Shimer College

Diocesan Press Service. September 7, 1966 [46-7]

Size is the only thing that is tiny about Shimer College, Mount Carroll, Illinois. The small liberal arts college, most recent to affiliate with the Episcopal Church., bows to no one in its important contributions to education through its unique programs and the outstanding record of its graduates.

The philosophy and programs that have led Shimer College to its enviable position were discussed by its vice president, Stafford G. Davis, on a recent visit to the West Coast.

The basic function of the College is to teach students to think "within a 'community of scholars' instead of simply turning out graduates with a required number of credit hours," Mr. Davis stressed. To create such an atmosphere, Shimer operates in a manner radically different from the pattern of most other colleges with an integrated curriculum, small discussion classes, early entrance program, and faculty whose only goal is to teach.

There are no class distinctions at Shimer, such as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. They are all just students, have most of their classes as 19 to 1 ratio seminars and start taking the intense comprehensive examinations required for graduation when they feel they are ready.

For most of the first three years all students follow a rigidly prescribed curriculum. Each course is related to every other course so students learn how all fields of knowledge affect one another. There are never more than 20 students in the 80-minute class periods devoted to discussion of assigned readings of original material. "We use almost no textbooks because we don't want students to learn what some author thought Plato believed," Mr. Davis explained. "The students study Plato's works and draw their own conclusions."

Each student is given a list of required reading which may amount to as many as 20 books for each class. By graduation the student has accumulated over 400 books for his personal library.

The general curriculum is organized around the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Diverse enough to include principal ideas of our civilization, the study plan is also cumulative so the student develops capacity for critical evaluation at continuingly deeper and more significant levels. Within the core of the humanities, social and natural sciences, students cover subject matters related to art, music, literature, philosophy, economics, political science, history, sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and foreign language. Courses are organized around problem areas rather than specific subjects.

Although lectures do have a place in the study plan of Shimer, the College assumes that true learning requires the active interchange of the small group where personal involvement takes place. Discussion class members also have writing assignments to practice stating ideas formally and assignments in different courses are related to each other so that overall writing experience is complete and integrated. The "subject" of English is nowhere to be found in the Shimer curriculum because so much stress is put on accurate and persuasive expression in all classes and examinations.

Students are graded on their achievement, but it is primarily a guidance tool and these grades may be superseded by the grade on the comprehensive examination, giving the faculty the unusual position of guide rather than arbitrary judge.

To graduate, Shimer students must pass nine comprehensive examinations, covering the major fields of study and based on material assigned several months in advance. Skills developed in the general curriculum are thus used in fresh situations.

While students may take these examinations as they feel they are ready, they usually take three during their first year and spread the remainder out over the next three years.

Although the emphasis is on a broad, general education, the College makes provision for specialization through "concentration courses" in specific fields taken during the equivalent of the "senior" year. According to Mr. Davis, "While intellectual training represented by the general curriculum and comprehensive examinations is excellent preparation for any responsible occupation, it is important that students test a vocation by beginning the concentrated learning which characterizes a vocation. This concentration on a particular discipline is an essential part of our educational goal -- a completion of the general curriculum."

That the approach works is attested by the fact that no less than 70 per cent of Shimer graduates go on to advanced study. Equally remarkable is the record Shimer students make on the national Graduate Record Area Examination, required for admission to graduate schools throughout the country. They consistently averaged at the top in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, the three areas of knowledge covered by the test, when compared with seniors of 296 colleges and universities.

Much of the credit for Shimer's success with its unique programs goes to President F. Joseph Mullin, former dean of faculty and professor of physiology at the University of Chicago's School of Medicine, although the tradition for experimentation was well developed at the school.

Founded in 1853 as Mount Carroll Seminary, the school later became Frances Shimer Academy of the University of Chicago. In 1909 it graduated its first junior college class. Not until 1950 did Shimer adopt a four-year, coeducational program.

Although the College was foundering in 1954 when Dr. Mullin assumed the presidency, he saw in the little school a "great opportunity to reverse the trend in colleges toward turning out supertechnicians instead of educated people."

If Shimer's students are unusual, so is its faculty. Again, the philosophy comes from Dr. Mullin. "Our teachers don't simply fill students' heads with bits of knowledge. Their job is to help them discover things for themselves. No teacher should ask a student a question if he already knows the answer himself because they're all learning together. "

Shimer faculty members have no rankings such as instructors, assistant, associate, and full professors. They are simply teachers. "The basic requisite for hiring teachers is that they want to teach," Dr. Mullin emphasizes.

Teachers at the College are not engaged in career-consuming research projects and do not have to publish in professional journals to keep their jobs. They just teach. Many of the 32 faculty members live in dormitories with students and in class they never tell a student he is wrong. They simply challenge him to "defend your thesis."

Entering students most often have received top scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests of the College Entrance Examination Board. But their testing doesn't stop there. Each student is given placement tests on arrival to see at exactly what level he should begin his studies.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about Shimer College is that one-fifth of its nearly 500 students did not graduate from high school. Through its "early entrance" program Shimer admits bright 14, 15 and 16-year-olds who are generally in the upper 15 per cent of their high school class and upper tenth on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The strenuous academic life at Shimer limits, but does not exclude, extracurricular activities. There are no fraternities or sororities but student activities include dramatic and music programs, special interest clubs, student government, campus publications, and athletics. Students approach athletics at the College in a typically unusual, but very "Shimerian" way. When the school's basketball team finally won a game this spring after a national record of 62 consecutive losses students didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Work is also no stranger to Shimer students: about 70 per cent hold campus jobs to help pay annual fees of $2410 for tuition, board and room.

"The uniqueness of Shimer College," Mr. Davis said, "rests on a combination of curriculum, instructional method and community designed to lead the student to make effective judgments. The curriculum confronts the student with fundamental problems through the writings of the great thinkers of all times; the instructional method enables self-discovery through free discussions; the common curriculum builds a community of scholars -- faculty and students -- with shared insights."

(Number 2 of a series of 9 articles about the Eight Episcopal Colleges)