I recently finished The Glass Hotel, Emily St John Mandel’s wonderful novel about a Ponzi scheme, international shipping, prestige hotels, guilt, and ghosts. One idea that she and her characters wrestle with is that of the “counter-life” — the life a person could have been living had they made a different set of decisions. To some of the characters their counter-lives begin to feel as real as their own, taunting them from afar. Those characters involved in a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme consider their counter-lives had they taken a different job, gone to the authorities, or fled the country when the jig was up.

I can’t be alone in occasionally dwelling on a particular set of my own counter-lives. I can identify many pivotal decisions I have made (none of them criminal), but being a mathematician I cannot help but wonder what kind of life or person I would be had I chosen a different academic discipline. If my mathematical education has dramatically shaped the person I am — which is not obvious at all — then the implications are even more profound than the professional life I would pursued or my material circumstances. I would see the world differently.

I might as well entertain the most radical possibilities. Of course, life would have been different if I had continued to study physics, or even more so if I’d gone off to art school. But it’s the Shimer Great Books School that really makes me think.

I was first introduced to Shimer College by Jon Ronson, writing back in 2014 after Shimer had been ranked bottom in a survey of America’s colleges. Ronson discovered that the college wasn’t bad, but suffered because its singular vision of education, lack of the usual accoutrements of American college life, and its very small size left it badly served by the survey metrics. The singular vision was a complete dedication to studying the canon of literature, otherwise known as the “great books”.

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.

This is very much not how most higher education works. If the Shimer curriculum is to believed and understood at face value, they actually read Newton’s Principia, presumably with pre-Leibniz notation (but not it Latin, surely). They read Darwin’s Origin of the Species over a modern understanding of the science. And they read da Vinci’s Notebooks, which I’m not entirely certain has any kind of easy comparison. Engineering textbooks?

The real draw of a great books course is exposure to foundational texts of the humanities. Books that most of us know of principally through their reputations; books that are believed to be a bedrock of a well cultured intellect. Not having read these books niggles away at me, like a known dietary deficiency that I cannot get around to addressing.

I’m not the only one to have felt this way. Last year Naomi Kanakia wrote an incredible essay analyzing and deconstructing her own relationship to the canon. Having dedicated nearly a decade of her life to doing the reading in her own time she discovered that very few people, especially those with an ostensibly fancy education, had actually read any the great books. Kanakia explains that it is a myth that the elite — political, pedaligical, cultural — are well read in the Western canon:

Moreover, when intellectuals, particularly academics, bewail the cheapening of elite education, there’s an almost comical element to their complaint. For most of their histories, neither the Ivy Leagues nor the Oxbridge colleges were particularly known for the difficulty of their education. It’s impossible to overstate how easy it was to get into Harvard in the 19th century. If you were of the right background and had gone to the right secondary school, you would get in. The Greek and Latin requirements were merely class markers. No intimate understanding of the texts or dedication to scholarship was needed to enter.

This leads Kanakia to considering the classes of people who actually produced the “great books”, and who actually read them. Or didn’t read them.

A class can be literate even if it doesn’t produce notable writers, but the English and American elites also became renowned for their disdain for learning. Although a stint at Cambridge and Oxford continued to be seen as de rigueur for the English gentry, just as acceptance at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton was for their American counterparts, neither set was famed for their commitment to learning. Even among the well-off, fashionable set, it would be quite rare to find someone who remembered their schoolboy Latin or who could discourse with any sense of authority on the work of the ancients. Edith Wharton claimed that, although her childhood home was full of books, nobody ever read them — that in fact, to her knowledge, nobody in her extended family had ever read her own books. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust describes a high society that grudgingly allows entrance to literary figures, so long as they are witty and entertaining, but pays no attention to their works. Indeed, Marcel is shocked by how distant many writers are from the heights of the fashionable society they write about, and by how quickly a writer is dropped by high society if he starts to talk of intellectual matters.

Kanakia’s misapprehension was likely cultivated by certain partisans within the education system. In a recent New Yorker hatchet job, Louis Menand attacks the underlying premise of two newly released polemics decrying the state of liberal education and the general neglect of great books. As Menand notes, there is a long history of such discourse. Shimer college was itself founded on the principals of one such polemic: Robert Maynard Hutchin’s The Higher Learning in America.

That conflict is essentially a dispute over the purpose of college. How did the great books get caught up in it? In the old college system, the entire curriculum was prescribed, and there were lists of books that every student was supposed to study—a canon. The canon was the curriculum. In the modern university, students elect their courses and choose their majors. That is the system the great books were designed for use in. The great books are outside the regular curriculum.

(The emphasis is mine.) Indeed, there is an underlying hostility to precisely the kind of education I have received and benefited from.

The idea made its way into universities after 1900 as part of a backlash against the research model, led by proponents of what was called “liberal culture.” These were professors, mainly in the humanities, who deplored the university’s new emphasis on science, specialization, and expertise. For the key to the concept of the great books is that you do not need any special training to read them.

(I could argue that mathematical education predates anything like a “great books” education, but let’s ignore that rather appealing idea.)

So what benefit does an actual, honest to goodness, education in the great books actually offer? I discovered a recent PhD thesis from a former Shimer student, Jonathan Goldman, that seeks to address some version of that question. Conducting interviews with sixteen former students of the college from the sixties and seventies, he investigated the effect Shimer had on them. Certainly among those he interviewed the impact was very positive. They went on to graduate school, industry, and all kinds of other adventures, feeling well prepared and full of confidence. Whatever challenges they faced, they had no problem sitting down and doing the reading. The years in college were reportedly hugely rewarding — the holistic view of intellectual history, in particular. Their memories of college conform more strongly to what many of us hoped for from higher education, but maybe never quite attained.

Participants described their campus colleagues as being very smart, interesting, and always engaging. A few people felt that for the first time in their lives they were with students who were as smart as they were, if not smarter. Irv enjoyed being “surrounded by people who were smarter than I was … talking nonstop, they were just so excited.” Irene thought “the fact that it was small and yet there was a high percentage of very bright and interesting people there … was crucial.” Ian said, “a lot of the people who showed up at Shimer were very talented, they were creative, interested, and they have very active minds and they were—they had high IQs and were just smart.”

Particularly galling is the fact that those of us who haven’t enjoyed the benefits of the great books might not quite cut the mustard for them socially:

Participants discussed how their relationships at Shimer changed their perspectives about relationships after leaving school. Kathy said that she “never again found relationships as meaningful as at Shimer.” She added that Shimer “spoiled me for friendships.” Others felt that being around the people at Shimer set higher standards for future relationships. Olivia said that “I really can’t stand to be around people who are really ignorant” and that she likes “to have discussions with people about their ideas, and listen to what their ideas are, and challenge them, and have them challenge me, and talk about stuff.” Olivia said that people with whom she talks “can’t just arbitrarily say something and not be able to defend it.” Others discussed wanting only friends who are able to carry on a meaningful and rational conversation.

Unfortunately, I likely wouldn’t even understand their jokes.

The participants described Shimer people as having a different way of looking at things and Riley cited an adage popular among some Shimer alumni that “Shimer people don’t have to explain jokes to other Shimer people.” Carol said that being at Shimer “helped learning to work with lots of different people who think differently.” Zoe said that after leaving school, she would talk to people and I might then reference whatever the topic, social topic that was going on. Whether it was about cities and war or different things, poverty or something and then I might mention an author or subject I had studied, and people would respond to that as if it was unusual. I thought it was what we did. It was everyday conversation at Shimer or with people from Shimer, it wasn’t a big deal. I started realizing that is something of interest to other people and … things that were ordinary at Shimer were extraordinary elsewhere. She also noted that one person told her that she “talk[ed] in metaphors.”

These shared jokes and mutual understanding seems to be the upshot of what being unusually well read means. So while our elites do not actually bear the benefits of a liberal education we believed them to possess, the graduates of a weird little college (and a handful of others which also offer their own variation) have the actual goods.

Not that I am falling over myself to work my own way through the reading list. There is a great deal to be said for engaging with the contemporary. Or to put it another way, if I was busy reading through the canon, I likely would never have got around to The Glass Hotel.