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Leaving a Long Legacy Title

As a specialist in German philosophy ensconced at Reed College for four decades, William Peck has long occupied a unique place in the universe of higher education. It’s a point he illustrates with the following joke, a supposed conversation between two Reed students:

Student A: “Now that we’re friends, I have some things I want to tell you.”
Student B: “Oh?”
Student A: “First, I’m gay.”
Student B: “Okay.”
Student A: “Second, I haven’t read Hegel.”
Student B: “Oh, my GOD!!”

For Peck, the comical exchange speaks volumes about the intellectual hunger of Reed students. It’s one of the many aspects of Reed — including the ease of collaborating with faculty across the college and a campuswide commitment to scholarship — that the retiring Peck treasures most.

“I was the luckiest guy in the world to get this job,” says Peck, whose Reed tenure began in 1961. “It’s fitted me like a glove since the day I arrived.”

Peck is a self-described “old-fashioned Great Books type” with wide-ranging interests in the humanities. Reed’s intimate size, intellectual curiosity, and broad liberal arts focus allowed him to indulge those interests. For example, he co-taught several courses that melded philosophy with subjects such as anthropology and music.

“Peck’s versatility and broad-gauge interest in liberal arts will be missed,” says Gail Kelly ’55, emerita professor of anthropology, who taught several courses with Peck, including ones on universities and relativism. Even within his department, Peck has been “a voice for teaching philosophy as part of a broader liberal arts education, not simply as pre-paration for graduate school,” notes philosophy professor Mark Hinchliff ’81, a colleague and former student. “He also has been a strong proponent and practitioner of the conference style of teaching.”

Over the years, Peck has taught many courses on his specialty, German philosophy. To focus on such a defined and somewhat underappreciated topic is rare for a small-college faculty member. But Reed boasts twice as many philosophy majors per capita than the national average, he notes, and its students are pining for challenges. “Taking on big ideas, confronting them and struggling with them, is what a lot of Reed students think college should be.”

Peck’s remembers his first decade at Reed as “a boom time for teachers” and a turbulent one for higher education. Enrollments continued to rise as the civil rights, antiwar, and counterculture movements pervaded college campuses.

As the 1960s began, Peck, a recent Yale alumnus, sought out a good, small liberal arts college out West. One of his former graduate school professors

“They are intensely intellectual people who want to read good books,” he explains, “who admire professors and want to be around them. Reed is a terrific place to be a professor.”

Peck, who has taught part time the last two years, will take next semester off before returning to campus to teach, advise, and write. “I want to keep my mind fresh,” he says. He aims to spend more time traveling, although he admits that he hopes some of his trips will be to academic conferences: “That’s just my milieu.”

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