So you want to know about the Humanities at Shimer College. I’m David Shiner, a member of the Shimer faculty. I’ve taught all the required Humanities courses many times, as well as offering a number of elective courses over the years. I’d like to help you understand how we handle the Humanities at Shimer.
There are four Humanities courses that are required for every Shimer student seeking the Bachelor of Arts degree. The subject areas of the Humanities include literature, art, religion, music, and philosophy. These are inexhaustible areas of study, all different and unique in many ways. They touch the mind and the heart – perhaps more the former for philosophy and the latter for music, but generally speaking the works of the Humanities engage our whole being. They are therefore of vital importance for the liberally-educated person, which is to say the Shimer-educated student.
The so-called “lower level” courses, which you will probably take during your first year at Shimer, are Humanities 1 and 2. Humanities 1 features art and music; Humanities 2 explores the many faces of imaginative literature. By the way, don’t be fooled by the numbering; you can take these courses in either order, as is the case with all the 1’s and 2’s at Shimer.
Let’s suppose that you take Humanities 1 in your first semester, as most students do. You’ll begin by reading some short works that offer ideas about the nature of art, authored by such major thinkers as the philosopher Plato, the novelist Leo Tolstoy, and the fiction writer Franz Kafka. You’ll discuss these works in class, of course – we discuss everything at Shimer. Then you’ll settle into the study of actual works of art, which will include trips to the nearby Art Institute of Chicago. You and your classmates will develop a common language for expressing your responses to these masterpieces. Once the art section of the course is complete, you’ll handle music similarly, listening to selected masterworks and developing an understanding of how music creates its effects. All of these studies will prepare you for the final course of the sequence, Humanities 4 – but more on that later.
Having completed Humanities 1, you will then take Humanities 2, our required literature course (although literature is featured in many other Shimer courses as well). Humanities 2 provides an introduction to a number of literary forms. We begin the course with Homer’s great epic, The Odyssey (his other masterpiece, The Iliad, is studied later in the curriculum). Then we read and discuss a multitude of high-quality plays, poetry, and prose fiction. The section on poetry includes an examination of various poetic forms, for example the sonnet. As is characteristic at Shimer, this study is not intended to foster rote learning, but rather to help us appreciate why poets structure their poems as they do and how such structures are likely to affect us. In other words, form is as important as content in the works we study in Humanities 2.
After completing Humanities 2 you’ll be ready for the “upper-level” Humanities courses. You’ll take the first of them, Humanities 3, about midway through your course of study at Shimer. Humanities 3 features works of philosophy, religion, and theology. We begin with the timeless dialogues of Plato and conclude with works written by some of the most important and insightful thinkers of the 17thcentury: Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, and John Locke. In between, we study some of the chapters of the Bible as well as the works of a number of major philosophers and religious thinkers throughout the ages. This course follows the early courses in the Humanities sequence because it assumes that we will now be sensitive to literary and artistic devices and references, ones that might have escaped us had we not already completed Humanities 1 and 2.
Humanities 4 is the final course of the sequence, taken only after the previous three courses have been successfully completed. We call it a “capstone” course, because it revisits all the disciplines studied in Humanities 1, 2, and 3 and extends our understanding of the Humanities still further. (The other 4-level courses, Natural Sciences 4 and Social Sciences 4, serve the same purpose in their respective sequences.)
We begin Humanities 4 where we left off at the end of Humanities 3, studying works from the 18th century up until our own time. The intent of the course is to unify the previous Humanities courses by approaching all of the areas of the Humanities in a more theoretical fashion. Thus, for example, in Humanities 1 we discussed what a particular painting meant; in Humanities 4 we read and discuss theories about the nature of aesthetics, on what painting itself means. Similarly, we will explore how musical syntax is or is not like prosaic or poetic syntax. In short, we’ll approach the whole area of the Humanities at a deeper level than in the earlier courses. And, of course, we’ll be referring back to the works we studied earlier regularly during this course.
Once you’ve completed all four of the core (required) courses in the Humanities, you will have delved into each of its areas quite deeply. You will then be prepared for more advanced study, which will be particularly important if you intend to major in the Humanities. Shimer regularly offers elective courses in literature and philosophy, and occasionally in theology and art. A number of foreign languages are also offered regularly, including the classic languages, Greek and Latin. Those who are interested in advanced courses in music are welcome to take them by means of cross-registration at the VanderCook School of Music, a couple of short blocks from Shimer.
By the time you complete the core Humanities sequence, you will have encountered some of the most awe-inspiring figures in intellectual and artistic history. Plato. Aristotle. Homer. Shakespeare. Michelangelo. Picasso. Bach. Mozart. Beethoven. Saint Augustine. Descartes. Locke. The list goes on and on, and every one is well worth reading, viewing, or hearing. And, of course, discussing.
The Humanities area is one of the supreme attractions of the academic life at Shimer. Shimer students love to read, and more of them love to read literary and philosophical works than any other kind. More of our graduates receive their degrees in the Humanities than in the two other areas of the curriculum combined. While we’re very proud of our entire curriculum, we are also aware that the Humanities occupy a special place in the hearts of many Shimerians. Simply put, if you want to delve deeply into the diverse and endlessly fascinating areas of the Humanities in the company of similarly-inclined students and teachers, Shimer is the place to do it.