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What is Shimer, I wondered, this barely heard-of college that’s so statistically terrible – the very zenith of terrible – and so loved? One comment I read was especially intriguing: ‘I’m unemployable, maybe, and debt-ridden, but it was worth it.’ I flew to Chicago.

Shimer College was founded in 1853 in Mount Carroll, an Illinois Prairie town. They’ve been battling various catastrophes for decades. The local train service was shut down in the 1970s, making their first campus untenably isolated and also – according to the New York Times – ‘a haven for drug users’. That nearly finished them off. But they scraped enough money together to move to Waukegan, Illinois in 1979, and now to Bronzeville. They offer only one core program, and just one teaching method. This is a ‘great books’ college. The great books of the western tradition, not the professors, are the teachers: Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Aristotle’s Poetics and Homer’s Odyssey and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity and Kafka and Derrida and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Machiavelli and Shakespeare and the Bible.

Textbooks about the great books are forbidden. That would be too easy. It is primary sources only here. Students can concentrate on humanities, or natural sciences, they can take electives in feminist theories, or Auden, or Zen masters, but it’s all great books and nothing else. There are no lectures. Each class takes the form of Socratic dialogue between the students, guided by a professor if necessary...

Shimer College: the worst school in America? | Education | The Guardian

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