Saturday, March 13, 2010

Comments Published in the Reader

On Thursday, March 11th, 2010, the Chicago Reader published two of the comments that followed the Reader's last article on Shimer, one by trustee Joe Bast, and another by a Shimer alum. Here they are in full, starting with Joe Bast:

I'm Joe Bast, the person who came up with the "Tired of Political Correctness?" slogan for the Shimer ads, one of the newer trustees on the Shimer board, and a person who urged Marsha Enright to offer a class on capitalism at Shimer. At the risk of causing some heads to explode, I'd like to respond to some of the statements made by others in earlier comments.

I'll start by thanking Deanna Isaacs for correctly quoting me in her article. But as others pointed out, in this article and her previous one on Shimer, she is mis-framing the conflict at the school. There is no "conspiracy" to take over the college, only an infusion of new trustees and new funding to attempt to grow the college and improve the educational experience for its students.

New trustees were elected by current trustees and are well qualified. President Lindsay is a highly qualified administrator and a scholar in his own right. Shimer's donor base is healthy and growing.

Current students and faculty obviously do not like what is taking place, but the president has devoted many hours to talking with them and their opinions have influenced his decisions, including the wording of the mission statement. Sometimes, dialogue doesn't result in your getting everything you want from the other party.

The "political correctness" ad that the Reader chose to reprint has been running for free in one of the Heartland Institute's five public policy newspapers, "School Reform News," for the past three years or so, before President Lindsay came on the scene. I picked the title, the text came from a Shimer flyer, and a graphic designer picked the photo of students.

Outside the hothouses of college campuses, political correctness is generally recognized as short-hand for the cult of victimization and attempts to rewrite history as a series of class, race, and gender power struggles. William Lind called it "cultural Marxism" and traced its roots back to the early 1900s in an interesting 2000 essay, [quoting] Marxist theorist George Lukas saying in 1919, "Who will save us from Western Civilization?" Lukas, according to Lind, "theorized that the great obstacle to the creation of a Marxist paradise was the culture: Western civilization itself." Which suggests to me that political correctness is an ideology at odds with what the Great Books College of Chicago should be teaching.

If current students don't recognize the difference between political correctness and Western Civilization, then there is some basis for worrying about what is being taught at Shimer. The fierce opposition to the new mission statement, apparently because it identifies individual liberty as one of the most important themes of Western Civilization and the American founding as an important event in history, is further evidence of a problem.

President Lindsay and many of the trustees have considerable knowledge about the texts that belong in a Great Books curriculum, more indeed than students who have just begun what will be a life-long learning process. To label their considered opinions and suggestions as some sort of plot to add, rather than remove, politics from Shimer classrooms is clever rhetoric, perhaps, but untrue.

A comment asked for the readings assigned for Marsha Enright's "Morality of Capitalism" class. It's a long list of authors that includes Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Locke, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Mill, Marx, Engels, Carl Menger, Max Weber, Herbert Croly, Veblen, Schumpeter, Hazlitt, Mises, Rand, Rawls, and Nozick. As survey courses go, this one may try to cover too much too fast. But nobody can say the list is stacked in favor of one perspective.

Student opposition to Enright's course is just one more piece of evidence that something is amiss at Shimer, and it's not to be found in the office of the president.

The Shimer alum's response:

Mr. Bast: Your organization, the Heartland Institute, has received over $1 million from the Barre Seid foundation, Shimer's former anonymous donor. Apparently, he's your largest all-time donor. He's also a major donor to many of Lindsay's recent trustees, as well as the employer of two. If connections like these don't compel your imagination that there's a conspiracy, perhaps we should talk instead about "conflict of interest." Did you, perchance, acknowledge this conflict when you filled out your disclosure forms for becoming a trustee at Shimer College? Are you capable of independent judgment while so powerfully beholden to to such an interest?

I'm not interested in your arguments on the subject of political correctness. To me they are simply a smoke screen for the real issue Shimer faces: Tom Lindsay and his radical trustee cronies' attempt to remake Shimer to suit their particular ideological image with no concern for the character, history, traditions, and community which have defined Shimer until now. Lindsay can have as many open meetings as he'd like, but until he learns to listen to the community rather than his pre-established ideological vision of higher education, he will fail as Shimer's president.

As a Shimer alum I've had classes with people like Lindsay: people who thought so highly of their own opinions that they were unable to hear what others were saying; people who couldn't help but reinterpret everything anyone said through their own narrow ideological lens. If they were too stubborn, they would eventually quit the college as it became increasingly clear that they were boring their classmates and nobody was interested in hearing their repetitive, predictable comments. Many times, typically by the second or third year, they'd learn to question their own opinions and presuppositions, and thus open the door to a more substantial and authentic understanding of what it means to dialogue. They'd cultivate a sense—dare I say like Socrates?—of humility and, therewith, the ability to really learn.

The reason Lindsay has failed as Shimer's president is because he doesn't understand this. He has and continues to arrogantly disregard the opinions of the faculty, students, and alumni, making it impossible for him to manage the institution effectively. This might not matter somewhere else. But at Shimer it does, and it should.

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