An Explanation

There are things that I love about Shimer College.  I love the books that we read.  I love the rare discussion in which every student around the table is invested.  I love the papers that I wish I could work on for months and turn into tomes because I am so passionate about the material.  I love the facilitators who ask challenging questions and tease out the intricacies and the beautiful bits of texts that we might very easily miss if we were reading by ourselves.  But there is so much that is missing from the experience as well.

I love the idea of Shimer.  I love what Shimer is once in a blue moon.

A few posts back I wrote about an Aristotle tutorial that one of my facilitators was kind enough to put together for a few students.  None of that excitement was exaggerated.  I loved it so much that I am nursing a desire to get ἐνέργεια, a Greek word that Joe Sachs translated as “being at work”, tattooed on my forearm. It isn’t even that I’m a die-hard Aristotle fan, but I love the idea of an active sense of being.  I love the idea of continuous movement in both stillness and action that forces a person to work continuously for his or her virtue.

The day after I wrote that post I remember walking home, thinking about the tutorial in reference to my Shimer experience.  I thought about that post being put up on the Shimer blog under the label “Best of the Shimer blog” and how I knew it had gotten that because it oozed the exuberance of a Shimer student in love with Shimer.  I thought about how I was genuinely that student when I wrote it.  I thought about how there are bright shining moments when Shimer is exactly what I dreamed it would be.

But more often I don’t get it.  The feeling of fullness that follows a near-perfect discussion or a perfect tutorial the small slice in the pie chart of my Shimer experience.

I should quickly say that this is not a critique of Shimerians.  It is only my experience.

I sit in classes and I want to participate, but half of the conversation is anecdotal or flounderings by people who haven’t done the reading but still want their speaking points.  Questions are asked and either abandoned before they are answered or brought up again and again if the people who asked them first are quiet.  People think out loud in ways that are not helpful to the class discussion.  Students stop participating as some classes progress because the class dynamic is intimidating or overwhelming and never once have I seen a facilitator try to fix that.

Shimer prides itself on being the kind of school that rewards hard work.  Students who are capable of helping themselves are supposed to do well at Shimer, but it is ridiculous to expect students straight out of high school, hell, even students who are in their mid-twenties or thirties, to intuitively know that they are doing poorly if you don’t tell them.  I have talked to student after student after student who feels alone at Shimer.  Students who want to do well, but need a push that their facilitators don’t give them.  I have heard countless people say they feel like their opinions are met with condescension by their peers and no one does anything about it. 

There are reasons that we have high drop out rates.  These are some of them.  We feel abandoned and disdained.

I thought facilitators would be more shepherdly.  I thought they would call attention to how we deal with each other in class or after class, to let us know what we do well and what needs improvement.  They give themselves 15 minutes at the end of the semester to accomplish that and they are always frustratingly vague.  I feel like all I ever hear at the end of the semester is “we love what you do!  do more of the same and then you’ll be exceptional!  your quality is always great but your quantity is lacking!”

I don’t know how to respond to that.

I want to like this school but it is hard to like something that tells you that you’re okay because you’re great but you’re not great often enough.

I wanted Shimer to improve me.  If anything it has done the opposite.

I have less confidence in myself and my ideas.

I don’t discuss as well as I used to.  Something about feeling like no one values your opinion and getting tired of trying to wade through other people’s shit when they won’t return the favor.

I feel uncomfortable around a lot of Shimerians because people are gossipy and I don’t like knowing awful, random, strange things about people I’ve never spoken to and knowing that they have probably heard things just as inaccurate about me.

I have trouble evaluating my performance because I can’t get a read on what acceptable behavior in a class is.  One of my classes was observed by a faculty member who was evaluating my facilitator (because he’s new) and I thought it was an awful class.  No one listened to each other and pretty much two people talked while the rest of us listened.  The observer said it was a great class.  That he was very impressed.

I don’t get it.

I have a year left.  I don’t know if I’ll make it.

Peripatetic Like Whoa.

It is a perfect day in Chicago today.  It’s one of those days that rests halfway between spring and summer where the sun is shining bright and warm, but the air is cool and it’s hard to decide if the sweatshirt you’re wearing is actually necessary.  It’s one of those days where you want to go outside and stay there and, contrary to what preconceived notions you might have about school, it is also a perfect day to be a Shimer student.

Near the beginning of this semester I fell in love with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  We read about a third of it in my Social Sciences class and then moved on, which was disappointing for me.  I asked our facilitator, Aron, if he would be willing to lead an informal tutorial for interested students so we could finish the book before the semester ended.  He agreed, and since then we have met almost every Tuesday at 10:30 to discuss yet another book of the Nicomachean Ethics.

It has been phenomenal.

There are usually somewhere between three to six of us who take the time to read an extra 20 or so pages of Aristotle and meet for an approximately hour long discussion.  Sometimes we bring snacks.  Sometimes we sit outside.

Today we went for a walk, ‘cause we’re peripatetic like that.

The conversation started more casually than it usually does.  I think Alexis brought up my squirrel phobia, which led to Aron’s story of being attacked by a gang of squirrels when eating lunch one day.  Eventually, though we wove our way to the book of the Ethics that we had read and spent the next hour or so shouting over traffic and meandering through neighborhoods and parks while discussing Aristotle’s perspective on friendship.

I can say with the utmost sincerity that there is no other way that I would rather have started my day.  The conversation flowed beautifully and, despite being outside and walking, we managed to cite the text and carry on an extremely focused, rigorous and interesting conversation about a beautiful piece of philosophy.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that very few other schools have peripatetic philosophy days.

Ra-ra Shimer.

I’m going to go write an essay outside now.

A Shimerian Summation

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last.

I don’t mean to abuse a quote packed with meaningful  goodness and whatnot, but HOLY GOODNESS I am so glad that the semester is officially, finally, blessedly over.

Shimer stresses me out out for the very reason that I thought I would love it.  We are graded on class participation and papers instead of tests and quizzes and I don’t. understand. it.  Even a little bit.

I think I understood Shimer at the beginning and I tried to do be that kind of student.  Because of this the first week or so was great and explorative and probably my most participative.

I read consistently and thoroughly.  In class I tried to pose questions rather than answering them, although when I felt especially strong about something or if our discussion was lagging I would address questions as well.  Outside of class I blogged about things that stuck out to me in the reading, had regular conversations about the material with peers (and one of my employers) and even applied bits and pieces of some of the texts to my life.  At the end of a day of classes I went home exhausted but invigorated.

And then I lost it because I couldn’t find the conversation in our classes.  There was plenty of talking, but one thread was rarely linked to the last and I couldn’t figure out where we were.  This was most true in my humanities class where a couple students would openly laugh at others and most of the class simply ignored what everyone else said and blindly explained their thoughts and feelings about the material.

Class felt felt like reading comments on a popular youtube video.  There were a lot of one-liners (often echoing, without being responsive to each other) and every once in a while there would be something especially meaningful or idiotic said.

It was hard to comment on what anyone else had to say because before you had a chance to think about the last comment someone was already talking about something new.  Every day I left that class wanting to cry (if I had tried to participate) or bored out of my skull (if I was having a day where I decided to cut my losses and just listen) and always, always, always wondering why I had come to such a terrible school.

Or wondering if I straight up didn’t understand how to be a Shimerian.  Maybe I’d been wrong in the beginning.  Maybe the excitement, the hard work and inspired conversations had been misplaced.

I should say two things here.  1.  My Nat Sci and Soc Sci facilitators were extraordinary.  2.  I continued to sporadically enjoy my Soc Sci class and I liked Nat Sci whenever I understood what we were talking about, although my attention span in that class could rival a goldfish’s for brevity.

The only critique I can offer for Nat Sci was that there was one student in particular (who is very intelligent, no question about it), who was so busy peacocking her comprehension of the material that some of us fell to the wayside.  It was like being lectured by a peer at a table instead of by a professor in a lecture hall.

Social Science was perfection in a Shimerian classroom, but I would go there after a brain pummeling in Natural Science and would mindlessly gape at everyone, not feeling capable of connecting the thoughts in my brain to what was happening in the discussion.

I’m exaggerating a bit on all of the above, of course, because I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t turning my life into a fish story, but the sentiment remains valid.  Shimer started off a dream and then the realized dream wasn’t perfect, so I thought I misunderstood what it was supposed to be and the replacement of the ideal was less appealing than the original.  Surprise.

Class ended a couple weeks ago with “hell week”, when everyone crammed to finish papers and prepare for tests.  I didn’t think tests existed at Shimer, but I Shimer tests are pretty alright.  There were no bubbles involved.  Hell week wasn’t bad.

And then there was writing week.

During writing week every student picks a project that matters to them and they devote 40 hours to it.

I was initially going to write a pilot for a television show that would encourage positive gender roles, inspired by our readings of Ornter, Gilligan and Chodorow.  Then I decided that the project as I envisioned it was way too big to conquer in 40 hours.  I wanted to watch several television shows and examine how women and men are represented now.

Is it ok for Phil Dunphy to be a loveable idiot?

Can ditzy be a positive thing?

Would heartbreak make a male evil, too?

Then I would try to figure out how best to reach people through their television programs and make them want to be like (or opposite to) the characters they see on the screen.  Subliminally.  It would have required a lot of research and I wanted to write an academic paper and a script, which, of course, I also wanted to cast, shoot and edit.  Not gonna happen in one week.

My second idea was to make a pocket size espresso machine that I found through lifehacker.  I spent the first half of my week doing this. I spent a lot of money on copper parts, read the instructions over and over again, learned how to solder (and how to say solder), squashed copper with a hammer, cut copper with a hacksaw, redrew his blueprint because I didn’t understand most of it, did more math than I have in years, tried to find a store to sell me a syringe for the alcohol stove and then…gave up.  There were too many details that I didn’t think I would be able to iron out in a week, there were a few parts my local hardware store did not have (not counting the syringe…I checked four or five pharmacies for that with no luck) and then, the nail in the coffin was the power drill I borrowed with a battery life of approximately half a second.  Eventually I got it charged enough that it would spin at a rate of about once every half second.  Nope.

Regardless, I am making this little mudder when I am home for Christmas porque QUIERO.

So then it was Thursday and I had to fall back on my third idea with two days to go.

My third idea was to write one haiku for every element on the periodic table.  Fortunately, I had initially planned on doing both projects and giving up on one halfway through the week.  Unfortunately, everyone who I had talked to had talked me out of this plan by Tuesday morning, so I only had my haiku research and four complete haiku written.  Doubly unfortunately there are 118 haiku on the table.  Triply unfortunately they are all outrageously similar to each other.  Because I started so late (damn you, slow motion drill!) I wasn’t able to bring the project to full fruition on time.  I turned in a paper about writing the poems and included a few of my favorites.  Then I kept working on it after the deadline and made THIS:

I love it. My facilitators seemed nonplussed. Although there was talk of turning it into MURAL on the Shimer floor...

Yesterday I had my end of the semester conference, wherein I was told that my contributions are great, but I need to “participate more”.   This means that I should invite other people into the discussion more than I do now.  Stuart said he thinks that I am usually several steps ahead of the rest of the class, but instead of waiting for them to get where I am I should bring other people to where I am.  Theoretically:  awesome.  But how do you do that without having people skip over really important stuff? He also said I seem to have a good grasp of knowing what other people are trying to say and that I should invite their insights into the futureplace that I evidently exist in.  That all made me feel real good about myself.  And then he suggested saying things like “I hear you saying this…” to clarify what I’m hearing from others, which I do all the time, and I started to wondered how much they really remember about all of us.  Hm.

 Bev said that I sometimes seem like more of an observer than a participant, which was fair since I often felt like I was sitting in on a Crick lecture.  Barb’s comments were a pretty solid in-between of the other two.  The conference was really frustrating and I left feeling awful, because my general impression was that I’m average and the way to become better is to do exactly what I’m doing now, but more of it.  So many of my classes were filled with people who talked too much and I don’t want to do that, so I was left not knowing AT ALL what a Shimer student is supposed to be.

The last few months have been good and bad.  Ugly and beautiful.  They’ve made me love Chicago more than I did in 2008 and Minnesota more than I have since childhood.

Ah.  It’s going to be over for a month now.  I mean I still have to read Hamlet and write a paper about that and then write a paper about a yet to be decided poem so I can hopefully test out of Humanities 2, but…


The Truth Behind the Truism

(The essay I stayed up all night writing for my Soc class.  This is how we’re turning it in…so hopefully it isn’t completely atrocious.)

Education shapes individuals, who shape their societies. Because of this, it stands to reason that the most efficient way to reshape a society is by refurbishing education. This is best done by first working to meet the present needs of students and second, to equip them to interact with the “real world” properly and with ease. Using Émile Durkheim’s On Suicide and W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk, I will argue that as education is a powerful tool, especially when set up properly, it is the best resource we have to create desirable, sustainable changes in our communities.
To begin, I would like to briefly establish the importance and uniquely influential nature of education. Education is often seen as a cure-all to a broken society. Even if one does not think that education is a savior of sorts, most would agree that there is “infinitely more danger to be apprehended from half-trained minds and shallow thinking than from over-education and over-refinement” (Dubois 66). At its most basic education offers students a broader lens through which they can examine and appreciate life.
Great thinkers who have the means and the motive necessary to bring about and actualize revolutionary ideas are one of the most reliable and explosive ways of reforming society. When society reaches the end of its collective rope “intelligence is the only guide that we have left and it must serve us to remake our consciences… Knowledge…is the only weapon that allows us to struggle against the dissolution from which it itself results” (Durkheim 176-177). Because great thinkers sprout from great teachers it is through a working system of education that we are most able to offer our children the knowledge and intelligence they need to remake what has been broken in previous generations.
The power of education is indisputable. From birth we strive to learn, to understand the people who populate our lives and the greater world around us. When formalized education is available people scramble to reap its benefits. Dubois illustrated this by way of the common-school system in the South. Clearly proud of the African American response to the newly available education he says, “in a single generation they put thirty thousand black teachers in the South [and] they wiped out the illiteracy of the majority of the black people of the land (60)”. Education is powerful. It is magnetic. It offers people a way to actualize their goals in the most practical and convenient way possible.
Because education is so powerful, it is important to remind ourselves that education on its own is not enough. After all, “when we have vaguely said that education will set this tangle straight, what have we uttered but a truism” (Dubois 57)? Simply relying on education to cure our social ills without investing any effort into the system is a non-plan. The reformation of education is essential.
The relationship between education and society is circular. The first informs the second, which, in turn, informs the first, ad infinitum. Upon observing this relationship, Durkheim claimed that education can emerge exclusively from a fully healthy society because “education is only the image and reflection of society. Education is healthy when nations themselves are healthy, but it is corrupted when they are… Every new generation is raised by its predecessor, so the latter must be corrected if one is to correct the following one. It is a vicious circle” (416). Durkheim rightly points out that people are raised with the ideas that were instilled in them by their predecessors, but to imagine that society is responsible for reforming education and can only do so if it is itself completely healthy is ridiculous. Individuals must discover what needs improvement and then reform education, which will create more students who are ready, willing and able to continue the changes that were propagated by their predecessors.

Happily, this is occurring in American schools today. Magnet, language and charter schools are becoming popular, so much so that their waitlists sometimes outnumber their student bodies (Abeles). Pressure to recreate education is constantly increasing and consistently being productively answered. One example of this is the “Blue School” founded by the Blue Man Group in Lower Manhattan. This school is characterized by its “child-centered curriculum”, which “is designed to meet the individual needs of children…[by] identif[ying] children’s developmental needs, abilities, interests, and learning styles” (Blue Man Group). In other words, teachers pay attention to their students’ interests and learning styles and adjust the curriculum accordingly.
American society is clearly not cured of all its ills, but there are successful movements that are trying to change education so it will benefit even very young students as entire people rather than mere workers.
We are beginning to understand what Dubois professed long ago: education of the liberal or technical arts alone is not enough. Teachers cannot merely be “trained in technical normal methods; they must also, so far as possible, be broad-minded, cultured men and women, to scatter civilization among … people whose ignorance [is] not simply of letters but of life itself (60)”. The greater aim of education is not to simply to spread ideas and knowledge, it is to create well-rounded people who can offer something to their communities with pride.
The pursuit of education necessitates goals. Any “[negative impacts of education] disappear when education has another cause and responds to other needs” (Durkheim 176). Because of this, it is important that schools create achievable goals that they advertise to their students and that can be measured with something more reliable (and possibly more abstract) than standardized tests. This is where charter and magnet schools become increasingly relevant. Allowing students who know where their passions lie to focus their energies in that direction is vital to the success of a good education.
Dubois recognizes the importance of various systems. It is “…foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! Shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both” (54). Education must take into account its students’ interests and proficiencies and aim to nurture those traits on an individual basis. Blanketing all students with lectures focused on the liberal arts is counterproductive. The study of liberal arts is a great base for any student and a great specialization for some, but “to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith” (Dubois 52). We must be willing to educate our students in their areas of interest and ability.
Aspirations vary astronomically, in children and adults alike. However, as children grow they learn that some aspirations are more noble, profitable or safe than others. Passions are quashed instead of encouraged and people become unhappy, restless and unproductive. It is vital that education fans the flames of passion, regardless of what they may be, rather than stamping them out. I ask that you humor me for a moment to offer a comic that illustrates exactly my point:

A miserable astronaut will not do as much good in his field or in the world as someone who wants to be there could. Anyone dedicated wholeheartedly to his craft, no matter how basal or elevated it might be, belongs in that field and should be offered the relevant education.

Dubois, again: “The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, and adjustment which forms the secret of civilization” (52-52). Education shapes futures, both individual and collective. It is the foundation of our morality. It is the manifestation of the best part of ourselves, but it cannot be any of these things unless we make it so.
Durkheim cautions us “not to see education as an end in itself, when it is only the means to an end” (177). Education is not meant simply to educate, it is meant to create and improve. Through educating ourselves and our children, we are trying to encourage something greater than ourselves and that something is not merely a profession. It is a passion that leads to a more whole human experience.

“The final product of [education] must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living, – not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold. The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame. And all this is gained only by human strife and longing, by ceaseless training and education; by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on the unhampered search for Truth…” (Dubois 54)

This is our goal. We are to create a system that creates people who are inspired by their careers and aim to inspire others through the work that they do. Education does not rob anyone of their passions, it gives individuals the tools they need to become themselves.

Penultimately, our goal is best expressed again through the pen of W.E.B. Dubois. “[Education] must develop men” (66). We must forego education as a truism and embrace it as a viable means for change. We must build a system that creates people of outstanding moral character who are motivated and intelligent and follow their passions rather than pride or pocketbooks. When this is achieved we will have served our purpose and education will fulfill its role impeccably.

Let’s Talk About School.

For those of you who are not aware, I am starting school again.  In the past four years I have attended four different colleges.

First, as a hopeful freshman, I attended Hofstra University.  I was going to double major in film and philosophy (after which I would become an ethicist and independent filmmaker), but the tuition freaked me out and the education level was reminiscent of my high school’s.  Granted, I went to an awesome high school, but college should be a step up, regardless.  My philosophy and math classes were especially bad and my religion class was hands down the easiest I’ve ever taken anywhere (although that professor was also one of the nicest I’ve ever had.)  My English and Latin professors were superb, but two out of five classes that meet expectations (is it wrong to have high expectations?) do not warrant the excessive pricetag.

Then, in the middle of a quasi- life panic-attack/depression I did what I said I never would and I went to the family school.  My mother, father, brother and sisters all attend(ed) North Park and I had no intention of doing the same, but sometimes when you’re under duress it’s easy to let people make decisions for you.  North Park is a good school.  I had some great teachers and took some interesting classes while I was there.  I would never go back.

I have recently decided that I might want to be a professor at a community college.  (Yes, Grantley, you thought I was joking, but I wasn’t.)  I was consistently impressed with the caliber of my teachers at Inver Hills, and, as a general rule I found that professors at my community college were more interested in creating and maintaining relationships with their students (Dluger [NPU] and Fichtelberg [Hofstra], you are exceptions to this rule as I found both of you to be extraordinarily, impressively invested in your students).

Honestly, I had really negative connotations regarding community colleges before I started, and I am still unnecessarily defensive about my education at Inver Hills (“I just wanted to finish really quickly”, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I wanted to get an AA under my belt.” etc., etc.), but in reality it was probably my best year of school.  I was very involved (theater, outdoors club, art club, and more) and I was positively challenged in most of my classes.  I would like to be a part of the education system that doesn’t get the respect that it deserves and continue providing students the opportunity to learn in a challenging environment even if they don’t have the resources that people who can attend a typical university for all four years do.

Now I am slotted to go to Shimer.  First, I should say that I am outrageously excited about this program.  It is a great books school, which means that our curriculum is centered around classic texts that scholars (and people in general) claim continue to be relevant, challenging and informative throughout history.  Classes are small and discussion oriented.  We meet around tables instead of in lecture halls.  And, wonderfully, although centered on the progression of Western thought (we do live in the United States, which is a part of the Western world, after all), Shimer seems to do a decent job of representing minorities in their curriculum, so we are not a Dead White Male focused school.  We study Flannery O’Connor, W.E.B. Dubois and others.

School is going to be awesome.

The problem that we have is this:

Or…more accurately, the fact that I don’t have that.

I was looking over my financial aid package today and despite Shimer’s generosity I am still screwed for coming up with tuition.  I will rack up $19,500 in loans over the three years I go there (it would be $6,500 less if they had maintained their initial claim that I only need to attend for two years) and, on top of that, I need to muster up $16,000 per year after financial aid.  That is $48,000 of upfront costs in three years.  Altogether (loans and immediate cost) I need to come up with $67,500.  This does not include books or living expenses.

I spent a lot of time looking and applying for scholarships today, but even when using fastweb and zinch I did not discover the overwhelming scholarship opportunities people say are out there.  A lot of the scholarships are oddly specialized (must be a member of the llama club?) and a lot are seasonal or scammy.  I don’t get how people do it.  Scholarships seem to average at $1,000…according to my calculations above that means that I would have to apply for and win SIXTY EIGHT scholarships.  While attending school.  And presumably working a job or two.  And not, evidently, having a social life.

Is a piece of paper and boxy hat really worth that much money?

I mean look at them.  They’re pathetic.

The problem is that now that now that I think I know what I want to do I also know that I need the education.  Becoming an educator mandates higher education, so any wiggle room that I used to have has been obliterated.  Still, I am putting $67,500 that I don’t have into a future that is not guaranteed.   I want to study Shimer’s reading list on my own and then Sparknotes the hell out of their curriculum and read other related commentaries if need be.  But the truth is that I think discussion and community, especially the kind that I’ll find at Shimer, are important.

I believe in the program that Shimer offers; I couldn’t justify a fraction of Shimer’s cost at another school, but because I believe so strongly in their program I have to do it.  It scares me because I hate debt, and dollar amounts that I cannot wrap my tiny middle-class brain around freak me out.  I have no idea how I will pay off the next three years.  I have no idea if I will be able to scrounge together the finances that I need to go on and get the Master’s degrees I want (religious studies, philosophy and/or literature, in case you were wondering).

This is me biting the bullet.