wise to find out what percentage of their classes are taught by adjuncts or persons who do not have a terminal degree. Many of these small liberal arts schools stay afloat by employing graduate students at nearby research universities to teach for peanuts. It is clear that Shimer is in financial trouble, since they have been trying to merge with IIT. In effect, they want IIT to outsource their humanities core to them. Bottom line, I wouldn't pay for my kid to go there. If you want this curriculum and your are mobile and well-funded, head to Santa Fe and go for the real deal. Just my opinion.
posted by Crotalus at 11:02 AM on July 16, 2006

The one thing I'd be concerned about, after looking at its web site: The school clearly has a strong humanities curriculum, but it doesn't seem to offer much in the way of real math and science. There's value in taking math, science and computer science as an undergrad, even if you don't plan on using it in your professional career. These subjects broaden your understanding of the world, and can often come in handy at surprising moments.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:14 AM on July 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

ulotrichous: I think the smallest college in the country is Deep Springs College, which has about 30 students.
posted by raf at 11:30 AM on July 16, 2006

Look at Reed College (portland or). Not great books, but it has the small tutorial-ish classes, and there's enough of a focus on balance that they have strong biology/chemistry/physics programs as well (and an on-site nuclear research reactor, to boot). I thought pretty seriously about going there. It definitely seems to have a reputation outside of the northwest.

But yes, St. John's is the real deal. I've talked to several people who went there, & they were definitely.. intense about the school.
posted by devilsbrigade at 2:07 PM on July 16, 2006

I go to St. John's and I love it- Shimer sounds kind of similar from the links, except less stable if they're trying to merge campuses and whatnot- also, the St. John's curriculum, unlike theirs, is definitely not moving away from Great Books anytime soon so if that's what your daughter is looking for, she should apply to St. John's too (there's also a campus in Annapolis, same program, but possibly more convenient for you). If you or she have any questions about St. John's, I'd be happy to answer them (email in my profile).
posted by Oobidaius at 2:21 PM on July 16, 2006

Oops. I should read more. Pretend like my response was written for your daughter.
posted by Crotalus at 2:41 PM on July 16, 2006

Best answer: If she wants a Great Books curriculum, Columbia (in NYC) and St. John's (in Annapolis and Santa Fe) offer the two best such programs in the US.

Here is an annotated list of other colleges in the US and Canada that use a Great Books curriculum. Here is a different list with fewer annotations but which lists the enrollment numbers of each school.

If she already has some ideas about what she would like in a school, the best approach is to go to the local library and borrow one of the big college books like the Princeton Review's annual survey. In addition to listing stats on many schools, these books have descriptive chapters that can help high school students figure out whether they want a program of a certain type. They usually have top-10 lists under many different headings (eg, top ten schools for future teachers; top ten small schools in the midwest).

As for Shimer, I had not heard of it. In general, I wouldn't worry so much about name recognition of the school, but I second the concerns others have raised:

(1) 125 students is an extremely small peer group. There are advantages to this, but be sure that she is at least cognizant of the possible disadvantages too. College is a great time for broadening your social horizons, meeting and learning to deal with lots of different people, etc. Going to a tiny school really will decrease that element. There are a lot of schools with 1000-2500 students, which are still small enough to feel very tight-knit, but which allow some more variety of social experiences.

(2) She should be seeking a school where she will be able to get a solid education in math, science, and other fields in addition to the subjects she currently predicts she will like. Her interests are likely to evolve in the first couple of years! There are a lot of small liberal arts colleges out there that offer more stability, larger faculties and better facilities.

Another, more cynical point:
If she feels certain she wants to be an English major, she should be wary of choosing a place with a one-professor English department. What if she doesn't get along with that person? Would she be disappointed to have to change her major? This is another advantage of a slightly larger school: in any given department there will be several faculty members to choose from!

Is it's at all practical, she should try to have an overnight visit at schools she is seriously considering -- that way she can ask students to give her the real story about the school, not the glossy campus tour version. She can see if she thinks she would thrive there.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:36 PM on July 16, 2006

Oh, and following up on what crutonsupafreak said, if she wants to teach high school English, she should major in English and then get a teaching certificate after college. Some colleges offer the teaching certificate during your bachelor's degree, in addition to a major. To teach younger students, one can major in education. To teach high school in general one majors in the subject one will teach, not in education.

And ok, I didn't mean to sound negative: looking at colleges is a very exciting process! Small schools are a great choice, and in particular schools that are undergraduate-only are a great choice, to get individual attention and smaller classes. Good luck to you and your daughter in the search!
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:12 PM on July 16, 2006

If you want small and great books, look no further than Deep Springs College (URL I cannot recall). Unless you are a girl, in which case they won't take you, because it's men-only. There are eight students.
posted by parmanparman at 6:54 AM on July 17, 2006

She should just go. If she doesn't like it, make sure that she can transfer out.

Obviously, anybody from any silly college that is accredited can be a teacher.
posted by onepapertiger at 8:17 AM on July 17, 2006

I can't tell you anything about it, other than that they leave intriguing brochures in coffeeshops.
posted by evariste at 11:47 PM on July 18, 2006

Well. I work for Shimer and I went to St. John's, and I worked for an accreditor for three years, so let me take a crack at this. First, some misconceptions: Shimer is not merging with IIT. It is contracting for space and services there. The move has as much to do with the limited opportunities for expansion and interaction in Waukegan as any financial peril; that the college just underwent an accreditation review and was granted continuing accreditation demonstrates that the the North Central Association, whose job it is to assure that institutions will exist long enough to let their students graduate, thinks Shimer is not in any peril. We'll have access to better facilities than a college as small as Shimer could secure independently, which is exciting. The insularity of the institution will also be addressed by the move. All in all, it's a good deal.

You're going to get Great Books in a very different way at either Shimer or St. John's than at Columbia or various other places with Great Books programs. The community is key--a community that talks about readings as much out of class as in it. At Shimer, there is a camaraderie between the faculty and the student body unlike anything I've ever seen at any other school, which involves the faculty in this here in a more egalitarian fashion. Both have the sort of environment where students stay up late talking about Plato, but Shimer is less formal and more concerned with the artistic and sociological (less with Math and Science) than St. John's. It also accepts transfer credit and has electives, which St. John's--all Great Books, all the time--does not. Shimer's curriculum includes many more recent (twentieth century) readings. Students at St. John's need to take more initiative in seeking help than they do at Shimer, where the smaller size and informality makes it easier for faculty to intercede proactively. It really depends on what sort of learning environment your daughter would prefer--they are both the "real deal" and I am glad that they both exist. Some students probably end up at each that would be happier at the other.

It is worth noting that Shimer is significantly less expensive than St. John's.

As for teaching, unless your daughter works for a private school, she will have to do graduate work, but that goes for everyone, wherever they go. I know many people from a Great Books background not only teach but better for having had an undergraduate experience that honed their ability to read and think critically, and to discuss with respect for the subject at hand and the people they're talking to.
posted by Philosophia at 9:30 AM on July 24, 2006

I’m currently a student at Shimer and would love to help you get answers to any of your questions.

There are a couple of important things that make Shimer unique. Some have been mentioned here, and some haven’t. To recap:
  • small size
  • curriculum
  • class method and size
  • assesment
  • governance
  • relationship with IIT

    Shimer’s really small. 150 doesn’t even begin to describe it, since half of the students are in the every-third-weekend program for working adults and so appear on campus rarely. I’ve found the smallness alternately wonderful and terrible. The social scene has been incestuous, but it also is a place where you can have a conversation with everyone. And you’re going to be greeted by everyone all the time.

    The Shimer curriculum is also unique. Shimer’s a great books school, which means, for us, that we read classics. BUT Shimer’s definition of classic is a book that, as Robert Hutchins put it, “is contemporary in every age.” St John’s in Annapolis and Santa Fe reads much more the Aristotle through Freud version of the great books, and any core program at Columbia or UChicago pales in comparison to the core at Shimer or St John’s. We read women and people who don’t come from Western Europe and people who aren’t white. Some of the people whose books we read are still alive. Shimer’s strong core is a living core that’s continuously reevaluated to keep with the spirit of Hutchins’ outline of a general education.

    All of Shimer’s classes have twelve or fewer students and a member of the faculty. To correct an erroneous assertion from an earlier answer, three of the members of the faculty don’t have PhDs. Two are the most senior members, Eileen Buchannan and Don Moon (Eileen’s brilliant and wonderful to have in class – she’s read more widely than anyone else I know and is always looking for new and interesting ideas; Don designed a nuclear reactor and is an ordained reverend) and one is the most junior member of the faculty who should have his PhD by December.

    The classes are discussion-based, which means there are no lectures and that everyone has both the right and the obligation to participate intelligently. One of the most important things I’ll ever learn that I’ve learned at Shimer is how to communicate even with people with whom I disagree profoundly and dislike. And it’s not a choice to learn it: you have to. By placing that large responsibility on students, Shimer fosters growth as people rather than accumulation of knowledge. Which is not to say that I haven’t learned a great deal of stuff (don’t ask me about Phlogiston).

    Shimer assesses learning in the most thorough and thoughtful way I’ve seen. There are no finals; class grades are based on writing and participation in discussion. There are two tests during the course of your time at Shimer; each takes a week. The first is a basic studies comprehensive exam, which you take after your completion of the first half of the core curriculum. It tests ability to analyze a novel, ability to analyze music, and ability to parse scientific thought and judge it. The area comprehensive exam, taken before graduating, is structured in a similar way but focused on an area of the curriculum: natural sciences, social sciences or the humanities.

    Shimer is perhaps (according to a recent survey done by David Shiner, one of Shimer’s elder statespeople) the most democratically run college in the nation. Students, faculty and staff all sit on committees charged with hiring and firing faculty and administrators, setting the budget, determining administrative policy and organizing extra-curricular events. The faculty decides issues of academics and academic policy jointly with one of the committees on which students and staff sit. Three positions on the board of trustees are reserved for students and two for faculty; the board is almost a third internal members. In deciding to relocate the undergraduate program to Chicago this fall, the Board worked hand-in-hand with the Assembly, in which each community member has one vote. Speaking with board members, it was clear that they would not vote to move if the college’s students, staff and faculty had opposed it.

    Shimer’s upcoming relationship with IIT is one that is also rare. Shimer will be renting space from IIT and an arrangement has been made to allow for cross-registration between the two schools (I’ll be taking IIT courses next semester) and for Shimer students to have access to all of the services that IIT students have access to. This gives Shimer students several things we didn’t have in Waukegan: a pool, a large library, diverse food choices, a secure dormitory, etc.

    Someone higher up on this page commented that Shimer’s math and Science offerings are poor. We’ve had a slew of recent electives in the sciences and have always had room for tutorials with faculty who have PhDs in Physics, math, etc. I’ve taken Statistics, two semesters of Physics and two semesters of Calculus at Shimer. That said, the college will probably be scaling back those electives in favor of having students take courses in math and science at IIT. I’ll be pursuing Physics and Math there this year with the intention of teaching at the high school level.

    Feel free to contact me if you have any other questions. My email address is Noah at Shimer dot edu.


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