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.