The Paradoxes of Reed

Student Library

Prospective Reedies and their parents often notice what current Reedies know very well: that Reed is a place filled with interesting—and sometimes puzzling—paradoxes. Learn more from Peter Steinberger, Reed's Robert H. and Blanche Day Ellis Professor of Political Science & Humanities and a former dean of the faculty.

Reed seems so paradoxical in so many ways. For example:

  • A traditional, classical, highly structured curriculum. And yet, at the same time, a progressive, free-thinking, decidedly unstructured community culture.

  • A powerful emphasis on intellectuality, serious study, and the very highest standards of academic achievement. And yet, at the same time, a rich and rewarding program of recreational and extra-curricular activity, including a p.e. requirement.

  • A refusal to over-emphasize grades. And yet, at the same time, an utter lack of grade inflation.

  • A faculty culture absolutely dedicated to superb undergraduate teaching. And yet, at the same time, a faculty culture that supports and celebrates high-level research and scholarship at the cutting edge of each academic discipline.

In fact, though, there's nothing even remotely paradoxical about any of this. Strictly speaking, a paradox is a self-contradiction, an incoherence. Yet Reed, in my opinion, is the least self-contradictory institution that one could imagine. At virtually every juncture, it's an institution that actually makes perfect sense.

  1. Reed's faculty believes that it has a professional responsibility to identify just what it means to be a liberally educated person. The result is a rigorous curricular framework emphasizing both breadth and depth, beginning with Humanities 110 and culminating in the junior qualifying exam and senior thesis. But the faculty is also strongly committed to respecting and nurturing the individual autonomy of students, and its seeks to create and sustain a community that celebrates diversity, independent thought and choice, This combination of academic structure and personal freedom, far from being a self-contradiction, is in fact a perfectly coherent definition of what an intellectual community should look like.

  2. A college, by Reed standards, is not a country club, not an excuse to party, not an appendage to a football team. It is an academic institution, the focus of which should be on serious intellectual endeavor. That's precisely what Reed is all about. Yet, we also recognize that the highest standards of academic achievement are not in conflict with but in fact directlybenefit from the opportunity to be physically and mentally fit, to blow off steam in interesting and rewarding ways, to explore one's wit, one's creativity, one's moral intuition, one's curiosity in activities that complement and enrich the life of the mind. There's nothing even remotely paradoxical about that.

  3. Reading in GrassEliot Hall
    At Reed, we believe that grades should honestly reflect performance. Otherwise, grading becomes meaningless. As a result, we have experienced no grade inflation: at Reed, an "A" really means something. But we also see no reason to make a public spectacle of grades, or to over-inflate their importance. Thus, papers are typically returned with comments, not grades; report cards specify grades only if they're unsatisfactory; professors don't post or discuss grades in public; the college doesn't maintain an honor roll or dean's list. We believe that the life of the mind is its own reward, and that invidious and unnecessary public comparisons among students undermine the spirit of an intellectual community. A Reed education is essentially a cooperative endeavor, not a competitive one.
  4. Faculty members at Reed are teachers, first and foremost. But teaching at Reed focuses primarily on developing in students habits of independent, scholarly inquiry and disciplined thought; and in pursuing such a pedagogy, faculty are expected both to model that kind of activity and, wherever possible, to involve students in their own research. Reed students collaborate with faculty in learning partnerships. In several departments, for example, it is common for students to co-author published papers with their professors. In countless ways, faculty research at Reed doesn't detract from but, rather, enriches and underwrites the undergraduate educational program.

Reed is not a simple place. It's a complex amalgam of diverse elements. But those elements have been chosen and developed over the years with great care. The result is an intricate, even ornate but also utterly coherent and clearly articulated architecture that has been called by at least one outside observer "exquisite" and by another "the most intellectual college in the country." Reed is not for everyone. But for students who are interested both in exploring great ideas and in developing personal autonomy, it makes very good sense indeed.

peter steinberger image
Peter Steinberger is the Robert H. and Blanche Day Ellis Professor of Political Science and Humanities. His field of study is political philosophy. He's taught at Reed since 1977.