The established orthodoxy holds that the ideal classroom experience is a discussion-centered format with a small class size. This approach is supposed to facilitate “active learning” on the part of students, which is the only way to actually change their deeper thought patterns. Among its other benefits, this model also helps them to become better readers, as the kind of critical engagement we’re looking for is practiced in the classroom, with on-the-spot feedback and guidance from the professor.
Many educators have concluded, based on their experience, that this model simply isn’t realistic. Students aren’t engaged enough to make it work, and they feel ripped off at having to listen to each other when there’s an expert standing right there — thus teaching evaluations tend to reward more authoritarian, lecture-centric approaches. My first couple years of teaching inclined me in that direction as well.
Since arriving at Shimer College, I’ve changed my mind. The reason the ideal model doesn’t seem to work is that no one is actually doing it. They give lip-service to it, but at best it’s a half-assed supplement to more traditional models. What Shimer does is essentially to throw the students into the deep end of the pool — all their classes, no matter what the subject, are small, discussion-centric classes. They have to figure out how to be productive members of such a learning community, if only because half of their grade comes from class participation.
It can be pretty rough in the first-year courses, especially toward the beginning — though the difference between the first and second semester is already remarkable. It’s also the case that not everyone “makes it.” But for those who stick with it, the progress is often amazing. By their third year, students are collaboratively figuring out how to work through texts that I never would have thought they could even find a way into — for instance, some of my best discussions last semester were over Teresa of Avila, which is impressive in a room full of mostly secular students.
The key to the model, it seems to me, is that it is simultaneously text-centered. Shimer is probably one of the most liberal Great Books schools out there, with a much greater emphasis on contemporary texts — for instance, the capstone Humanities course includes more Irigaray than you could possibly imagine — and a greater emphasis on differentiating between disciplines than St. John’s, which is often regarded as the archetypal Great Books school. So we’re not making big ontological claims about the Western Tradition, etc. (not to say that St. John’s is either, but early advocates of the Great Books curriculum certainly were). What the Great Books framing allows us to do is to get past the “why are we reading this” syndrome: students may not “like” Plato, but few are going to be so arrogant as to claim that Plato isn’t worthy of attention. Even if they don’t connect with a text personally, it’s generally going to be the kind of thing that one really “should” read.
More important is what the textual focus does to the classroom: it provides a shared point of reference and a standard of relevance. The things that people hate about discussion sessions is basically the bullshitting, the free-associative nonsense spouted by people concerned primarily with getting their “participation points.” The textual focus gets us away from the students’ own arbitrary opinions and puts us on the track of something that we have in common: a desire to figure out what the hell is going on in this text. Over time, students understand that this is their chance to figure that out, and they begin to hold each other accountable for things like textual support.
Shimer’s approach isn’t perfect, of course, and it probably wouldn’t work for everyone — there is a certain degree of attrition among first-year students that testifies to that. It also helps that the student body is somewhat self-selecting, as a good majority of the students are those who explicitly found more traditional methods unsatisfying. In any case, they know what they’re getting into, and they’re actively choosing it over other alternatives. I wouldn’t dare try to make the case that every school in the world should adopt the Shimer method.
What I think Shimer does show, however, is that if you’re going to implement the ideal model, you have to really do it. The style of learning presupposed by that model is like a foreign language to most students, and you can’t learn a foreign language in a couple half-hour sessions per week — you have to do full immersion.