Mugged By a Ratings System Designed for Someone Else

The English journalist Jon Ronson, best known here as the author whose The Men Who Stare at Goats the Coen brothers turned into a movie, asks whether a small great books college deserves the Washington Monthly‘s criticism that it’s the worst college in America. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Shimer College in Chicago and know about it only I’ve just read in Ronson’s articles and a few pieces found in a quick google search, but it seems to have been mugged by a ratings system not designed to a school so eccentric.

What Ronson suggests is that being different costs them. The magazine’s ratings systems has nothing to do with academic quality . It  isn’t designed for a school that different from the norm and is hard on schools that struggle financially. Even liberals homogenize.

Right now, on their website they brand themselves as ‘very small’ and ‘focused’ and ‘rigorous’, and geographically close to ‘endless archives of unadulterated information’. They make themselves sound like a monastery. They also say: ‘We count among us prodigies who left high school early, homeschoolers, transfers, veterans, sci-fi writers, multi-linguists, painters, philosophers, contrarians, misfits, and the double-jointed’.

. . . “What we do at Shimer,” he [Albert Fernandez, a professor of cultural history and humanitiess] says, “is difficult. It’s difficult to sit in a small room with six or eight students and have your beliefs challenged. If a school is hard to graduate from for reasons to do with an attempt at educational quality – that should be taken into account. The writer said nothing about that.”

A look of fury crosses his face, at the thought of Shimer being penalized for what makes it great. He says a lot of places that top those best colleges lists are the opposite of difficult. They’re undemanding. “If you’re going to take education seriously you can’t have a system where the objective is to make it as easy as possible to get through.”

As it happens, Shimer is ranked only sixteenth on the Washington Monthly‘s list. It is first only when the weighting of the graduation rate for minority and low-income students was included. Which, of course, is precisely where a small struggling school without much money will do badly, no matter how good the education. In his concluding remarks, the writer nevertheless suggests that the colleges on his list are simply bad schools, and maybe most or almost all of them are, but his way of ranking them doesn’t prove that. It’s all statistics and no reporting or reflection.

For other evaluations of the college: The New York Times ran a flattering story on the college in 2007 and a much older appreciation published in the weekly “alternative” newspaper The Chicago Reader in 1988. The student reviews on College Confidential are mostly good and very good — even from some who left, whose leaving is all the Washington Monthly‘s ratings cared about.

 

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