Bah humbug, numbers never tell the entire story: in defense of critical thinking, meaningful educational relationships, and of course, Shimer College

Bah humbug, numbers never tell the entire story:  in defense of critical thinking, meaningful educational relationships, and of course, Shimer College
President of Shimer College, Dr. Susan Henking, welcomes attendees to the National Women's Hall of Fame forum held in Chicago on 11/17/14.

Last week, I was called a radical when it came to education. I suppose I am. I don’t believe in grades, though I do believe in timely feedback on student work. I understand why some parents have no interest in sending their children to school because some children truly get nothing out of school. I don’t think a child’s chronological age should be the sole determinant of his grade level. In fact, I’m a huge fan of cross grade learning. I have a hard time labeling a child, and I don’t believe that a child—or an institution—can be reduced to a number.

So, imagine my outrage when Shimer College was ranked as one of the worst institutions in the country (yes, I’m a little late to jump into the fray, but I was on vacation last week). After the rankings were posted, alumni championed Shimer. That’s what drove Guardian writer, Jon Ronson, to visit the Chicago College and look beyond Shimer’s terrible ranking. Note to self, questioning-- which is what Ronson so deftly did in his article, Shimer College, the worst school in America?* --is central to Great Books pedagogy. When I posted Ronson’s article on Facebook last week, two people I’ve never met wrote:

"I went to Shimer in the early 70s when it was still in Mt. Carroll [has moved to Bronzeville since then].” Very interesting place. Amazing curriculum."

"My brother went to Shimer and then on to Oxford."

Ronson, a parent himself, is rethinking the purpose—and value--of higher education. He exposed the rankings for what they truly are: a beauty pageant; colleges that have pretty facilities (and activities), though lacking in rigor, trumped Shimer in the rankings. In a most ironic twist, Ronson reported that while watching graduation tapes from some high-ranking institutions, he noticed that one student had written on his cap, “Thanks Wikipedia.”

Critical thinking, not Wikipedia, dominate the halls of Shimer. Visit Shimer or take a look at some of the faculty and student blogs** that reflect the school’s culture and pedagogy.

Shimer is a place that I recommend to parents of gifted and talented students because of its Great Books pedagogy and because of its holistic, student centered approach. The College supports early entrance. Courses are interdisciplinary, with approximately eight students to one professor. The professor doesn’t lecture; he facilitates and together, student and teacher craft projects through which students show mastery. And, as the Shimerprez says in her blog, "Chicago is our [the school's] campus," with students interning in the City, attending local, cultural events, and visiting architectural gems.

I tell parents that I’ve been caught in the Shimer web. In addition to visiting the College, I’ve attended poetry readings at the Shimer Condo (met intriguing students, board members, and alum). I’ve also attended lectures and dinners. Last month, I was invited to attend the National Women’s Hall of Fame Forum, sponsored by Shimer and Roosevelt University (among others). It was a mighty collaboration. For more details, see I only wish that my daughter would have been able to attend as I listened to the enlightened panel discuss the meaning of equality and whether that meant that women had to settle for less. The panelists hit every central issue we face today: power, oppression, conflict, racism, gender, voice, and visibility.

The notion of equality is germane here. Do we want every college to be the same? I sure hope not. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of the standardization of education. One size does not fit all. We all have unique capabilities and we need a chance to develop them at our own pace, in our own style.

The folks at Shimer are dangerously optimistic that they can give their students the tools to think and survive in an ever-challenging world. Their alum certainly support that claim. We need optimism in this day and age of “standardized” education. I, like others affiliated with Shimer, find comfort in the wisdom of Robert Maynard Hutchins:***

Education can be dangerous. It is very difficult to make it not dangerous. In fact, it is almost impossible. The only way that you can prevent education from being dangerous is to try to develop an educational system in which the pupil is exposed to no ideas whatever.*

No thanks. One thing I know for sure is that no Shimer grad will be sporting a cap that says, “Thanks Wikipedia.” These students and professors are original thinkers and risk takers. Dangerously optimistic, they flirt with ideas. I wish more educators would get caught in the Shimer web.

*the full article can be found at

**Some blogs about Shimer:

• Dr. Susan Henking’s blog (she’s the Shimerprez),; see also

• Professor Adam Kostko’s blog, An und fur sich ,

• There’s a few posts on Gifted Matters, as well, including

***email Stern for privileged source.

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