Where They Came From: Voices of Reed College, 1920-1940

Article excerpt

REED COLLEGE'S character--and its aspiration to be among the most intellectually demanding schools in the country--was already well established by its launch in 1911. William Trufant Foster, Reed's first president, sought to make critical thinking the holy grail of the educational experience. He believed that if Reed was to be relevant in an educational landscape dominated by specialized research universities, it would be essential to impart to students the most rigorous possible set of intellectual skills and attitudes for informing every area of inquiry. In doing so, he worked to establish a new kind of college, one that would give renewed vitality to the liberal arts while preparing its graduates for the ever-widening dimensions of the modern world.

To insure the highest standards of intellectual rigor, Foster imposed a number of curricular hurdles, including a senior thesis and orals exam. To instill self-discipline and discourage students from working for grades instead of for learning, after 1915, professors gave no grades except on request after graduation. To stress democracy and inclusiveness, Foster banned fraternities and sororities as well as the sideshow amusements of intercollegiate sports. To ensure small, intimate classes, he adopted a ten-to-one student-to-faculty ratio and directed professors to focus on teaching, not research. Finally, to promote intellectual freedom and better capture students' enthusiasm, Foster established a free electives curriculum.

Foster assumed the presidency of Reed at age thirty-one, having just completed his doctorate at Columbia University's Teachers College under the influence of John Dewey. He and many of the young faculty he recruited from the East Coast were adherents of pragmatism, a distinctly American philosophy that flowered at the beginning of the twentieth century. Advanced largely by the efforts of Dewey and philosophers Charles Peirce and William James, pragmatism had as its essential premise skepticism toward ideologies. Ideas were to be viewed not as immutable truths but as contingent and adaptable responses to the environment--tools people could utilize in coping with the world around them. This approach had a liberating effect on a generation of jurists, journalists, policymakers, and academics who created the progressive movement. Freed from fatalistic nineteenth-century determinism, progressives sought scientific solutions to social problems in a universe they viewed as still in play, where people were the agents of their own destinies. (1)


Accordingly, Foster endeavored to involve the new college in the social and cultural reforms taking place in Portland during the 1910s. Reed faculty served on art commissions, public library committees, health bureaus, and city planning commissions and, along with students, volunteered for good-government organizations that addressed vice, delinquency, and sexual hygiene. They advocated for the eight-hour workday, minimum wage laws, and unemployment insurance. By 1917, the college was also enrolling 55,000 local citizens annually in free extension classes around town.

In Portland's conservative quarters, however, the college was developing a reputation for arrogant self-righteousness and radical social initiatives. Foster's outspoken opposition to America's entry into World War I in 1917 inflamed pro-war conservatives, resulting in the local press denouncing the college as a hotbed of sedition and socialism. (2) During the Red Scare that immediately followed the war, Portland critics branded Reed's heterodoxy and progressive nature with the derogatory slur, "Communism, atheism, and free love," a label that would stick in the public imagination for decades to come. (3) An erosion of local financial support subsequently led to the college's financial collapse and Foster's resignation in 1919.


Foster's successor, a history professor from the University of Washington named Richard Scholz, joined the college in 1921 with hopes of renewing its initial promise. …