Commencement 2005

Commencement Address

James P. Kahan '64
Making a Difference
Reed College, May 16, 2005

kahan imageMembers of the Reed College Class of 2005, President Diver, trustees, faculty, staff, students, fellow alumni and friends of Reed College:

Last November, I was deeply touched to receive the invitation to give this talk. Reed has been a very important part of my life and that of my family for well over 50 years. I am a member of ORGY (that's "Offspring of Reed Grads of Yesteryear" just in case you were getting nervous), and possibly the only member who qualified to join after he graduated. My junior year, my mother went to a parent-alumni meeting, where she met Paul Pressman '52. She and Paul were married two months after I graduated, and he became my wise counselor and father figure. Their son, Adam, became a member of ORGY the traditional way. My mother is here today, but for 9 years now my annual contribution to Reed has been in memory of Paul. I met my oldest and dearest friend, David Kanouse, when we boarded the train in Los Angeles to come up to Portland as freshmen. David and I were in Humanities 11 conference together, jointly decided to become psychology majors in our sophomore year, and have been colleagues at RAND since 1981. His first act as associate head of the behavioral sciences department there was to offer me a job, but more about that later. David is also here today; I asked him to share this talk with me, but he declined. At the beginning of my senior year, I met an entering freshman, Kathia Jane Naumann, and fell in love with her. Instead of graduating from Reed, she married me and came with me when I went to graduate school. Unfortunately and for a variety of reasons, our marriage did not last, and for the past 38 years, we have gone our separate ways. But Kathia is also here today, and sometimes, my love, we get a second chance in life. My graduate school mentor, Lyle Jones, is also part of the Reed community. He entered Reed on scholarship as a freshman and then he enlisted in the Army to engage in further study at Reed in its "premeteorology program" (the Army's early notion of building an analytic capacity); he is designated in alumni records as '44-AMP. Lyle recently endowed a scholarship here that is held by one of you graduating today. He is here today as well.

My talk today is on "making a difference." Why make a difference? Oh, I don't really know-it just seems like the right thing to do. It's probably my mother's fault. So today, I will begin by describing how Reed College made a difference for me, as I am sure it has for you. Second, I will describe how my life after Reed (yes there is one, fortunately or unfortunately) continued along the path that Reed provided. Third, I will touch on how I try to make a difference-not that I recommend my way for anybody else, but maybe you graduates will find a bit that you can use.

How did Reed College make a difference? When I arrived on campus, I was young, arrogant, intense, committed, and didn't really have the foggiest idea what life was about. David will testify to that. Almost four years later, I departed slightly less young, slightly less arrogant, significantly more intense, a little bit more committed, and having a glimmer of an idea what life was about. How does that compare to your own experience?

The greatest difference was that Reed taught me how to think. There is nothing like a liberal education to teach thinking, but that isn't all of it. Just as at age 11 I mostly learned how to cuss and the facts of life from my grubby little fellow pre-teenage boys, I mostly learned how to think from my (often equally grubby) fellow Reed students, and not just in conferences. All those Saturday nights spent playing bridge or singing or drinking beer were not wasted; we talked the whole while, and the talk ranged all over the known and unknown universe.

Of course, the Reed faculty helped me learn how to think. I'm sure you each have your favorites, and I would like to honor four of mine, although none of them are still on campus. Each made a difference in a different way. The first was Dan Deegan-professor of religion at communistic, atheistic Reed who really knew how to teach someone how to think. I wrote my best papers for him. The second was the other member of the religion faculty-Hugo Adam Bedau. He taught by example-opening his mind so I could see how the wheels turned. My gear mechanism may not have been the same, but I got the basic idea. The third was that true Reed iconic embodiment of the liberal arts tradition, Lloyd Reynolds, who taught Art History not as knowledge about the progress of artistic creation, but as a way of life.

The fourth may surprise some of you-it was the Director of Women's Physical Education, Pearl Atkinson. Most of my cohort at Reed, if they remember me at all, will remember me as a folk dancer, and Pearl was my dance teacher. Folk dancing is the only thing in my life that I became reasonably good at in spite of having absolutely no natural talent, but by sheer force of will power. Pearl recognized that will power and fostered it. She encouraged me, taught me, provided opportunities for me to learn how to teach dancing, and enabled me to become a choreographer, master teacher and performer. Pearl was a truly great teacher, because she could take desire and create commitment and competence. I had maintained contact with Pearl throughout the years, but she passed away at the age of 91 on Easter Sunday just 7 weeks ago.

The second big difference was that Reed's commitment to liberal education and personal responsibility permitted me to expand my horizons and to take risks. The heroes of my life-who include Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Winston Churchill and Jimmy Carter-are all great men who made a difference, but who also had wide visions that led them to take risks that resulted in significant failures; from this I have learned that risk taking is needed to be able to make a difference. Reed fosters risk taking. Like you, I could have gone to Berkeley or some other excellent large place and found a comfortable specialized niche, but at Reed, I was able to explore everything from mathematics to religion to folk dancing to bridge. In my senior year, I not only wrote a thesis in psychology, but I took a year's worth of Shakespeare and a semester's worth of philosophy of religion instead of extra courses and independent studies in psychology that specialization would have demanded. So at Reed, I learned to have the courage of my convictions and not to be limited by disciplinary or other boundaries.

A third, not to be taken lightly, difference is that Reed validated my values. I was to a large extent the stereotypical Reedie, singing the radical folk songs of the likes of Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds, protesting a bit, and preparing my conscientious objector draft status application. But I also became the "village atheist" of the Canterbury Society (that's the Episcopalian student group), where I could put my beliefs to a test among people who very respectfully would disagree with me. I left more confident of my convictions than I arrived, but also aware that there were wide ranges of viewpoints, even among my closest friends.

To summarize my Reed experience, I arrived at Reed believing that it was the perfect place for me, and I was not disillusioned. I didn't "fit in," but that is part of the magic of Reed. You don't have to "fit in." If I had to do it all over again, I would, without hesitation, and I hope that you agree with me.

After Reed, I entered graduate school at the University of North Carolina. In Chapel Hill, my professional and political lives became very separate. In my office, I did research on abstract and sometimes arcane topics of decision making and game theory. Along the way, I got into occasional trouble with the bureaucracy by taking too many courses outside of the Psychology Department and by combining two different PhD programs-social and mathematical psychology. Fortunately, Lyle Jones was understanding and supportive. Outside of my office, I started the Chapel Hill International Folk Dance Club, engaged in peaceful vigils against the war, was a draft counselor, attempted to integrate labor unions in North Carolina, supported the election campaign of the first Black mayor of Chapel Hill, and-oh yeah-popped up to Washington DC from time to time to march in Vietnam War protests and get myself teargassed. Reed's contributions of thinking, widening horizons, risk taking and values were all present, albeit separated; Academe was Academe, but at least I was making a difference.

The schizophrenia continued for a dozen years. To earn my paycheck, I taught psychology and statistics. To earn my reputation, I became one of the world's experts on the miniscule field of experimental social psychological research on mathematical-economic models of multi-person cooperative negotiation. To earn my self-respect, I would occasionally get politically involved in various causes. To earn my peace of mind, I performed and taught international folk dance and music. I got time off (not for good behavior, to be sure) to spend a postdoctoral year in southern France, a sabbatical year in the Netherlands and a visiting professor year in Israel-whetting my appetite for living outside of the United States.

The chance for a radical change of pace arose when I was given the opportunity to leave the academic world and work for the RAND Corporation. Yes, the dreaded RAND Corporation, where, as Malvina Reynolds put it and we Reedies sang on Saturday nights,

The RAND Corporation's the boon of the land
They think all day long for a fee
They sit and play games about going up in flames,
For counters, they use you and me, honeybee,
For counters they use you and me.

I chose RAND only after recognizing that Malvina was for once wrong. What I was being offered was an opportunity to take my paycheck, my research and my self-respect, and to put them in one place-doing work that would make a difference. It was a think tank, so the thinking that I learned at Reed was valued. I could cross disciplinary boundaries at will, instead of being restricted by departmental pettiness. And I could contribute to solving problems of social importance that I valued. The very important personal difference was that I moved from outside the system to inside it. This was because I had gradually learned that you can often make more of a difference working for change through the system than you can while remaining isolated. So I accepted David's offer. In my time at RAND, I have worked on an extensive variety of social issues and made a difference enough of the time to feel good about myself. And, by integrating the lessons learned at Reed, I was able to make a difference by becoming a specialist in generalism. That is, instead of knowing everything about nothing, I now know nothing about everything. Or, as William Schwenck Gilbert might have put it, I am the very model of a modern major generalist.

kahan imageContinuing with some piracy from Gilbert and Sullivan, a generalist's lot is not a happy one. Or at least not always. Experts from all sides who claim exclusive possession of the truth denigrate your contribution. Left-brained people call you right-brained and right-brained people call you left-brained. The radical right calls you left-wing (or worse) and-as those of you who sometimes read The Quest will remember-the radical left calls you right-wing (or worse). But every once and so often, when faced with an important problem, you can think your way through the contributions of diverse areas and come up with something so innovative, so new, and so radical that reasonable people will say, "That's obvious. But why has nobody ever thought of it before?" And you've made a difference.

Let me give a recent example. The Dutch government just instituted a "Safety Investigation Board" to study natural disasters, accidents and near-accidents in order to prevent what can be prevented and mitigate what cannot be prevented. Seems reasonable. But getting there was not easy. The engineers, the large corporations, the lawyers, the criminal prosecutors, the protective guilds and hosts of others all insisted that theirs was the only path to truth. Each of them had a valid perspective, but each was also blind in important respects. Faced with this situation, my colleagues and I designed a way for the board to do its work objectively, independently and comprehensively, and along the way invented the "obvious" concept of safety deficiency identification, which has been adopted by the new board as its raison d'etre. "Safety deficiency identification" means that the single-minded focus of an investigation is to prevent a recurrence rather than to fix blame for what happened. Causality is investigated in depth only if it promises to reveal systematic preventable problems. The investigation goes beyond the triggering event to look at other events and "near-misses". Recommendations for changes in one arena may arise from some other, unexpected arena (for example, airplane cockpit procedures might be applied to hospital operating rooms, or manufacturing queuing processes might apply to setting road speed limits). Every recommendation is addressed to a specific person or group who should take action. A few months ago, I was privileged to attend the inauguration ceremony of the new board and to hear my ideas in the speech of its chairman, presented to the queen, the prime minister, and a whole host of dignitaries. No, nobody mentioned my name or my work, but just seeing my ideas implemented was reward enough. I had made a difference.

Enough about me. This day is about you, the Reed College Class of 2005. Let's go back to the things that make a difference at Reed and how you can take them and make a difference of your own. First, Reed College has-in its own unique way-taught you how to think. You have received a liberal education, with breadth, but also depth in your thesis topic. The depth gives you a place to stand and the breadth gives you a long lever. So, to paraphrase Archimedes, when you choose the world you want to move, wherever it might be, you have the potential to move it. Second, the Reed emphasis on individual responsibility has given you the opportunity to take risks, and I am confident that each of you has done your share of taking chances. Third, Reed has helped you discover and confirm your values, which tell you which world you need to choose and what risks you need to take. Whether other people consider it a big world or a little world does not matter-it will be a world that is important to you. Whether you stand inside the system or outside the system when you apply your lever does not matter-you can think your way through to finding the best place to stand. And whether, ultimately, your risky efforts fully succeed or not does not matter-what is important is knowing that you have done what you could do. And at the end of the day, you will have made a difference.

In closing, let me pirate once more from my good buddies Gilbert and Sullivan, and ask the audience to join me when I reprise the last two lines.

I am the very model of a modern major generalist,
I've information spanning every field of every specialist,
I speak in tongues of people sociological and physical
And legal, economic, mathematical and medical.
My generalism helped me make a difference in many ways,
And helped me find the guidance for a useful way to spend my days.
And where, you ask, does generalism such as this originate?
For me, Reed College was the start to bring me to my current state.

Yes, a liberal education is a treasure to be cherished, for
It gives a focus to the choices in your life you can't ignore.
Congratulations to the class we've gathered here to celebrate,
You all are very models of a modern Reedie graduate.