by David L. Perry ’73, alumni association president
My third-grade son, Michael, came home one day, and, in a good John F. Kennedy accent, started: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. . . . ” As part of various school projects, we’ve researched many speeches of that era, including by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, and others by J.F.K.
I’m amazed when I contrast the attitudes expressed then, with those of today. In 1972, George McGovern (running for president) was excoriated for pandering to the electorate when he said the government should give every taxpayer $1,000. Now, after years of “no new taxes,” “tax cuts for the rich,” “you need a prescription drug benefit,” and on and on, he’d be accused of being too stingy, rather than pandering. Can you imagine the current response to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country?” I fear it would be along the lines of “we want our taxes reduced, our benefits raised, all the pork-barrel projects you can shoehorn into our district, and to hell with doing anything for the country more than paying what we already pay.”
Sadly, the same I-me-mine attitude seems to permeate our educational system on nearly every level. Did you ever interview a high school student (for Reed) who is “near the top in his class,” but seems to have only read one book, The Catcher in the Rye? Or (another) who thought Plato should have just left everyone in the cave? (I’m a sucker for a good line of reasoning, but she didn’t have one.) It goes on and on—colleges everywhere are full of remedial courses that are full of students who, apparently, didn’t learn anything in high school. The recent ReediEnews story of the Dartmouth dean who let students be graded on a pass/fail basis when their professor, Jon Appleton ’61, apparently didn’t hand out enough As and Bs suggests that even the old “gentleman’s C” has gone by the wayside as Not Good Enough. And lest you think I’m complaining about the younger generation, I’m not; it’s my generation that I’m most disappointed in. My last Reed interviewee was fantastic!
In so many ways, Reed is a contrast to this. Students still have to complete Humanities 110 in their freshman year. They still have to meet many distribution requirements, pass the junior qual, and write and defend a senior thesis to graduate. If anything has been watered down, it’s not apparent from my vantage point. Much is different, of course. The reading list for Humanities 110 has changed substantially through time, Reed has much better student and career services departments, and the facilities have been upgraded. And we no longer excuse a low graduation rate by saying “the faculty has tried to weed out unqualified students.” The graduation rate is now the highest it’s ever been—without compromising our standards to achieve it.
So if you too sometimes wonder what the world is coming to, remember that there are 100 acres in Southeast Portland where scholarship, hard work, and academic standards are still valued, where students are still concerned with learning and not grades, and where, when you visit (for example, at Alumni College or Reunions 2006, May 30–June 4), you’ll find that we all value those things. What could be more comforting than that?