Monday, February 8, 2010

Tom's Problems with the Mission Statement

By this point, most of us have heard Tom's main arguments for rewriting the mission statement. "A mission statement," Tom repeats like a broken record, "should say three things: who we are, what we do, and why it matters." With that in mind, his problems with the mission statement are threefold. First, there is his Aristotelian qualm; that phrasing "education for active citizenship" implicitly places our education in the service of something else, thus marking its inferiority (" the way that all means are inferior to their respective ends," says Tom). Secondly, "active citizenship," to Tom, is a "catch-all" phrase that could be taken to mean anything and also precludes the possibility of the "contemplative life." Thirdly, he sees "liberal education" as the quest for "intellectual liberty" or “freedom of the mind,” that is, freedom from unexamined assumptions, and he wants our mission statement to reflect that. The naming of the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Federalist in our mission statement is motivated by the assertion that "to be true to our quest, we examine the context in which our inquiry takes place." The truth is that I could go on and on about any single sentence that comes out of Tom's mouth, picking apart every single problem that I have with his claims, the way he appropriates general (and often mis- or selectively interpreted) ideas in the Great Books, and even his word choice. But since I can't focus 100% of my time on resisting Tom's takeover, here I will discuss some of the arguments that have come up against his mission statement suggestions.

Whether or not you're a fan of Aristotle's causes -- or their sloppy application to political issues -- what's clear is that Shimer does indeed define its education in relation to a larger picture. Part of the evidence of this is the recent report released by the Assembly's self-study committee, which was charged with evaluating the community stance on the mission statement. According to their report, every submission either supported the current mission statement or suggested only the need for minor revisions. Of the suggested mission statements that were submitted, all of them included the terms "responsible action" or "active citizenship." While many expressed “strong opposition to changing the mission statement,” not a single submission expressed support for Tom's “guideposts.” And of course, in a near-unanimous vote, the assembly recently affirmed support for the current mission statement.

Though the vote at Assembly was a conscious political move, the loud and clear community support of our college's mission statement is not superficial. In his open letter to faculty member Stuart Patterson, faculty member and trustee Steven Werlin writes:

[Our mission statement] both links us to our long history and says something about a view of the role of dialogical education that's worth sustaining. It links us to our history by proposing "active citizenship" as a way to understand that Shimer tries to teach us "Not to be served, but to serve." Shimer's motto [the preceding quote] specifies a certain type of engagement with the world around us as being at the heart of what we do. We are to serve, or to learn to serve. It frames the role of our College very differently, for example, from the way the motto of our siblings in Annapolis and Santa Fe frames theirs. St. John's asserts through its motto that it makes young people free. Shimer is different. Our motto is a goal, not a statement of what it is we do, and that goal is service.

Indeed, mission statements and traditions that coincide with Werlin's sentiment date back a very long way. Part of Shimer's uniqueness is the fact that despite our arguably dated approach to education, we think of our education as just one part of our role in society.

Unfortunately, Tom refuses to acknowledge or come to know what makes Shimer unique. When I asked what he saw as the mission of Shimer at Tuesday's meeting, Tom replied, "I agree with the first line of the mission statement -- that the mission of Shimer is liberal education." I had to correct him right away, since the mission statement's first line uses only the term "education," not "liberal education." The major issue, as Tom made explicit during the meeting, is that "Shimer" and "liberal education" are indistinguishable ideas. The first time this issue hit me in the face was when Heath and I interviewed Tom for our newspaper “Promulgates,” during which he said that our distinguishing features are our previous employment of the Hutchins plan and our ability to cross register at IIT.

It's pretty obvious – to us at least – that Shimer sets itself apart from other Great Books colleges. If Shimer was just a B-grade version of St. Johns, why would anyone come here? Without going into every single trait that distinguishes us from other colleges, I can say that framing our education towards "active citizenship" is one of them – something that's solidified in our college's democratic governance. The latest edition of our newspaper, "Promulgates," includes a section of open letters by alumni who powerfully support the value of the college's Assembly. In his letter, alumnus, former staff member, and one of the 6 "tabled" nominees to the board, Erik Badger, writes,

When you put it all together, a Shimer education reveals itself not only as an academic or intellectual project. It is a political and social one, too. At our best, we not only introduce students to powerful, liberating ideas, but we cultivate the habits and skills that prepare them to meaningfully participate in and, if they see fit, transform their world. In this way, Shimer education offers not only a theoretical, but a practical education in democracy. For some time now, this has separated Shimer from other so-called “great books” programs. Indeed, it's what makes us unique.

But regardless of the historically and community backed ideas in the mission statement, Tom feels entitled to change it based on his own specious philosophical grounds. According to Tom, anything could be considered active citizenship -- but he also feels that the phrase excludes the possibility of the “contemplative life.” It doesn't take a genius to see that these two problems are contradictory, since if the term is all encompassing, then it would include the "contemplative life." More importantly, Shimer doesn't educate people so that they can sit in an ivory tower, “wallowing in their truth,” as student Erik Boneff put it during Assembly -- but this is how Tom thinks of Shimer. You can hear that every time he describes “liberal education” as the “superior education,” or refers to people who haven't read Aristotle as “mere culture-beings.” And just take the way he describes “freedom of the mind,” for example. When explaining “freedom of the mind” – which he also calls “the highest kind of freedom” – he often references the allegory of the cave, in which the philosopher emerges from the cave, “free of unexamined assumptions.” But as alumnus Bill Arnold pointed out at Tuesday's meeting, the allegory doesn't end there. The philosopher goes back into the cave to live amongst the “unenlightened.” While incredibly important to us, Shimer is a tiny school, and unheard of by many. To think of our education here as a mark of our superiority over the rest of society, one that turns us into some sort of free-minded super-beings, is not only arrogant but preposterous.

Finally is Tom's argument that including the founding American documents in the mission statement provides context. But citing the founding documents in a mission statement to the exclusion of the rest of our core has significant political implications, as those provide only one specific context and appeal to people who understand U.S. politics a certain way. Were he possessed with a greater familiarity with the Shimer curriculum and method, Tom might understand that Shimer's discourse isn't directly situated in America's founding documents. Were he less vehemently opposed to post-modern analyses of discourse, he might also understand that there are more aspects to the political context in which we live than the words penned by the founders. Regardless of how Tom supposes the mission statement will be read by an external audience, name-dropping the U.S. documents is contrary to our entire approach to education. We don't privilege one single context – or one text, for that matter – over others; we take as many viewpoints as possible seriously and evaluate them on their own terms. Name-dropping the U.S. documents in our mission statement would simply misrepresent Shimer.

These are just a few of the ways that you can pick apart Tom's arguments. Unfortunately, the debate itself isn't the issue at hand. At a school where sincere dialog is our highest ideal, we find ourselves being swiftly trampled on by a President, anonymous donor, and fraudulently recruited trustees who aren't interested in listening. If Tom wanted to craft a mission statement that reflects who we are, what we do, and why it matters, he should have listened to the students, faculty, staff, and alumni sitting around him, vehemently opposing his proposed changes. Any student that has attended Shimer for a week has sat in the classroom for longer than Tom has, and it shows -- he has yet to make a single credible argument in support of how his mission statement suggestions would better reflect the college or garner any community support. This is on top of the fact that he has yet to substantially draw funds from anyone other than the anonymous donor -- who either funds the organizations of or employs all of Tom's recruited trustees. Tom's philosophical quibbles with our mission statement are simply time-buying tools that glaze over his malicious plan to dominate and transform Shimer College. While he isn't interested in a collaborative effort to further our school's mission, he is interested in our charter and accreditation, and he is establishing the power to steal them.


  1. Wait, I don't get it -- the same guy is touting his success at "civic education," and simultaneously opposing the idea that this is supposed to guide you to "active citizenship"? What exactly does he think "civic" means? Because it seems like he thinks it means masturbating into a wad of Federalist Papers, in a room by yourself, while someone else makes decisions for you.

    And if it's important that we not exclude the possibility of the "contemplative life," why the hell should the founding American documents be so relevant. It seems like political context is more or less irrelevant to a contemplative life, and if you really want to consider that a valid option, we should be able to replace, say, the Constitution with, say, the writings of Catholic mystics.

    The guy's all over the place. It seems like his problem is really with a bottom-up conception of politics, where people get the idea that their involvement with democracy should be organizing rather than just reading the works of dead white guys.

    Good stuff, man. Keep it up.

  2. Oh Shimer, I mourn for you.

    Right now, I have taken the skills I learned at Shimer, those of really examining what is said and what is going on around me, and I apply them to mental health care. But I don't do it merely as a thought experiment, I do it with the goal of making a difference in mental health care for future patients. That is part of why I think Shimer, under its current mission statement, is so valuable. I got the enjoyment of the learning and the reading and the discussing, I honed my skills in discourse and in examining and creating arguments, and I went on to apply those skills to a matter of social justice that is near and dear to me.

    I am very very proud to be a Shimerian under the current mission statement. I don't know that I could be such a proud Shimerian under Tom's proposed mission statement. His arguments for his mission statement seem actively contradictory to what he claims it to mean. I believe Shimerians are more careful than that, and when Shimerians make mistakes like that and they are pointed out, often by other Shimerians, they admit their mistake and continue on their business of understanding in a genuine way. Sometimes egos get bruised, but we get on with things. Tom does not appear interested in genuine understanding based on his interactions with the Shimer community and that makes me suspect of his understanding of texts and of what would happen were his mission statement adopted. Would he suddenly change what he claims it to mean? He claims it fits Shimer now, but later would he point to it to claim that Shimer, by not changing X or Y, is not living up to its mission statement?

    I think he should take a Shimer class; I can't think of any non-nefarious objection he could have, as the president.