Paideia: underwater basketweaving meets propaganda analysis

Thirty years ago this January, an experiment was performed at Reed to test the theory that Reed students, if given some free time and an appealing environment, would willingly participate in classes and independent study that had little or nothing to do with their academic program, just because they wanted to. Born in a frenzy of debate and rhetoric, changed and modified over time, and now firmly planted in the academic calendar, Paideia moved from innovation to tradition, and from tradition to institution. The question, "Why did it start?" is almost immediately followed by the question, "Why does it still exist?"

The facts are these. In the winter of 1967-68, a group of students led by Michael Lanning '71 devised a plan to create an independent study period of five or six weeks, to be held in January, that would allow all members of the Reed community to pursue anything they felt like pursuing. The program would be called UIS, for "unstructured independent study."

The group's final proposal presented its purpose as follows: "to make a worthwhile addition to the current program at Reed which would not be detrimental to anyone, not necessitate a financial commitment on the part of the college additional to that already being made, and very possibly cause an extremely desirable change in attitude on the part of the students and faculty towards Reed, each other, and education, as well as very possibly improving and spreading the reputation of Reed." Whew. Seven impassioned pages later, the proposal concludes that UIS is likely to improve everything about Reed, including financial difficulties, relationship with the Portland community, student inertia, social life at Reed, attrition, and the national reputation of the college--and if none of these outcomes were achieved, at least it would be an interesting community experiment that would do little or no harm.

Why this proposal came at this particular moment is not entirely a mystery. It was a time of serious questioning of the academic experience, both at Reed and on many other liberal arts campuses. Reed's attrition rate was high, students were critical of the Western-only emphasis of the curriculum, and as we were hitting the humanities lectures, Timothy Leary was urging us to "turn on, tune in, and drop out." Reedies don't suffer idle complaining easily, however, and they love stirring things up. Lanning, along with Richard Mollica '68, Kathryn Lazar '71, Marc Madden '71, and others, took the gripes and complaints of their fellow students and turned them into an idea--a challenge to the entire community to stop whining and take control of their education, or at least five weeks of it.

Of course, when the idea hit the community it caused an immediate uproar, with slings and arrows flying in the Questin best Reed style. Letters to the editor said that implementing UIS would be "a roaring disaster," "a meaningless waste of time." Others called the proposal "only for the rich," on the theory that students who needed to work during breaks would be unable to participate. Meanwhile, supporters claimed that implementing UIS was vital to Reed's continuing existence, a springboard for healthy change and new community awareness. As usual, about 10 percent of the student body actually engaged in the debate at all, while the others doggedly attended classes, wrote papers, and tried to avoid the whole subject.


Beginning juggling is a perennially popular Paideia class.


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