Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What seems a lifetime ago I taught a handful of students from Shimer College as part of their Oxford Programme. I can remember their faces & enthusiasm (& excruciatingly bad prose) as well as the conversations - but the names ... sadly no. A Kelly, an Eric maybe? Strange to think they'll be in their mid-forties by now.

Strange, too, to read that Shimer has been rated as the "worst college in America" (at least according to an article in The Guardian). The usual caveats apply but it really does seem that the institution is struggling - numbers dwindling, the educational philosophy out of synch with the times.

I remember being struck by the earnestness & unabashed confidence with which they talked about ideas it would be fair to say they barely understood. I mentioned Beckett - "oh yeah, we did him last year in Nothingness". The Hundred Great Books (the very concept jarred with my Critical Theory riddled intellectual soul) were ploughed through at an alarming rate.

However, without Kelly & his mates I might never have realised Talking Heads were worth a listen. & how a farewell remark by their supervisor - "you know, they really dug your classes - you should teach" - lodged somewhere despite all the denials that were screaming in my head & perhaps began to shape a future of which I was utterly unaware.

Since then I have taught many generations of students & found almost without exception that the ones I warm to are the 'oddballs' - the very characters to which a college such as Shimer offers a home.

In a university climate which is increasingly determined by student-consumer 'value for money', career advancement, cynical self-promotion - or pure hedonism - maybe Shimer is exactly what's needed. Dispense with the secondary texts. Read for yourself. Have an opinion. Connect what's on the page with your life. Care about ideas.

Isn't that what going to college is really all about? ...

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