The last time I checked in with Shimer College, late last year, the tiny, fiercely independent Great Books school was embroiled in a battle over what some saw as a right-wing attempt to take over its board and administration. That battle is still raging, with a couple new developments: a "first step" toward creating a politically conservative college within the Shimer shell and the revelation of a financial nexus that appears to be funding controversial changes.
This semester, for the first time, Shimer is offering a class called "The Morality of Capitalism," devised and taught by new adjunct faculty member Marsha Familaro Enright along with Shimer professor James Donovan. Enright announced the class in December on the Web site of the Reason Individualism Freedom Institute, described as "the foundation for the College of the United States." She also noted there that she landed the teaching gig after she was referred to Shimer's new president, Thomas Lindsay, a Bush-era deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, by Herbert Walberg, chairman of the "free-market" think tank the Heartland Institute.
Enright wrote, "When I conceived this ambitious project five years ago, skeptics—even close friends—insisted that the notion of starting a new college from scratch was crazy or impossible. . . . Now, despite the naysayers, we're well on our way.
"Following what I anticipate will be a successful 'test run' with this course, we're aiming to expand our relationship and develop a dedicated institute to operate The College within Shimer.
"We will offer selections from the College of the United States curriculum to students of Shimer and [the Illinois Institute of Technology]. Then we'll proceed toward our goal of establishing the College of the United States as a full-time, accredited institution of higher learning."
Enright argues that a new college is needed because "ignorance, anemic reasoning skills, and collectivist ideas are pervasive in higher education" and only "those trained in the art of objective reasoning, and certain of its grounding in what's true and right, can effectively combat this plague." The College of the United States will offer a "curriculum that demonstrates the virtues of Western culture, capitalism, and markets."
According to Enright, that curriculum will use the Great Books and Socratic seminars, as Shimer does, while also extending the "Montessori concept of education up to the college level."
She says her motives are educational rather than political. But Daniel Merchán—a Shimer alum, class of 2009—says he and others are "increasingly angry at the autocratic direction that the president and the stacked half of the board seem to be taking." Board membership has more than doubled in the last couple of years and many of the newcomers are affiliated with politically right-leaning groups. Merchán says he became particularly interested in the Heartland Institute, which is run by one of those new members, Joseph Bast, when he noticed a headline reading "Tired of Political Correctness?" on an ad for Shimer in a newsletter published by Heartland.