Carol Burns ’62
This year was the mid-point in Reed’s first one hundred years. It was accompanied not only by renewed exploration of the past 50 years, but also by examination of the next 50. The prospect for the future includes plans for extensive building and additions to present facilities, a sizable increase in the student body, and an anticipated rise in tuition payments of about $100 per year on the average for the next decade. There are mixed reactions to this future. Some look forward to the new developments. Others are uneasy and find themselves filled with a curious nostalgia for the present. This uneasiness about the future has caused a number of Reed students to turn to the past, to claim that the old Reed was better in some way and that the college is losing what was once a truly exciting intellectual climate. That utopian past is probably legendary. Old Quests and Griffins, even members of the early graduating classes, cannot convey to us how it really was in those days.
The past cannot be recovered. The future is dim. Even the present eludes us. We are described by our public relations office and by Sunday supplements; we are rated by national surveys. Usually our reaction is amusement or horror. No, we say, that is not how it really is. Most Griffins of the past few years have shown us to be beautiful and zany, now rapt in deep thought, now cavorting—long hair flying—at one with nature. That is not true either. We are somehow closer to normal than that, I think.
How then will we describe to the students of Reed’s centennial year how it was among us in the year 1961–62? There is much that no one person can describe. How can anyone speak for the rather large number of students who have never written a letter to the Quest, never run for student council, never acted in a student play, and never especially cared to see the Doyle Owl? How can I, a politico, attempt to speak for the scientists and sociologists, the literati, and the philosophers? ...
Reed was no place for a person who had some idea of the way things should be. Most Reed students simply took things in their stride. And that had a certain joie de vivre. Not a mad Rivieran joie de vivre or the joie de vivre of poetic transport, but a kind of routine everyday joie de vivre. Lectures and conferences were frequently dull and we agonized over writing papers, but it seemed worth doing. Our conversations were, for the most part, mundane. We talked about classes, instructors or one another, or we got into perfectly absurd arguments. But we did talk to one another, unlike those others who sat facing television sets, and we enjoyed it. We were content to live and let live. The sins of others made interesting conversation but were otherwise of no concern to us, and Reed students chose to live, dress, and act in a wide range of styles. We had no values. That, the publicists said, was the shortcoming of our generation, but we got along well without values. The idea of God has little meaning for us, and that vision which inspired the rationalists of the nineteenth century—the future—looked unpromising to us. Even those who stood on the Portland streets with signs asking for peace and disarmament did so less from hope than from a feeling that even if it was hopeless it was somehow worth doing. Those values, which we rejected, were phony values. Above all, we were remarkably unphony, and when we were phony we were conscious of it, as if going to a costume ball. When a Reed man put on a necktie he did so out of whimsy or expediency, not compulsion. Without ultimate standards or goals, we nonetheless found life interesting.
I hope there is still a Reed College in the year 2011–12. I hope that there are still people on this planet and that they are living good lives. What sort of life you must be leading in the year of Reed’s 100th anniversary is beyond my imagination. Yes, it is to you I am writing. This manuscript has been, I am sure, of little interest to the students of 1961–62. But you to whom I am writing are a peculiar audience, for I am possessed of a disquieting feeling that you will never exist. I hope I am wrong. Perhaps your Reed belongs to the state and is no longer beset by financial worries. You have lost the joy of sitting on Goodwill mattresses in unfurnished rooms, eating horsemeat, and drinking cheap wine by candlelight. The inauguration of an era of peace and security has brought an end to our frustrated radicalism and you now enjoy a calm, ordered life, rich in things material.
The world changes, and it is well that it changes. But perhaps Reed will not have changed so much as we thought and still exists as an oasis in society. Do people still walk about whistling and singing to themselves so that when three people pass on the paths, there is created a counterpoint of Vivaldi, “Frankie and Johnny,” and “Stars and Stripes Forever”? Is the Honor Principle, according to Quest editorials, still failing? Passing the smoking room of the library, do you still overhear this snatch of conversation? “I have just made the statement that this table (thump) exists. Now what do I mean when I say . . .” Is the Quest still incomprehensible to anyone without firsthand knowledge of the events reported? Has someone just planted the Doyle Owl on the Moon?
If so, then things really haven’t changed very much.
Carol Burns ’62 is an independent documentary filmmaker in Olympia, Washington.
Nisma Elias ’12
Yes, Reed exists. More to the point, I, a member of the class of ’12, exist. The prospect of being a newly-minted graduate brings with it excitement of the unknown and fear of failure. In reading the manuscript that eerily addresses me, I can say for sure that there have been enormous changes at Reed. There are more of us—about 1,450, compared to 844 in your day. We write theses on subjects like Brownian motion in the stock market and postmodernism and retrieve data from the cloud. We can compile a review of the literature on gender wage differentials across the globe and time with the click of a button.
There is no longer a smoking room in the library and horsemeat, alas, is no longer a part of our diet, although if you dropped into Commons you’d be surprised at the food from which some Reedies abstain—meat, dairy, and eggs, for starters.
However, it is striking how little has changed. There is not one type of Reedie; we still live, dress, and act in an exuberant variety of fashions. We still read Homer, Herodotus, and Plato. We question not only the existence of God, but any and all values we carried with us to Reed. Life is still neither calm nor ordered, not with the unemployment rate at 8.6% and the economy recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
We still find inexplicable joy in lying on mattresses (the origin of which is questionable) in Sallyport or on the Great Lawn, drinking cheap beer, and debating the distance of stars or the possibility of the Big Crunch. The Quest may be online, but it is still largely incomprehensible, at least to anyone who’s not a student.
Although the claim that Olde Reed was better will probably always be repeated, I am confident that Reed will continue to nurture outstanding scientists, scholars, and philosophers in the next 100 years.
And the Doyle Owl hasn’t been to the moon . . . yet. Just wait until I get my hands on the latest holographic technology.
Nisma Elias ’12 majored in economics and is now pursuing graduate work in development economics at Yale. She is idealistic about eradicating poverty and inequality and promoting the spirit of inquiry that Reed helped foster within her.