SHIMER: The Great Books College of Chicago

Shimer (rhymes with rhymer) is a private liberal arts college best known for its intellectual atmosphere, small class sizes, and Great Books curriculum. Shimer is one of the smallest colleges in the United States with only about 100 undergraduates. The college, originally founded in 1853, is located on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, where students of both institutions have the opportunity to cross-register in selected courses. Largely unknown outside the Midwest, Shimer aims to be not a training school of the professions but a community of scholars.

I received a letter last month from Thomas K. Lindsay, Ph.D., President of Shimer College. He had previously been the director of “We the People,” a program launched by President Bush in 2002 to support the study of American history and America’s founding principles. Its capstone project was “Picturing America,” a set of 40 reproductions of iconic American art put together by the National Endowment for the Humanities. These were distributed to homeschool groups through HSLDA.

In his letter, Lindsay explains how a Shimer education builds on and completes the work begun by Picturing America: “Shimer College… is one of the few schools in the country in which all students are required to study the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist, and all the other original sources that illuminate the moral, political, theological, and philosophic foundations of our way of life…. There you will see classes dedicated to the foundations of Western political thought, the scientific wonders of the universe, and the greatest literature of all time.”

Lindsay continues, “Shimer’s Great Books Curriculum is, I am convinced, the best approach for a home-schooled student seeking a liberal arts education. My conviction is based on my personal experience: for four years, my wife and I home-schooled our four children. Every subject at Shimer is taught from original sources; every class is a small seminar; and every professor is committed to helping students develop the skills needed for work and life. Our students investigate the questions inspired by history’s greatest minds. At Shimer, there are no forgone conclusions or politically correct answers. Students endeavor to understand the opinions of others, because they learn to listen respectfully to opposing views. Each student learns to write concisely and accurately, and to discuss and think through a problem to its conclusion. These are skills they take with them wherever they go: to their workplace, home, and community. They leave Shimer ready for any future, because they know how to listen, observe, think, and decide.”

Shimer’s academic programs feature an interdisciplinary core curriculum originally designed by Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago and grounded in the Great Books tradition. The Hutchins Plan relies on close readings of original sources, called Great Books, rather than textbooks as the basis for its curriculum. Shimer remains among only a few Great Books colleges in the nation.

Shimer’s core curriculum requires three years of study in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and trans-disciplinary integrative studies. Electives are generally taken in the junior and senior years, though many of them are open to first and second year students as well. Classes are small, averaging 12 students, and are guided by one of a dozen faculty members. Students also often take tutorials with their professors, either one-on-one or with up to two other students. A senior thesis is required, and thesis writers have the option to present their work in a public thesis defense.

Shimer students develop their capacity for critical thought and interpersonal communication through careful reading of the Great Books, which offer a unique enduring educational experience andsustain a life-long passion for learning. In these classes, everyone works together to make each meeting an adventure in intellectual discovery. If you like to read and think and have meaningful conversations, Shimer is the place for you. The Socratic, discussion-driven, method is the pedagogical norm.

As a Shimer student, you will become part of a community whose purpose is to explore the great works of the Western intellectual tradition that comprise the College’s core curriculum. By studying texts that are widely thought of as “classics,” you will take part in the Great Conversation of ideas that have shaped our world. You will learn to puzzle over and appreciate beauty, analyze theories, and grapple with old and complex problems that have challenged human thinkers for centuries.

Core readings include the works of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Descartes, Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Woolf in the humanities; Lucretius, Lavoisier, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Feynman in the natural sciences; and Machiavelli, Rousseau, De Tocqueville, Weber, Foucault, Freud, Du Bois, Wollstonecraft, De Beauvoir, and Arendt in the social sciences.

More than 50 percent of Shimer graduates go on to graduate and professional schools. In the early 1990’s, the Ph.D. rate for Shimer graduates was the highest in the nation among liberal arts colleges; and the third highest among all 4-year colleges and universities in the United States. Shimer still ranks in the top 1% of American colleges and universities in doctorate productivity. A survey by the Harvard Educational Review ranked Shimer as among the top eleven small liberal arts colleges in the United States.

Shimer programs include weekday classes for traditional-age students, weekend classes for working adults, study-abroad tutorials at Oxford, teacher development courses, and a senior audit option for mature citizens. In addition, Shimer College is most notable for its Early Entrant Program, which caters to bright high school students who have left high school prior to graduation, and are not currently being homeschooled. One in every five students is an early entrant, some coming on campus after completing only two years of high school. Many of the college’s top students either flunked or dropped out of other schools, but in Shimer’s stimulating atmosphere came back to intellectual life.

Applicants are strongly advised to take either the SAT or ACT exam, and early entrants are required to submit an ACT or SAT score for admission. However, there is no minimum grade-point average or minimum test score required for enrollment to Shimer College. Rather, essays and writing samples are the primary criteria used by the Admission Committee to make its evaluation.

Shimer is about education in the noblest sense of the word, with a love of Great Books being the common bond that unites all students. It’s a place to learn how to think, not what to think. It’s a place to develop a breadth of knowledge in the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences that is very rare in our age of specialization, yet extraordinarily useful in today’s ever-changing world. It’s that rare place where everyone’s views are valued, where careful and caring discussion and respect for difference are the rule, not the exception.

Lindsay concludes his letter by saying: “Parents often wonder whether a school that their child is considering is worth it. The time, the financial commitment, opportunities for the future, and much more are factored in to the college-selection process. It is the breadth and depth of our curriculum that sets us apart – and makes Shimer worth it…. Shimer is a remarkable place. I hope that you and your children decide together that this is the place to visit and consider.” Visit their website at

Updated: August 9, 2009 — 7:45 pm

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