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reed magazine logoJune 2010

Empire of the Griffin

Connecting Reed Alumni Across the Globe
Alumni College

Back to School—at Reed

This year, Reed hosted its first Winter Alumni College during Paideia. The topic was technology and how it affects society in the areas of communities, health, food, and the environment. Alumni College consists of several days of classes with presentations by experts, group discussions, and time for socializing during on-campus meals. I registered on a whim, and then had second thoughts, because I’m retired now, and I’m allergic to whatever smacks of work.

The day before classes, I realized with shame that I had neglected the reading list. When I finally got my hands on the readings, I was dismayed to heft a stack of paper two inches thick, weighing over three pounds. I flashed back to that sinking feeling freshman year when I discovered I was supposed to breeze through the Iliad in about the same time it would take to watch a movie.

I pawed through the essays, expecting to be bored, but the depth and variety of topics quickly captured my interest. The healthcare issues were relevant to pending healthcare legislation. The papers on genetic engineering had me glued to my chair.

I entered the still-venerable portals of Eliot Hall and was glad that it retained its air of stately (if soggy) elegance. Our classroom emitted the welcome aroma of coffee and pastries. Sitting around the conference table, we ranged from recent grads back to members of the class of 1960. Professor John Pock [sociology, 1955-98] attended in the unaccustomed role of student.

We struggled to define technology, and found the term elusive. When Professor Pock declared our attempt “useless,” it triggered a further round of discussion. Was Pock goading us yet again?

Laura Leviton ’73, special advisor to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, spoke to us on how technology affects health. She pointed out that skewed public spending does not reflect real risks to health; compare your chance of death in a car crash (1 in 85) to your chance of death in a terrorist attack (near-zero) yet look at our upside-down spending.

Keith Allen ’83, the head of computational biology at Syngenta Biotechnology, discussed how genetic engineering can help address water shortages and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers (ironically a large part of Syngenta’s product line). He wishes that organic farmers would not view genetic engineering as the enemy, since it holds such enormous potential to solve environmental problems.

Howard Rheingold ’68, the author of Smart Mobs, could not appear in person, but he came to us larger than life via a You-Tube video. He said that new forms of cooperation enabled by new technologies create new forms of wealth, and explained how sharing can be in a company’s best interests, citing Google, where “free information pays.”

In our lively breakout sessions, we brought to bear our real-world experiences as we pinballed from topic to topic. When we tried to organize the results of our discussions, I was amused at the array of sticky-note categories that our energetic leader Jim Kahan ’64 kept amending as demanded by rival camps of “lumpers” and “splitters.”

Walking around campus, I enjoyed the creative energy of today’s students. One fellow was running inside a fifteen-foot high, student-designed, hamster wheel (See Eliot Circular, March 2010) while a cacophony of banging, drumming, whistling, and tooting came from colorfully clad students marching in their Noise Parade, which was led by a shirtless man in a ballet tutu. This racket competed with an informal gathering of student folk musicians called S.L.U.R., which stands for Singing Loudly Unto Reed.

On the last day of the college, I was struck by a comment from Professor Pock. He told us that when he first came to Reed, the intelligent discussion he encountered in conferences “blew my mind.” At first, he was surprised when students told him what they were thinking about. “No student had ever done that before,” he said. But he wondered about “the life expectancy of this energetic intellectual activity.” Does this fade away when we become real adults in the real world?

Participating in Alumni College, he said, showed him that “this has a lot of durability to it.”

And then, in a heartfelt moment of humility, he thanked us.

—Constance Emerson Crooker ’69

For more on Alumni College, see

Further Reading

  • David Nye, Technology Matters . Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
  • Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic Monthly, August, 1945.
  • Howard Rheingold, “Virtual Worlds Research: Past, Present & Future,” Whole Earth Review, Winter, 1987.
  • Pamela Ronald, “Making Rice Disease-Resistant,” Scientific American, Nov. 1997
  • Donald Engelbart, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” Stanford Research Institute Report AFOSR-3233, October, 1962.
  • Ted Williams, “Sin City Goes Dry,” Audubon, March 2007.
reed magazine logoJune 2010