Why is this the worst college in America?


People love to rank things, which explains why listsicles are so popular as clickbait. All such rankings are dependent on the measures used to score them and so tend to be quite idiosyncratic. I try to avoid them in general but being in education I was intrigued by an article that claimed that Shimer College was the worst college in America. I had never heard of this college at all and so was curious as to what it was and why it earned this dubious title.

As is often the case, things are not as simple as they seem. The list was compiled by someone named Ben Miller, a former senior policy advisor in the Department of Education, who said that he was looking at colleges that “charge students large amounts of money to receive an education so terrible that most drop out before graduation.” Since his rankings were adjusted for race and income, Shimer made the top of the list for those colleges that don’t have many poor students or students of color.

But in reading the description of the college and its curriculum in the article, it strikes me as a place that is providing a vastly different educational experience to the mass production systems of most colleges, emphasizing small classes that are entirely based on intense discussions of primary sources.

They offer only one core program, and just one teaching method. This is a ‘great books’ college. The great books of the western tradition, not the professors, are the teachers: Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Aristotle’s Poetics and Homer’s Odyssey and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity and Kafka and Derrida and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Machiavelli and Shakespeare and the Bible.

Textbooks about the great books are forbidden. That would be too easy. It is primary sources only here. Students can concentrate on humanities, or natural sciences, they can take electives in feminist theories, or Auden, or Zen masters, but it’s all great books and nothing else. There are no lectures. Each class takes the form of Socratic dialogue between the students, guided by a professor if necessary.

That looks pretty good to me. Its educational philosophy seems to be similar to that of the much better known St John’s College except that it is nowhere near as successful.

Comments

  1. says

    Perhaps people don’t finish in that college because they find a few courses in that tradition useful as parts of a fuller education, to be rounded out elsewhere. I can see wanting to take that “Great Books” approach in some areas of interest, but not in all of them. (And that approach isn’t all that useful in, say, history, science, math, political science, etc.)

  2. kraut says

    It is a lot easier to regurgitate textbook material than doing your own thinking based on what you read in the source material.

    “And that approach isn’t all that useful in, say, history, science, math, political science”

    Because it is easier to read vetted material by some second rate textbook author than the original?
    Why is an original book like Churchill’s the second world war less useful than any textbooks likely to be biased anyway?
    Why is reading Marx “Das Kapital” less useful than reading some interpretive textbook version of it?
    Why is reading Mommsen’s History of Rome less useful than a textbook about Rome?
    Why is reading Darwin’s, Linnaeus, Gould’s, Wilson’s work less useful as a starting point for further investigation than some textbook that might misrepresent those ideas?
    I have to assume that reading the original will lead to other texts that will be contradictory, and thus will force you to think and evaluate the claims. Textbook is spoon feeding.
    As a former student of international agrology I was fortunate to be presented with lectures by professors who yearly went to do actual fieldwork, who used that as the starting point for their classes, who forced us to read original studies and learn from that combination.

  3. Jonap says

    As much as I hate textbooks, limiting the source material to “the great books of western tradition” will only be useful for studying literature. Maybe there is useful information about evolution from Darwin directly, but it will necessarily omit everything that has been discovered since that time. Also, Marx and Churchill are not unbiased sources. Understanding the context would require an understanding of the history and culture of where and when Marx and Churchill existed. There are no other ways of evaluating what their biases may have been.

    If they include the entirety of the scientific literature as part of the western tradition, then this may actually be a good approach to studying science instead of textbooks. The benefit of the textbooks is that the author tries to separate the signal of important findings from the noise of nonsense that gets published. Review articles are a good compromise. But this doesn’t sound like what this college is doing.

  4. Henry Gale says

    From the Guardian: “Each class takes the form of Socratic dialogue between the students, guided by a professor if necessary.”

    From the Shimer website: “Tuition: Full Time 12-18 credits $28,454 .”

    Over 30 grand a year (tuition plus book and other fees) to talk about the great books with other students? Does Chicago not have public libraries with meeting rooms?

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I agree that this course of study sounds interesting. However, I once spent several months in an online discussion group with John C. Wright (who has been mentioned around FTB in several other contexts), and he and all his friends were a) very proud of their St. John’s education, and b) raging conservative assholes. I’m not saying I had a big enough sample to indicate causation, so it’s probably just prejudice on my part, but I’m not sure I’d want my kids to go there.

  6. kraut says

    “Also, Marx and Churchill are not unbiased sources. Understanding the context would require an understanding of the history and culture of where and when Marx and Churchill existed. There are no other ways of evaluating what their biases may have been.”

    And you really think that textbooks are unbiased? Of course you yourself should explore the context those works were written in. But that does not mean textbooks are necessary, they can lead astray especially when it comes to controversial political and scientific ideas were textbooks often have a bias based on the work of the author.. I do not completely disagree that textbooks are necessary to some extent, but they are not the only option to really “study”, which means exploring the field of your studies.

    Unfortunately not knowing the actual course structure, I only can assume that those books are the starting point for further investigation into the context those books were written in. Anything else really would be futile.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Should a person who can’t properly use “between” or “among” rank higher-educational institutions?

  8. jonap says

    And you really think that textbooks are unbiased? Of course you yourself should explore the context those works were written in. But that does not mean textbooks are necessary, they can lead astray especially when it comes to controversial political and scientific ideas were textbooks often have a bias based on the work of the author.. I do not completely disagree that textbooks are necessary to some extent, but they are not the only option to really “study”, which means exploring the field of your studies.

    I do not think textbooks are unbiased. I think they tend to be either a decade out of date in their information, or oversimplified to the point of being wrong. There are some notable exceptions; calculus books, for example, are useful despite the information being centuries old. But it’s probably be easier to learn calculus from a modern textbook, than from Newton’s Methodus Fluxionum et Serierum Infinitarum.

    My point was that if this college’s only material are the great books of western civilization, then as Henry Gale points out, the experience is just a very expensive book club. Their science curriculum is more like the history of science philosophy. For example, from their course catalog, this is the reading list for chemistry:
    Reading List: NATURAL SCIENCES 1
    Aristotle, Physics
    Wheelwright, Presocratics
    Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe
    Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry
    Bacon, New Organon
    Cannizzaro, Sketch of a Course of Chemical Philosophy
    Selections from Boyle, Avogadro,Gay, Lussac, Joule, Pascal, Faraday, Dulong, Stahl, Priestly, Thompson,
    Dalton, Clausius, and Curie

  9. Richard Simons says

    Should a person who can’t properly use “between” or “among” rank higher-educational institutions?

    Which do you consider to be wrong? The long-standing English usage of ‘between’ when the relationship is well defined (a treaty between four nations) and ‘among’ when it is looser (the cat among the pigeons) or the more recent, primarily American usage of ‘between two’ and ‘among’ for more than two?

  10. says

    In answer to most of kraut’s questions: because: a) those authors were not the only ones writing about the events and issues in question; and b) things have happened since the writing of those books, some of which may at least alter or partially disprove the validity of the original writings. Marx and Thucydides are cases in point: good places to start, but not the only source of good information.

    Shakespeare, OTOH, is still Shakespeare, and his works are meaningful independent of other writings or events.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    Richard Simons @ # 9: The long-standing English usage of ‘between’ when the relationship is well defined …

    Please note the even longer usage indicated by etymology – that “tween” comes from the same root as “two”.

  12. lpetrich says

    Here’s the complete course catalog on natural sciences:
    NATURAL SCIENCES 1: Laws and Models in Chemistry
    Aristotle to the turn of the 20th cy.
    NATURAL SCIENCES 2: Evolution, Genetics, and Animal Behavior
    Aristotle to the mid 20th cy.: Konrad Lorenz, Jane Goodall, Stephen Jay Gould.
    NATURAL SCIENCES 3: The Nature of Light
    Galileo to the late 19th cy.: Maxwell and Hertz
    NATURAL SCIENCES 4: Modern Scientific Revolutions
    Einstein and Spemann to Feynman and Crick
    That’s good for history of ideas, but not very helpful for understanding present-day theories or learning how to put them to work. Newton’s Principia is almost unreadable to present-day people, and astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar spent some years writing a “translation” of it into modern notation.

    There are also courses on the humanities, social sciences, and “integrative studies” (Foundations of Mathematics and Logic, History and Philosophy of Western Civilization)

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