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Life of the Mind

Thinking Reed

The character of Reed College—and the absorption in thinking for which it is known—was largely set in its first fifteen years. Launched in 1911 as an innovative experiment to restore relevancy to the liberal arts in an age dominated by science and industry, Reed sought neither the size and specialization of the university nor the intercollegiate athletics and elaborate social life that had become standard at many private colleges.

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The time was ripe, many believed, for a new kind of college that would give renewed relevance to the liberal arts while preparing its graduates for the ever-widening dimensions of the modern world. This belief particularly resonated with adherents of pragmatism, a distinctly American philosophy that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. Advanced largely by the efforts of philosophers John Dewey, Charles Pierce, and William James, pragmatism had as its essential premise a skepticism toward ideologies. Ideas were to be viewed not as immutable truths but as contingent and adaptable responses to the environment—tools that people could utilize in coping with the world around them.

Pragmatism was a major influence on Reed’s founding board president, Thomas Lamb Eliot, the Unitarian minister who originally encouraged the funding for the college from Portland transportation magnate Simeon Reed and his wife Amanda. Mindful of the Reeds’ inclination toward a vocational school but hoping, along with the other trustees, to establish a liberal arts institution, Eliot looked to Wallace Buttrick, the secretary of the General Education Board, for guidance. He also sought the advice of his cousin, Charles Eliot, who had just joined the General Education Board following his retirement from Harvard University after forty years as its president.

Both Buttrick and Eliot thought the Pacific Northwest would best be served by a college of arts and sciences. They also recommended that one of Charles Eliot’s former students, William Trufant Foster, be appointed the school’s first president.

“Reed has escaped assembly-line and loudspeaker education. Reed teachers do not pontificate, they guide—
and they do not always win the arguments. Reed students, conversely, cannot parrot an instructor or memorize a text. If they are to survive, they must engage in that most painful of all human activities—thinking.” —William Trufant Foster, founding president of Reed College

The 31-year-old Foster was on leave from his position at Bowdoin College and, having just completed a doctorate under the influence of John Dewey at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, had turned his attention to problems of college administration. Deeply critical of the state of higher education in the United States, he looked forward with great excitement to the prospect of building a college from the ground up, one “neither hampered nor hallowed by traditions.”

In 1911, after visiting a hundred colleges across the United States, Foster published a book—the findings from his dissertation research—called Administration of the College Curriculum. The book’s closing summation, “The Ideal College,” became the intellectual charter for Reed. Foster’s plan called for a faculty suited to the vision of the college; a campus that embodied academic seriousness; an intelligent and serious student body; and a reputation that would encourage ongoing support of the institution. Under his leadership, Reed recruited a group of young professors from the country’s best schools, banned intercollegiate sports and fraternal societies as distractions, set a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio to ensure small classes, and maintained a careful and strict admission policy. A free electives curriculum was adopted, and a mandatory senior thesis and orals exam were set as goalposts for graduation.

Nonsectarian in its mandate and socially progressive in its orientation, the college aspired to the highest levels of academic rigor, and quickly rocketed into the top tier of national higher education, producing four Rhodes Scholars from its first six graduating classes and establishing itself as a promising new experiment in liberal arts education.

“Discipline is of course the work
of the superego, lashing us on to greater efforts. What I found at Reed was more in the realm of the id.
I discovered the deep pleasure of absorption in a problem, in a
way of thinking, or in an initially forbidding book.” —Barbara Ehrenreich ’63

In 1912 Foster’s sense of obligation to act on democratic principles led him to suggest that a group of students and faculty draw up a student council constitution, which has since formed the basis of student government, including the regulation of student conduct related to the Honor Principle, established in 1911. A faculty constitution, called for by Foster, was developed in 1916. Among other organizational features, it established a faculty council consisting of the president, ex officio, and eight faculty members, elected annually. The council’s mission, to advise the president on matters of policy, effectively allowed a degree of faculty influence on educational policy that would resonate through a century of Reed’s commitment to academic rigor and independence.

Reed’s early reputation as an innovator in higher education was renewed when its second president, Richard F. Scholz, was appointed in 1921. Feeling the elective system was too unstructured, and wanting students and professors to come together in a common intellectual pursuit, Scholz introduced one of the first prescribed core curriculums in the country. The curriculum—anchored in a humanities program of mandatory parallel courses in history and literature—became the heart of the freshman year for all students as well as a significant aspect of the sophomore year.

Following Scholz’s unexpected death in 1924 the faculty consolidated the innovations of Scholz and Foster into a rigorous core curriculum revolving around the humanities that has undergone modest changes but has never been abandoned. In 1943, the two parallel courses in history and literature were fused into a general humanities course covering the ancient, medieval, and early modern societies of the West. When the sophomore courses on the development of western civilization after the middle of the eighteenth century followed suit, the teaching faculty of the humanities program shifted from history and literature to a broader range of disciplines, including Chinese history in 1995. The syllabus, too, has remained fairly consistent but in 2010 expanded the geographical and cultural parameters of the course to incorporate texts and artifacts from other places within the same era.

Since 1925, Reed has remained close to the ideals of its first two presidents and its early faculty members. Careful conservation of the Scholz curriculum has institutionalized Reed’s academic toughness, branded the college as an intellectual powerhouse, and shielded it from major educational and cultural trends. The vision and the values of Eliot and Foster have remained an undercurrent throughout Reed’s history, providing a vital if unfulfilled counterpoint to the traditional curriculum in the form of proposals for expansion, change of direction, and curricular innovation. Generations of students and alumni have sustained Reed’s culture of learning for learning’s sake through their central commitment to the primacy of scholarship—sometimes observed in a perceived antipathy to a regulated social life.

What the college emphasized about itself—graduates in the early days would serve society as broadly educated leaders; later Scholz’s “new humanism” stressed personal, individualized, moral obligations derived from classical examples—continued to evolve with the times. In the mid-fifties, President Richard Sullivan repositioned Reed as an important asset in the Cold War fight against the Soviet Union, leveraging the college’s historically strong reputation in the sciences by modernizing the campus’s physical plant and strengthening its teaching resources.

Changes to the college’s curriculum have emerged naturally, as well. Linguistics, a single but regularly offered course in the late 1940s, continued to draw steady interest; by the 1970s courses in advanced linguistics, language, and culture were offered, in the 1990s an interdisciplinary major was instituted, and in the last decade linguistics gained departmental and then divisional status. Lasting interest in environmental studies likewise resulted in a new interdisciplinary major in 2010, after years of careful planning.

For a hundred years Reed has remained steadfast in its belief in the intrinsic value of rigorous scholarship, the joy of serious intellectual pursuit, the centrality of superb undergraduate teaching, and the essential role of community in the development of knowledge. While Reed’s graduates have brought renown to their alma mater through their lifelong accomplishments, the true mark of a Reed education is not conventional success, but a certain quality of thought. Reedies can often spot fellow “comrades of the quest” by their willingness to challenge received wisdom, their wide-ranging curiosity, and their conviction that the world can be a better place.

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