Thursday, March 18, 2010

Letter from Mt. Carroll alumnus Russell Davis to Shimer trustee Joe Bast

Dear Mr. Bast,

I'm writing to you in your capacity as a trustee on the board of Shimer College. I appreciate your efforts on behalf of Shimer "to attempt to grow the college and improve the educational experience for its students," as you put it in your March 11th comment to the Chicago Reader. I feel sure that both you and President Lindsay are acting in good faith, with the best interests of the college at heart. I don't buy the conspiracy theory intimated by the Reader; rather there is simply a disagreement between reasonable persons. I might also add that I wholeheartedly agree that "political correctness" is not now nor ever has been a proper substitute for critical thinking about social issues.

In my experience with current Shimer students, on the other hand, I find they are inclined to reason cogently about issues rather than to take shelter behind slogans, whether fashionable or otherwise. I attribute this in equal measure to their own efforts at self-improvement, and to the skill with which the faculty at Shimer facilitate the process of dialogue and open inquiry in the classroom. Students are certainly not being taught to blindly imbibe any particular ideology, whether "left" or "right", statist or libertarian. Rather they are routinely encouraged to learn how to think independently, and to listen carefully to other viewpoints. Of course, the foundational insights embodied in the Great Books of western civilization are especially suited to further this process. Yet even the more modern original sources are used in exactly the same way: to stimulate free ranging discussion, never with any intent to advocate for particular ideas or values.

It is this inherently nourishing experience of rational dialogue and open inquiry that Shimer students are most anxious, indeed at times fervent, to safeguard and futher develop as they pursue their studies. It may well be that the current "crisis" over the mission statement has served to catalyze both students and faculty to think deeply about what they value most, what is most indispensible, in their educational experience. Surely this is all to the good. None of us want to see a student body that would "roll over and play dead" if they have acute misgivings about the direction President Lindsay would lead Shimer College. Do we?

If the issue at stake is the very nature of what constitutes a quality higher education - of its guiding purpose and the means that have been found practical to achieve this - then the most considered and careful deliberation is called for at this juncture. It seems to me that we all of us, President Lindsay, faculty, students, and trustees, have inherited a golden opportunity here to find our way out from the fire of contentiousness into the light of mutual understanding, in order to define a common purpose together. (While I happen to be an alumnus, I still consider myself a Shimer student.)

In order to effectively improve any situation, we must begin with due consideration for the full scope and essential nature of the activity defining that situation at present. For this reason alone, the recent dissent of students and faculty deserves to be taken seriously. Aren't they, the active participants in the academic process, well qualified to choose a description of their primary purpose and the means they use toward that end every day?

In conclusion, let me just suggest that if the board were to "untable" consideration of the nomination of new trustees at your next meeting in May, such action would go a long way toward eliminating spurious rumors about a "conspiracy" to confine study at Shimer within a narrow ideological agenda.


Russell Davis
Mt. Carroll alumnus

1 comment:

  1. Sounds very reasonable Russell. One might even say that it goes in the spirit of Thomas Friedman, better known as "The Prophet of the Obvious". Unfortunately, the actions taken so far by Lindsay, and the assorted board members who are either employed by Barre Seid or affiliated with organizations funded by him, do not support your contention that these people are "acting in good faith" -- unless you mean good faith to Mr. Seid.