campus day 1913 image

Students and faculty gathered on Campus Day, 1913.

The Making of Comrades of the Quest

A love of stories is what initially drew me to the Reed Oral History Project. I failed however to anticipate the impact that listening to people’s stories would have on me. A couple of years into the project I began to realize that oral history was perhaps less about history than it was about memory, and specifically the function memory plays in addressing a central question for many people: how do we fill our short lives with meaning?

As I sat listening to people in one-on-one interviews, or in group interviews of ten, twenty, and sometimes forty, I began to understand that this basic existential question about meaning takes on a particular resonance in the stories of those drawn to an intentional community such as a small college. There, the very act of shaping of young minds provides fertile ground for the origination of meaningful memories.

College stories are of course a recognized genre in themselves, with specific motifs, themes, and mythic roles that are the stuff of films and literature: the student’s coming of age, the stern but nurturing professor, the raucous parties, the triumphant breakthrough of intellectual discovery. But oral history, in that it plumbs someone's personal experience, often serves to feature other roles and themes that are less commonly recognized.

In the case of Reed, one theme that kept emerging in the interviews was a yearning for self-authenticity. Many people—both students and professors—spoke of arriving at the campus and for the first time in their lives having a sense of coming home. This was as true for people from the 1920s as it was for those from the 1990s. They spoke of experiencing a freedom to be themselves—both socially and intellectually—that they had not found anywhere else.

That prevalent theme drew me into the next phase of the project—researching the early history of the college. Although I was already familiar with the aims set down by Reed’s founding president, William Trufant Foster, what surprisingly captivated me was the sense of Foster himself that came through in his unfinished memoir and in the early oral histories of those who had known him. A self-described rebel, Foster set out to create a place that he could be at home in, a place where everything was open to question with no topics off the table; where unthinking conformity to conditioned beliefs, status quo conventionality, or ideology of any sort was regarded as a hindrance.

To that end, he set out a rigorous training regime that would grind down such hindrances and replace them with a pragmatic method of thinking that ideally acknowledged no boundaries, in which people had the freedom and capability to think anything and everything. Nothing was to be considered sacred except the right to free inquiry. Only in such an environment, Foster believed, would individuals gain the innovative insights necessary for moving society forward.

With that understanding of Reed’s ethos, I moved into the third phase of the project, which was assembling the stories of those drawn to Foster's vision into a book. I realized that I wanted to let the community tell its own story in its own words, and to do so by weaving together first-hand accounts from the oral histories without the use of an omniscient narrator. That brought me face-to-face with the matter of oral history itself. While oral history enjoys increasing popularity today, many academic historians continue to view it with suspicion. It is easy to see why. The human memory is wildly selective. After a passage of years, most of us honestly believe the things we think we saw, despite our muddled chronology and lack of complete context. Our memories are also subject to change as we learn more about our past, the knowledge of which reshapes our memories going forward.

And yet, as oral history theorist Alessandro Portelli points out, while memory may be the last place one hopes to find eyewitness accounts that are either true or false, the themes and structures that memory imposes offer ways of getting at the meaning of what actually happened. "Memory is not just a mirror of what has happened,” he notes, “it is one of the things that happens, which merits study. Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did.”

To that point, what you see in Comrades of the Quest is not an institutional history of hard facts and precise details. It is more a memory play, which, like most memories, follows a stream full of little whirlpools, each filled with past incidents caught up in a circular pattern of repeated stories that reinforce an underlying pursuit of meaning. In the case of the Reed community, I believe that pursuit derives from Foster’s own quest to create a place where true freedom reigns.

—John Sheehy, April 2012

Listen to OPB's interview with John Sheehy .