My first night on campus — just over three years ago — I went out looking for the party. I don’t really know what I expected, but what I found was a clutch of crusty upperclassmen, crouching in Sallyport sipping 40s (oh! the lost days of Olde English in glass) and keeping a weather eye out for impressionable kids like me.
One of them, who introduced himself as Big Ben, pulled me aside. Big Ben was a stout guy with a huge beard, a Classics major, I think. I’ve never seen him since that night – and never met anyone who knew who he was — but he singled me out to receive a lecture which, if you’re a freshman, you’ve likely heard sometime during the past few weeks. It’s the Olde Reed lecture; a warning that this community you’ve just joined is under threat, a call to arms to defend what makes it unique. “Reed has always been a problem and hopefully always will be,” he said, conspiratorially, before informing me that it was now my job to keep it one.
A few days later, my whole class was given the same charge at Noize Parade: “Become a Reed and Reed will live and Reed will live forever!” I wasn’t quite sure who all the characters in the ritual were supposed to be, or what this ideal I was supposed to work towards was. I didn’t really know, yet, how to “be a problem” or “Become a Reed.” The point of this article is let you know that it’s okay not to know yet, and to offer up the origins of a few common views of what we’re doing here.
Nobody can tell you what your time at this extraordinary place will end up meaning to you. However, there are a few ideas, ideas that weave through the past century of this college’s existence, about what it’s meant to some of the people who have passed through. People have been defining Reed since this campus was a cow pasture, and whether you’re discussing divestment, drugs, or deadlines, you might be using the same arguments as the dead man your dorm is named after.
Who Wants to Go to a Trade School?
The quest for the college’s mission began with the interpretation of Amanda Reed’s will. At her death, our benefactor set aside the Reeds’ fortune to establish an educational institution as a “means of general enlightenment, intellectual and moral culture, the cultivation and development of fine arts, and manual training and education for the people.” She was also careful to rule out any “sectarian influence, regulation or control.” As a Unitarian, Reed was motivated by both a philanthropic attitude towards her community and a skepticism of sectarian religion — her pastor and friend, Thomas Lamb Eliot, had often been a target for more traditional churches around town. Those were thus the two pillars of the first founding document of Reed College: the “enlightenment” of Portlanders and the rejection of religious dogma. It was up to Eliot, who had originally suggested the idea of a “Reed Institute” to the family in 1887, to translate those two ideas (and three million dollars) into a college.
The decision to build a liberal arts college was not, however, included in Amanda Reed’s will or dreamed up by Eliot. Your B.A. in liberal arts is the brainchild of Wallace Buttrick, who worked for a philanthropic organization called the General Education Board. Eliot and the trustees brought Buttrick to Portland to assess the state of higher education in the Northwest and determine what type of school was most appropriate. Buttrick declared that the region was already amply supplied with trade schools, and that a small college focused on undergraduate liberal arts education was sorely lacking on the West Coast. Eliot heartily approved, and despite a lawsuit by the Reeds’ disgruntled relatives (who had wanted a piece of the endowment pie) and complaints by trustee Martin Winch that Amanda Reed had actually wanted a trade school, the Reed Institute was chartered as a liberal arts college.
(Personally, I think that we ought to rename the administration building “Buttrick Hall” in honor of this unsung figure. “Oh yeah, I’ve got Hum 220 in the Butt in an hour.”)
Buttrick’s vision provided Reed with its focus on small-scale liberal arts education, and in doing so tossed out the “manual training” part of Amanda Reed’s will pretty much entirely — a development that has been codified by decades of tradition. Even now, students and faculty remain skeptical of any attempts to focus Reed towards professional training rather than academic pursuits. (Examples include the ongoing reluctance to add more computer science classes, as well as the backlash to President Dexter Keezer’s reforms in the 1930s.)
However, the rationale for Buttrick’s idea, ie., that Portland and the Northwest in general would be best served by a liberal arts college, thus fulfilling Amanda Reed’s desire to help the community, seems to be almost irrelevant these days. With the student body mostly composed of students from out of state, few ties to local civic organizations, and an increasing emphasis on attracting international students, Reed serves the world at large, not Portland in particular. The notorious “bubble” around campus came about by historical circumstance, not by the founders’ design. On the other hand, while Amanda Reed would probably not be impressed by “Communism, Atheism, Free Love,” future generations have fulfilled her wish to avoid sectarian domination of the college. One out of two ain’t bad.
Why Stay in College? Why Go to Night School?
While Eliot and the Trustees accepted Buttrick’s structural recommendations, they and their appointee as President, William Trufant “Truffles” Foster, had a very particular vision for the purpose of their liberal arts college. Not for them was “the life of the mind.” Eliot and Foster had a more outwardly-focused vision for Reed: it was a factory for reformers, for people who would go out and change the world.
While Foster wanted Reed to be run on genuine “intellectual enthusiasm” and student-faculty cooperation, rather than “the assembly line, or loudspeaker, or sheep-dip method of education,” he did not see that intellectual enterprise as an end in and of itself. An enthusiastic believer in progress, he later poked fun at himself by recalling that “To reform the world — and quickly — I mounted my horse, spear in hand, and rode forth in all directions at once.” Excited by the lack of traditions at his new institution, he designed Reed according to his radical plan — designed it to produce people like himself.
In his article “Some Characteristics of a Good College” — which you’ll be able to read in the Student Body Handbook very soon — Foster describes a good college as an activist one: “a college imbued with that kind of democratic spirit that cooperates for the common good with all the agencies of social progress; a college with a view of its responsibility that is not shut off by campus walls… a college that, with all its idealism, makes daily, practical contact with the many sided life of a city and state, here and now.” In his day, Foster encouraged professors to involve themselves in city affairs and held annual conferences at the college to discuss reform issues. The first, in 1913, was ambitiously titled the “Conference on the Conservation of Human Life” and tackled everything from temperance to tuberculosis to the abolition of war. Foster organized twelve separate lectures on his own favorite topics, sexual education and “social hygiene.”
Foster was president of an outfit called the Oregon Social Hygiene Society (OSHS), which along with sex ed promoted several causes which Reedies would be, frankly, disgusted by today. The OSHS fervently endorsed eugenics, the segregation and cloistering of the mentally disabled, and the suppression of homosexuality. In fact, after a scandal involving a secret gay “scene” among the elite of Portland, it was Foster to whom embarrassed city fathers turned in order to promote sexual mores — and repair the image of the local YMCA.
Herein lies the danger of an activist college on the Fosterite model. By associating itself too closely with fashionable political ideas, as Reed did in the 1910s with eugenics and homophobia, the college risks being viewed as a political agent and possibly losing its impartial reputation, especially if public opinion on certain issues shifts over time. Foster’s pet causes were seen as progressive in their day, supported by those who worked for women’s suffrage and labor laws, yet today they are an embarrassment. One can see echoes of this argument on both sides of the current debate over divestment from fossil fuels — is divestment an unduly political stance, or is not divesting a stance that will damage the college’s legacy?
Foster’s reformist college didn’t last long. After a collapse in the college’s finances, faculty, reputation, and morale during World War I, he was succeeded by Richard Scholz. As well as introducing Hum and building the SU, Scholz gave Reed its other mode of thought: that the purpose of the college is to promote what we now call “the life of the mind.”
Comrades of the Quest describes the Scholzean philosophy as that of the “hero-scholar,” rather than the political activist. Emphasis was placed upon the advancement of human knowledge on a longer term rather than its immediate application to the outside community. The discovery of ideas, and the diligence with which they were discovered (it’s symbolically appropriate that Scholz died of “general exhaustion” a few years into his tenure) were prized above all.
Further Scholastic Metamorphoses (F.S.M.)
The Scholzean ethic has undoubtedly been the stronger of the two throughout Reed’s history. During his short Presidency, he appointed a slew of professors who went on to serve for decades and create a strong system of faculty governance that entrenched his ideas as the Reed orthodoxy. Moments of Fosterite outward focus have been less frequent.
One came during the 1930s, when the New Deal bureaucrat Dexter Keezer was appointed President and attempted to enlist Reed in the creation of reform-minded activists. Keezer was disdainful of the impractical “bookishness” of his students, claiming that “if the Reed College buildings were burning… the job of putting out the fire might have to wait upon the conclusion of a very interesting and stimulating discussion of the effects of fire on wood and brick.”
Instead, he resumed Foster’s conferences on national issues, and attempted to fire Scholz appointees and replace them with his own men; a fruitless endeavor that got him driven out in disgrace. (Note that Keezer is the lead villain in the Noize Parade ritual, and that your dorm is not named after him.) His abrasive attitude, skepticism of the “life of the mind,” and apparent vision of Reed as a vocational school for public servants did not win him allies. His only successes were the introduction of arts courses and a new emphasis on PE — both of which are the most visible ways Reed interacts with the Portland community today.
Further moments of large-scale Foster-Scholz conflict came in the late 1960s, when black students and their supporters occupied Eliot Hall to demand a Black Studies program, and in the 1980s, when students protested for divestment from South Africa. Neither group was immediately successful. Divestment was never seriously considered. The Black Studies program was created, despite Scholzean faculty criticism that it would be too “newsy” and activist, but soon collapsed due to funding issues and institutional neglect. (The end of Black Studies deserves some study itself — thesis topic, anyone?)
However, these students and faculty members, and others like them throughout the past century, kept the debate alive about just what it means to be doing academic work here at Reed, and what should be done with a Reed education. The strictures of the faculty “old guard” began to lessen in the 1990s as a new wave of professors, including the first significant numbers of female and minority faculty members, were hired. While Reed is still geared towards abstract learning rather than crusading political activism, the flavor of that Scholzean ethic has changed to some degree, embracing topics and viewpoints previously considered too political or niche.
Foster-Scholz: Common Room?
The dichotomy I’ve been using here is absolutely, positively not the only way to look at Reed’s history. What it’s intended to show is that whatever you feel your mission here to be, you’ve probably got a long history of people agreeing with you. As different as our philosophies about Reed might be, they’ve all got a shared baseline: a vision of a small college governed by honor and bound by intellectual curiosity, passion, and diligence.
The next time you hear someone (including me) talking about the way Reed “should be” in a way you disagree with, remember that not everybody agrees with them, and you’re not wrong to disagree — but also recall that the two of you do have a lot of values in common. You’re both here, aren’t you?
Note: Most of the information in this article is derived from Comrades of the Quest by John Sheehy, an oral history of Reed that covers the first 90 years of the college’s existence. If you’re interested in the articles I’ve written, you might want to check it out.