On 19 April, the board of trustees of Shimer College in Chicago, by an 18 to 16 vote, ousted Dr. Thomas Lindsay from the presidency after little more than a year of service. For sixty years, tiny Shimer (about ten faculty and 100 students) has touted itself as a Great Books college on the Robert Maynard Hutchins plan. Students converse about the content of texts with one another, guided by a professorial facilitator employing the Socratic method. The experience, it was believed, would “sustain a life-long passion for learning.” Accordingly, Shimer constructed and reconstructed its mission statement to reflect—and to extend— Hutchins’s ideals. Since 1996, the ambitious Shimer educational experience purported to prepare students for “active citizenship,” not just in the United States, but “in the world.” After four years of matriculation, Shimer’s graduates would learn to shun “passivity” for “responsible action” by moving “beyond either unquestioning acceptance of authority or its automatic mistrust.”
Dr. Lindsay came to Shimer from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) where he served as deputy director and oversaw We the People, a well-regarded program designed “to encourage and enhance the teaching, study, and understanding of American history, culture, and democratic principles.” There he attracted national attention with impressive publications and lectures on how to teach the principles of the founding to the American people. Inaugurated as Shimer’s thirteenth president In January 2009, he set to work trying to elevate an institution possessed of noble goals but gasping from slipping standards, radical egalitarian governance structures, a bare-cupboard endowment, and a long history of financial distress, including several bankruptcies. Re-accreditation itself was hanging in the balance. Dr. Lindsay expanded to thirty-four the number of sitting members on the board of trustees to include educators and philanthropists who could help Shimer out of its chronic fiscal woes. Raising money in good times requires persistence and long hours to persuade prospective donors. During a recession, the task can seem Sisyphean. Dr. Lindsay says he spent two out of every three days during his first year at Shimer on the road with tin cup in hand.
Many at Shimer made known their dislike of Dr. Lindsay from the outset. Despite his obvious relish for the Great Books, many saw him as an outsider with a suspicious agenda. They complained when they discerned that he might be moving to make the founding documents of the United States more central to a Shimer education. In The Federalist Papers, a work that Dr. Lindsay would have liked Shimer’s undergraduates to read cover to cover, Publius devotes the majority of the eighty-five essays to the republican character of the Constitution. Of the two species of popular government, republicanism had refining, insulating features that democracy did not. In fact, in The Federalist Papers, the word democracy appears less than a dozen times and when discussed in its pure form draws a pejorative contrast. In a society composed of a small number of persons, Publius warns, the “citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” and they “are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues” of others. One would be hard-pressed to find in the United States an institution of higher learning with a more radically egalitarian and democratic structure than Shimer’s. Three faculty members and two students sit as voting members on the board of trustees. Shimer’s representative assembly consists of all students, faculty, and staff, with one vote each. Dominated by activist students, the assembly has set itself up as the moral authority of the college, and members reference the Assembly’s majority votes as if they were exquisite expressions of Rousseau’s general will. When dissidents protested that Dr. Lindsay was not sufficiently steeped in Shimer’s traditions read that he refused to kow-tow to the majoritarian voice of the predominant element in Shimer’s Assembly.
Continue reading The Cave-Dwellers of Shimer