On Father's day weekend in 1993, I attended a reunion of the alumni of my alma mater, Shimer College, held at its former campus in rural Mount Carroll, Illinois. The academic quadrangle looked much the same as when I last saw it in 1969, although most of the buildings were considerably the worse for wear. I wasn't terribly surprised at that; after all, the burden of maintaining them had forced Shimer to sell the campus to a nonprofit foundation and move to Waukegan.
The years had left their mark as well on the gathered alumni, most of whom were of approximately my era. We were young adults when last we met; now some are grandparents. Somehow, though, a quarter-century seemed to melt away as we so easily slipped back into the role of students: living in a dorm, playing cards until midnight, debating the problems of the world.
As pleasant as it was, the ease with which we returned to those days had an ominous aspect; obviously, it wasn't all that long ago, and yet our youth is behind us. To be sure, so far we have mostly managed to stave off the dire effects of aging. For example, in the impromptu volleyball game in the gym, I was the unofficial team captain, which would have been unthinkable during my student days; even better, I was able to play a fairly vigorous game for 45 minutes without losing my breath, which I would probably not have been able to do at 18. Still, barring miraculous advances in medicine, the next 25 years will take the remainder of our best years, and find us well into the province of old age. Will they fly by as the past 25 have done?
I pondered this question and others, as I lay awake through most of that Saturday night and Sunday morning, listening to the mournful hooting of the train that no longer stops at Mount Carroll and the liquid cries of the birds outside the window of the dorm room that I shared for the weekend with a former roommate. The fragrant breeze from the greenery outside added its own subliminal cues, opening up long-dormant vistas of the past.
In this beloved place, I made the perilous passage from childhood into adulthood. Besides the obvious intellectual challenge, here was my first introduction into the mysteries of sex, as well as those of mind-altering substances; after all, it was the late sixties! All but a handful of my earliest friends were Shimer students, and some of my best friends still are. As I move, willy-nilly, through the shoals of middle age, I cannot help but look back in wonder on how young and foolish we were. Yet most of us have made our way through life safe so far; how much is due to the Shimer experience, and how much is due to providence, we may never know. At that time, I had been plagued by doubts as to whether my life has been worthwhile, and questioned what I wanted to accomplish with my remaining years on this earth; I suppose it was inevitable that these doubts were reignited by revisiting this place evocative of my youth.
At about three AM, wanting some companionship other than my sleeping roommate, I padded downstairs in my bathrobe to see if anyone else was awake. One of my motivations was simply that I knew that this was one of the very few places in the world where no one would even notice that I wasn't attired for company. After all, we were all kindred spirits, even more so than we had been many years before; the bittersweet bonds of nostalgia held us together for our brief reliving of the days of carefree youth. There I found a former classmate whom I had not known well while we were students together. We discussed other topics for awhile, and then she said that she was going to get some much needed sleep; however, when I became downcast at this prospect, she asked me what was the matter. At that, I confided my spiritual malaise to her and found her very kind and easy to talk to, although she of course had no answers to give me. Nevertheless, her concern and caring helped me through this particular phase of my personal crisis.
The college, too, is in crisis, although of a financial nature. It has never had much of an endowment, and as noted above had been forced to sell the Mount Carroll campus and move to Waukegan. The support of the alumni, never very generous, had been reduced even more by this seeming desecration of their memories. During the reunion, we addressed this problem in archetypical Shimer fashion: an open discussion chaired by the Chairman of the Board of Shimer. The challenge was to define the essence of a college. Is it the physical location, the people we remember, or the spirit of inquiry that made (and makes) Shimer unique?
While memories of my youth and that of my contemporaries will always be of the Mount Carroll campus, the essence is in the method. What makes Shimer unique is dedication to the truth, to be found by free and open inquiry and discussion. Shimer has always been a school of small classes, usually 12 to 15 students, sitting around a table discussing the great works of Western philosophy, literature, and science. There are no enormous lecture halls, multiple-choice exams, or artificially rigid "right" answers. In order to graduate, you have to pass comprehensive examinations, composed of essay questions. While the curriculum has changed somewhat since I was a student, these fundamental attributes are still in place.
Even so, the old alumni and the new Shimer are not connected as we should be. To help heal this rift, I plan to visit the Waukegan campus and talk to the current teachers and students, mostly the latter. I know that 25 years ago, I would have been very interested in hearing how my predecessors at Shimer had fared after school, had there been alumni that had partaken of the same curriculum. But there is one question I must be able to answer before I am ready to meet the students. That question, of course, is: what did I get out of Shimer?
I wrestled with this question a large part of the reunion weekend; this was the other large question that kept me awake Saturday night. However, it wasn't until after I had arrived home that I had an answer: the knowledge that I was not alone. There were others who lived the life of the mind, others who were willing to hear others' arguments against their most prized conclusions. Extremely bright people, such as those making up the student body of Shimer, have always been resented and reviled; they are the true "oppressed class" in society. Even a normally pro-achievement magazine such as National Review is capable of running a supposedly amusing article entitled "The Resentment of Genius", (July 5, 1993), in which the author, obviously not a genius himself, mocks and trivializes the anguish suffered by those who are far more intellectually capable than those around them. More recently, The Bell Curve, a book that dares to discuss the fact that IQ is very heavily correlated with success in American society, has been savagely attacked as "pseudo-science", even though no serious observer of humanity can fail to acknowledge the correctness of its basic premise. The atmosphere could not be more different at Shimer, where intellectual excellence is the norm, not something to be hidden or denigrated.
The openness to new ideas and arguments extends even to the realm of politics. Most of my alumni contemporaries are extremely liberal politically, whereas I am extremely libertarian; however, contrary to my usual experience in attempting to discuss politics with non-libertarians, I found that my arguments for radical individual freedom were considered rather than rejected out of hand. If only such generosity of spirit were more common in society!
Since that time, I have resumed contact with a number of my old
classmates, and have been newly surprised at the ease with which
have resumed our old conversations. I do not intend to let these
friendships slip away again, if only because of the difficulty of
finding people with whom I have so much in common. Of course, one
where such people might be found is on Shimer's new campus. After
to those who treasure the intellect, age and other surface
are much less important than the person under the skin.