Letters August 2005

Reed welcomes letters from readers about the contents of the magazine or the college. Letters must be signed and may be edited for clarity and space. Our email address is reed.magazine@reed.edu.

Uncivil Discourse

From Fred Matthies ’49

The article "Uncivil Discourse" in the May issue of Reed had me a bit on edge with overtones of Political Correctness. One needs only to read the article immediately following to see why give-and-take arguments fail in the conference sections. There is no atmosphere for it when the head of the conservatives in this country is anti-science, anti-intellectual and promotes policies based on ideology, the economic interests of corporations, and religious premises. Conservatives are losing the intellectual base; where is William Buckley when we need him? Students with conservative leanings, which I certainly was, are challenged at Reed to question the values they arrive with (and everything else, for that matter). Surely today's conservative students should know that when they apply for admission to a liberal arts college they had better be prepared to question all arguments and learn to apply intellectual rigor to bolster their own positions.

From Jonathan Grudin ’72

As I recall, my first Reed event (as a visiting high school student) was a speech by arch-segregationist Orval Faubus, recently retired by Arkansas voters. The college had more minority students in 1966, and although the ex-governor was not without charm, I was more impressed by the Reedies at a SNCC recruiting table outside. I’m bemused by the article that asks whether Reed students suffer from insufficient exposure to conservative opinion. Who growing up today avoids ample exposure to conservative arguments? As a liberal freshman entering Reed in 1968, I was well acquainted with conservative views, but my mind was indeed opened and changed by unfamiliar ideas—from the radical left. Although I’ve slipped most of the way back to a boring, intellectually conservative liberalism, I hope (and suspect) Reed students still find a challenging spectrum of views.

From Jim Bondelid ’76

The May issue of Reed is the best ever. I loved the article by Gay Monteverde. Because of moralistic, ad hominem attacks from orthodox "liberals,” I did not feel free to express conservative ideas  30 years ago at Reed. The second article provides a benign example, when Donie Bret-Harte states that people who disagree with her on global warming "mostly work for the oil and gas industry,” instead of addressing their arguments. And they wonder why many people are skeptical. (The statistics on length of growing season and size of the caribou herd were more convincing.)

I have a theory that the basic difference between liberals and conservatives comes down to a question that economists have labeled, pejoratively, the "fallacy of composition.” As I recall, this is the idea that rules we apply to individual behavior, with good results, can have bad results when those rules are applied to society as a whole. If I give free food to a starving woman in Africa, I have performed a moral act and followed the teachings of Jesus and other religious leaders. If my government sends massive food shipments to a region of Africa on a regular basis, then the farmers there cannot sell their crops at the price they need, so they do not plant new crops, and the famine is perpetuated. But at least then the NGO's have something to do to justify staying at four-star hotels. (Sorry, even I am tempted to an ad hominem.)

It seems to me that liberals too often apply standards appropriate for individual behavior to collective challenges. Conservatives too often apply standards appropriate for an economy to their own personal behavior. Liberals need to read Milton Friedman. Conservatives need to serve food to homeless people.

I also loved Tim Appelo's essay. I remember sitting in a Hum lecture in about 1973 when a very self-important history prof made a joke ridiculing Christianity. I laughed along with the rest of the assembly until I looked to my right, and saw that the very bright and articulate young woman next to me was in tears. Suddenly the joke was not so funny.

My grandfather was a Baptist minister in Iowa. As an infant, I was baptized in a Presbyterian church in Spokane, WA. In Seattle, I was raised and confirmed at sixteen as a Lutheran. At seventeen, I became an atheist when I was exposed to Moby Dick and Greek mythology. That softened in college to agnosticism, due, I think, to my intuitive and emotional nature. In Chicago, an eight-year struggle with infertility gave me my "Job moment" of cursing at God. But with the miraculous birth of a healthy daughter fourteen years ago, I was put back on the path to belief in God. This fall I will be received into an Episcopal church in Philadelphia.  It reminds me of the joke that the great thing about the Episcopal Church is that it doesn't interfere with your beliefs.

But it is not the miracle that sustains my faith. I have learned that the value of a belief lies not in whether we can prove that it is true. Instead, the value of a belief lies in what that belief allows us to accomplish. This pragmatism makes it much easier to be curious rather than outraged when one is confronted with a disagreement. And a state of curiosity is much more productive than a state of outrage. I find that my faith takes me to much better places than where I have been.

From Lee Ann Rush ’77

If a student finds themselves among a voiceless conservative minority and is shocked by that, I dare say that they must not have done their homework in selecting a college and /or are probably not doing it now.

Engaging others and honing your own arguments is a large part of Reed. I did not speak much in my classes and I regret it. Fortunately, I was able to put my ideas across in papers. Shame on any professor who will not listen to differing views, they should be challenged and it is not unheard of for liberal Reedies to challenge a leftist professor. If a professor is shutting a student down as claimed, it might be helpful for the student to confront the professor outside class and ask them to articulate why they will not engage in an exchange of ideas. The student must be aware that their argument cannot involve "sloppy thinking" as mentioned by President Diver and they cannot simply be "political assertions" as described by Professor Dirks. She mentions that students will not learn the distinction from Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush. I must add, they will also not learn it from Al Franken or Bill Maher.

Several years ago, I took a business class at a local college where I found both sloppy thinking and a lot of unsubstantiated political assertions as many in the class set out to attack labor unions. The most vocal were the anti-union folks who tended to be older, themselves victims of corporate downsizing. The instructor attempted to shut the union proponents down saying that we were off topic. Satisfied that the issue was settled, she called upon a group of three early twenty-ish students in the class who had started a very successful business together two years earlier. To the instructor's shock and dismay, they began to defend unionization and outlined in great detail how they had implemented it in their own business, what it was costing them, etc. The room was silent for the next twenty minutes. Nothing succeeds like factual or historical examples.

For a professor or instructor, it is no doubt a balancing act between gracefully skipping over unsupported assertions or rehashing facts already known by the class so that the material can be properly covered and that of engaging good arguments from any part of the political spectrum. If an argument is well put together, all students will be engaged and encouraged to stretch their own arguments and their own thinking. The application of any political litmus tests for students or faculty would be a mistake.

From Meg Wilson Riley ’78

Tim Appelo writes about religion for progressives as if he is an early anthropologist, reporting on a distant band of people who in no way resemble life as we know it.  I wish that he had taken the extra step to find out all the ways in which Reedies have 'got' religion, instead of speaking to us as if 'getting' it is some future possibility none of us has considered before.

In fact, I know that I am not the only person to use my Reed education as grounding for a life as clergy—I know at least two other Reed graduates who are my ministerial colleagues in the (relatively small) Unitarian Universalist Association. Virtually all of the Reed friends with whom I am still in touch, now that we are middle aged, go to church or synagogue as a central part of life.  And I speak regularly with Reed students who are still active in young adult church programs.

For my part, I have spent the past thirteen years educating people about the dangers of the religious right, and working in progressive religious coalitions to knit together some representation of God, which is based on love and inclusiveness rather than fear and judgment.  I have worked in coalitions with Jim Wallis, whom Appelo quotes at length, as well as many other people of faith from every tradition who are committed to a progressive future. 

What I learned at Reed education has helped me greatly in this work:  Go to primary sources rather than passing on second hand information (I read many religious right websites and publications regularly); use critical thinking to look within arguments for inconsistency or ambiguity rather than simply imposing my own opinions about why they are wrong; don't be afraid to engage in conversation with someone who believes differently—trust that the truth will hold. 

From Tad Brennan ’87

In giving my estimate of the problem, let me first say that faculty should indeed encourage all students to speak out freely, regardless of their viewpoints, and that course materials should include the best thoughts on the topic at hand, even or especially when those come from opposing viewpoints.

That said, I think there is no problem with Reed continuing to be an ideological hothouse for lefties—it is not inconsistent with our commitment to diversity, and it does not impair the critical thinking of the students.

While it is important to value diversity, it is important to remember a general point about diversity: you cannot consistently maximize diversity at every level of compositional analysis. My whole dinner is diverse because the courses differ from each other--but some of those courses exhibit no internal diversity whatsoever (e.g. the meat course is just meat). Some of the courses are also internally diverse, but there too diversity at one level depends on non-diversity at another: my salad is diverse because some regions of it are exclusively tomato and some are exclusively cucumber. If I tried to maximize diversity down to the millionth of a milliliter, I wouldn't have salad, I'd have consommé. If I tried to make every volume of my meal diverse, I would wind up with meaty-veggy-bready-soggy pabulum, every fraction of a teaspoonful of it nauseatingly the same. (Cooking with Anaxagoras).

If Reed were to become more internally diverse, this would actually *reduce* diversity at the level of the American educational system: Reed would have become that much more like all the other places. Our country as a whole profits from having Reeds as well as Brigham Youngs, and would be impoverished—made less diverse—if every school tried to make its internal structure a microcosm of the external diversity in the world.

So there is no general argument from the abstract value of diversity, to the conclusion that one particular level of analysis (say, a given college) should be made more diverse, and in fact the argument runs the other way: if you want to preserve ideological diversity in the country, you'd better encourage pockets of ideological homogeneity. (A similar conclusion can be reached from considerations of the adaptive advantages of genetic variability in a population, but I'll let a geneticist make it).

Finally, I don't think there is much to the claim that without right-wing views in the faculty or on the campus the students will not learn the skills of critical thinking. Consider the flourishing of those very skills in medieval scholastic Christianity, or in the tradition of Talmudic scholarship. Working from what must strike outsiders as a very narrow basis of agreement, these traditions still found all kinds of things to argue about, and developed writers and thinkers of the highest critical acumen. You can get a rousing argument, with distinctions, counterarguments, evidence and rebuttals flying through the air, among a group of people who agree on Trinitarian metaphysics within a monotheistic religious outlook. You can also have stultifying avoidance of argument among a group with widely different fundamental beliefs—especially if they have been browbeaten into inoffensive silence by lectures about the importance of "tolerance". What is essential for teaching the crucial skills is not a particular degree of diversity in fundamental premises, but a willingness to explore and learn and change your own mind, and even take some lumps in the process.

I think Reed has that, and would be wise not to tamper with it. Sure, teachers need to be reminded to give everyone time and support. But the kids are all right.

From Darrel Plant ’90

Regarding the "Uncivil Discourse" article in the May 2005 issue I'm a bit perplexed. When I was a student during the Reagan and G.H.W. Bush presidencies there seemed to be no end of students arguing over virtually everything. Indeed, Anne Bothner-By ’86 is quoted in the article as saying "Reed students are very combative." Are the conservatives less combative (something that seems hardly likely if you turn on the TV or radio)? Or do they just have a harder time making the kind of fact-based argument that tends to gain support from the type of people who choose to study at Reed?

As I read the article this April weekend, a conclave of Christian conservatives, addressed by the Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate, was meeting to discuss how a largely Republican-appointed federal judiciary is biased against Christians, and how judges who disagree with them might be removed from office, which might give some pause to those students considering careers in law. The Kansas Board of Education is about to decide whether thinly-disguised creationism should be included in the science curriculum, which would presumably affect whether high school students see the connections between chemistry, physics, and biology as mysteries of nature or acts of God. You tell me whether that will affect their future careers on the edge of science and the lives of anyone planning to teach said students.

The discussion is open. It has been open. I was attacked for pointing out that folks who complained (two years after the incident) about police twisting their arms and letting them go at Safeway after they were removed from the Development Office during the South Africa divestment sit-in got off pretty easy. A few years older than my fellow students and from a blue-collar background, I found Reed student liberalism (and conservatism) broad but not particularly deep. As in the real world, a lot of the people didn't care about politics at all.

What I found most astounding about Gay Monteverde's article though, given its premise, is its failure to mention the current campaign led by David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom to pass an "Academic Bill of Rights" in state legislatures nationwide that purports to protect academic freedom but is viewed by faculty groups in states where it's moving forward (such as Florida) as a restriction on acceptable topics of discussion in the classroom and the ability to correct students whose views don't mesh with topics like evolution. The campaign is predicated largely on painting the faculties and student bodies of colleges as "too liberal." As a private college, Reed wouldn't be affected by anything like that passing in Oregon, but the timing's certainly a heck of a coincidence.

From David Bloch ’93

Kudos on a fine and timely piece—I'm pleased to see the college focusing on the issue of campus intellectual orthodoxy.  I was bemused, however, by Professor Dirks's comment that “it's absolutely crucial that people understand the difference between an argument and a political assertion. And they're not going to learn that distinction from Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush.” That is an uncommonly silly and ill-informed thing to say. One can only hope that hers was an off-the-cuff remark, rather than an expression of precisely the “politically correct” mindset the rest of the article decries.

From Jeremy Faludi ’95

I read your recent article "Uncivil Discourse", and as much as I agree with the point that leftism at Reed sometimes eclipses true liberalism, I cannot express emphatically enough that Reed should NOT try to "balance" (read: conservatise) its politics. The entire country is bowing under the suffocating weight of conservatism today; just last week, PBS's chairman has said (only half-jokingly) they should "make sure their programming better reflected the Republican mandate." Even if it comes to Thoreau or Orwell's "majority of one", it is imperative that Reed retains its integrity by not cowing to America's present conservative culture. It is one of the few schools in the country where students can delve into liberal/leftist theories without constantly being held back by conservatism's intellectual ball and chain, which traps debate in ruts that were run in the 1950's. If Reed wants to turn itself into an inferior replica of Harvard, then by all means conservatise the politics. If Reed wants to keep the things that make it valuable and distinctive, it should stay the way it is.

From Joshua Rahtz '06

Once again, Reed magazine has abandoned the college's mission to conduct education in the spirit of critical inquiry. Limiting the field of political views to the reductive "liberal" and "conservative" ideations is more fit for cable television than for the college's official magazine. But as if that were not enough, the inaccuracies plaguing the reporting in your May 2005 issue reveal a more deeply troubling picture. The brief discussion of the student body newspaper, for example, is simply incorrect. The Quest does not currently abide by an open publishing policy, as "Uncivil Discourse" maintains, and its editors have openly rejected articles on political grounds. In fact, the Quest has leapt to the defense of Harvard President Larry Summers' outrageous sexism; in this regard, at least, it is well to the right of both the New York Times and the Harvard student body newspaper. More broadly, the implied argument in Gay Monteverde's informal survey can only logically point to its own undoing. The quest for so-called "political diversity" must have limits if it is to coexist with the civil society the author holds in such great esteem. By definition, a pluralistic, liberal, and democratic civil society cannot accommodate the worship of monolithic power and the use of repressive violence to subvert the rule of law. If, in the name of "political diversity", Reed encourages students to tolerate para-legal mass arrests of innocent civilians at political rallies, say, or the existence of virtual concentration camps for Muslims and Arabs, or the illegal use of force against foreign populations, then political diversity is not a goal worth striving for.

Dr. Edward P. Fisher, ’69

In response to the lead article in your May issue “Uncivil Discourse”. . .

I came to Reed as a “brat,” having grown up on military bases around the world, but especially in the Southern United States. Son of an Air Force pilot and a “hellfire and brimstone” Baptist Mother, I was only accepted at one other college at the time I applied – the U.S. Coast Guard Academy! They don’t come from anymore ‘conservative’ background than that. . .

Of course the times were ripe for a change – after tanks rolled through the streets in the Heart of Dixie on my way to high school in the Sixties, and after watching JFK (the REAL one, not the movie), something was stirring inside of me.  My first weak on campus, I almost had an altercation with an upper-classman in the TV-lounge over some unflattering remarks he made about jet-pilots while watching “Roger Ramjet” (don’t laugh!). An attractive co-ed bystander intervened, however, and “reasoned” with me before we ever came to blows. . .

Whatever isolation I experienced at Reed was mostly self-imposed, as I worked through my beliefs, until I could articulate what I felt without feeling embarrassed. But I never felt “victimized” because I always seemed to blunder into friendships and associations that encouraged me to speak my mind. No one ever mocked or belittled me. Quite the contrary, everyone I met tried to engage me with humor, challenge me to think my beliefs through, or guide me with some sort of useful object lesson.

As a result, four years later I graduated a “flaming” liberal, as my Dad liked to say, although the Colonel never used the “L”-word in mixed company. And all I can say now is: “I think whatever gods may be for my radicalization at Reed!”

Back in the 80s, the so-called Reagan Revolution succeeded in freeing the press from the equal-time constraints that insisted on a balanced presentation of points of view. This, along with media conglomeration by defense contractors and other corporate interests, help give rise to Rush Limbaugh, “Talk Radio” and Fox. Now, however, the Right seems to want the “fairness doctrine” back . . .

Well, I’m sorry: I will listen to people tell me the world is flat, that the entrepreneurial sprit alone (not land fraud, slavery and genocide) made America great, that the Holocaust never happened, that gay people can’t go to heaven, that cigarettes don’t cause cancer, guns don’t kill people, that Creationism is a science, that pre-emptive war is an option, or that there’s no such thing as Global Warming . . .

I will listen – I have to, the Right has the megaphone – but I SHALL NOT be moved!

Mary Leber ’50

Hooray for your article Uncivil Discourse. During the last election, I began to wonder if differing political passions were going to alienate members of our remarkable and wonderful group of friends.

The most useful and important thing I learned at Reed was that there are (nearly?) always at least two sides to any issue. This was imbedded particularly by a) super-talented faculty and students who could devastate even convincing arguments with other facts and ideas and b) writing a thesis.

I believe the best “mind set” for such labels as liberal(1), conservative (2), is “Danger! Use with care! Go to it guys!”

Chris Emerson, ‘66

Reed magazine’s current article “Uncivil Discourse” brings to mind vivid memories of the early Sixties.

I was one of three Catholics at Reed and could not have felt more comfortable or respected. Commons’ Friday menu of steamed halibut was especially unpopular. My friends would file past my table shaking their trays in my face, a gesture I regarded as a peculiarly Reed-style term of endearment.

We had a Young Republican Club. There were, as I recall, six members out of a student body of 800. There were about 300 Young Democrats, who loved and courted the Young Republicans, because they were the ones who owned cars and could transport Democrats to off-campus beer parties.

My senior year brought a series of controversial speakers to campus. The civil rights movement was boiling, and Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi arrived. He was an outspoken proponent of segregation and was received courteously, although not warmly. There were a number of students in the audience who had worked in the South during the Voter Registration Project, including Rhodes Scholar who came back to campus one September proudly wearing the prison jumper he had earned for his efforts. I do not recall any untoward behavior, although I knitted so furiously during the speech that a set a personal record for production.

Another speaker in the series was the leader of the seven American Nazis known to exist at the time. As I understand it, the majority of students at Reed during my time were of Jewish descent. Reed had no quota. Apparently, six percent was the upper limit for Jewish admissions at comparable schools. In 1965, these students were likely to be the children, nieces, nephews, or grandchildren, if not siblings, of Holocaust victims. The speaker was again received with rigorous courtesy. He fielded penetrating questions not very ably. Reed certainly treated this fellow better than his own family: an uncle ran him off his property with the blast of a shotgun to his heels when he shows up in uniform one day.

As to the general quality of discourse on campus, I do not recall hearing mockery of any person, idea, or thing. World-class snootiness was the predominant style of aggressive discussion, and I miss it terribly.

I see a link between the article on discourse and the one on left-wing politics and mainstream Christianity. In my day at Reed, Professor Dorothy Johansson remarked that it was dangerous to society when citizens did not share a common cultural reference, the Bible, with its wealth of allusions. My thesis advisor, Lloyd Reynolds, essentially taught a religious curriculum in the guise of art history and calligraphy. He remarked that science had dismissed religion as a tropic because it could not be measured, and that an element of the humanities had therefore been ignored. Even if it is only regarded as an interested low-tech software system, religion has value to anyone in its development of the self as a social being. At the very least, one should attend to issues of religion now because it is damned dangerous to ignore them.

Remembering Kenneth Hanson

From Charlotte Gould Warren '59

Ken was my thesis adviser (I wrote a book of poems), and over the years, we became friends. His brief, often droll letters, brought the world to my doorstep, “lit the night sky.” They reflected his just spirit, his nimble mind and quick, often acerbic wit, his delight in the world, and his sure eye for political chicanery. Mentor, friend, fine poet, his voice still accompanies me. He had an uncanny ear for the language, its hidden music, the beat and cadence of speech. His Chinese translations catch the wry humor and integrity of the originals while honoring a vernacular that suits western sensibilities. In his own work, too, Ken set the standard: lyrics that got “the set of the words just right,” vivid detail and classically uncluttered lines. His poems reflect a sympathy for the exiled, the marginalized, for “stairs that go nowhere,” and the least, rather than the greater, panda; a long view of history. Unfailingly kind to me as a teacher, he was known by students and faculty alike as a stellar guide in the study of modern poetry, and as a fair and thoughtful human being. The world is diminished without him.

End of Article
Reed Magazine August 2005