Ride from Oak Park on the Green Line through the Loop to the South Side's IIT Campus. There one finds excellent engineering but also Shimer College with its Great Books program in which students read, discuss, and analyze classic texts by Plato, Darwin, Newton, John Stuart Mill, and others.
Oak Park resident Redd Griffin, who died last November, was a Shimer grad when the college was at its 1950s location in Mt. Carroll — as was I, a 16-year resident of Oak Park, now living in Chicago.
Redd taught a Great Books course at Triton College where he is remembered fondly by his former students. Oak Park resident and retired Dominican University history professor Rosalind Hays attended in Mt. Carroll before transferring to the University of Chicago where she earned a Ph.D. in History.
Shimer is not the most direct route to a career in engineering, accounting, or hotel management, as the college stresses more basic skills — critical thinking and analysis, coherent writing — and addresses more basic questions — What is the nature of the world and of Man? — via the Great Books. The Great Books, that is, updated to include recent developments in biology, physics, and the humanities.
Robert Israel, another alum from the 1950s and now a retired reconstructive surgeon, told me that his Shimer education delayed his entry into medical school but was invaluable in enriching his life. Similar sentiments are held by Shaun Devlin, who received a liberal arts degree from Shimer in the 1950s and went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics and work in the auto industry. Not all Shimer graduates go on to graduate school, pursuing instead careers in business, nonprofits, or government after receiving their AB degrees.
What's good about Shimer? Classes are small — about 10 students — so each class member receives significant attention from the professor and each can make a significant contribution to the discussion and interpretation of texts, with the lack of such contribution readily evident. What is also good is that Shimer classes are very demanding (not good if one wants to coast to a bachelor's degree!). A 1997 University of Wisconsin Madison study found Shimer to be third in the nation in the percent of graduates who go on to earn doctorates. A 2008 update of that study found Shimer to be 27th in the nation, lower than in the 1997 study but still in the top 1%.
What's bad about Shimer? Enrollment is too small, only 120 students currently, a situation that is being addressed by the college's administration and trustees.
By the time you have read the first 10 pages of Hobbes' Leviathan on the Green Line, you will have arrived at the Bronzeville/IIT stop. Get off and visit a Shimer class at 3424 S. State St. You will find it stimulating and meet interesting students. And speaking of Hobbes, Shimer alum Robert Keohane, professor of International Affairs, Princeton University, will speak on "Hobbes's Dilemma and the Liberal Quest for World Order" at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 21 at the Standard Club, 320 S. Plymouth Court, Chicago, reception following. The talk is open to those interested in Hobbes and in Shimer.
Edward Walbridge, who has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago, is a trustee of Shimer College. He lives in Chicago.