“In every round-up, the finest steers are always outside the bunch.”
–David Starr Jordan, at the laying of the Reed College cornerstone, June 8, 1912
Reed is a prestigious college of the liberal arts and sciences with more than 1,400 students. Located in Portland, Oregon, the college provides one of the nation’s most intellectually rigorous undergraduate experiences, with a highly structured academic program balancing broad distribution requirements and in-depth study in a chosen academic discipline. For students at Reed, who are idiosyncratic, willful, intellectual, creative, and independent, academic rigor and intellectual invention are the central focus of college life.
Reed College admitted its first freshman class in 1911, a time when many traditional American colleges of the liberal arts and sciences had begun to lose primacy to newly established land-grant colleges, research universities, and professional schools. These institutions tailored their programs to meet the specialized, utilitarian needs of the increasingly industrialized age. Many traditional colleges responded to this challenge by relaxing their academic requirements, promoting collegiate spectator-sports, and in some cases permitting the children of social climbers to “earn” degrees principally by paying tuition. “The sideshows,” as Woodrow Wilson famously noted, “had swallowed up the circus.”
The founders of Reed College conceived of the college as an antidote to the deterioration of American higher education. In an age when science, technology, and industry dominated the public imagination, they sought to breathe renewed life into the traditional liberal arts education. They believed that a rigorous education in the liberal arts and sciences would endow Reed graduates with the ability to lead productive and examined lives in the fast-changing world in which they lived.
Out in the frontier town of Portland, Oregon, a Harvard-educated Unitarian minister named Thomas Lamb Eliot, administering a generous $3 million bequest from the estate of Oregon steamboat magnate Simeon Reed, recruited a 31-year-old president named William Trufant Foster to build the “Ideal College.” Fresh from finishing his dissertation at John Dewey’s Columbia Teachers College, Foster set out to create a co-educational, nonsectarian school designed to equip students with the most rigorous set of intellectual skills possible for holding their ground in a rapidly changing world.
Under Foster’s plan, students and professors were encouraged to study together in a collaboration unbound by custom, tradition, or codified rules of behavior, tempered only by an Honor Principle of individual restraint that Foster felt no need to define, lest it become sclerotic. To maintain the highest standards of intellectual purity, Foster imposed a number of curricular hurdles, including a thesis and oral exam in a student’s senior year. To ensure small, intimate classes, the student-to-faculty ratio was set at 10:1, and professors were directed to focus on teaching, not research. To instill self-discipline and discourage students from working for grades instead of for learning, professors posted no grades except upon request after graduation. To cultivate egalitarianism and inclusiveness, Foster banned fraternities and sororities, honors and awards, as well as what he considered the sideshow amusements of intercollegiate sports. To promote a democratic community, he provided faculty with an unprecedented share in governance and students with an unusual degree of autonomy over student affairs.
Foster’s main goal was to make critical thinking the Holy Grail at Reed. To that end, intellectual freedom—the ability to think anything and everything without boundaries—became the context for community at the college. Only in such an environment, Foster believed, could students be trained in the self-reliance, independence, and intellectual risk-taking necessary for becoming innovators in modern society. Modeling that kind of entrepreneurial spirit, Foster declared that he hoped “Reed College would stand staunchly—and if necessary, stand alone—for whatever Reed College considered right.”