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Feature Story
reed magazine logoWinter 2009

In 1964, about two dozen new faculty members had arrived on campus, bringing with them the burgeoning social unrest of the era. Four of them became vocal advocates for change: Mason Drukman and Kirk Thompson in political science, and Howard Waskow and Jon Roush in English.

A recent Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley, Roush moved with his wife and two young boys into one of the faculty houses on the southeast edge of campus, next door to the Drukmans. At first, Roush was thrilled by the freedom to develop upper-division courses. One of his earliest Reed memories is walking home from a class in medieval literature and marveling that he was being paid to do something so wonderful. “I remember talking to Mason early on in that first fall, standing out in the quad or something,” he reminisces, “and Mason looking around and saying, ‘You know, I could get used to spending the rest of my life here.’ That hadn’t occurred to me—that I might be there for the rest of my life—but then I thought yes, maybe. It’s a very strong, very attractive place.”

The Young Turks

Roush
Jon Roush
Thompson
Kirk Thompson

And yet, the Young Turks soon grew disillusioned. What struck them first was the high drop-out rate. “A lot of the faculty members saw [the attrition rate] as a badge of honor,” says Roush. “It showed what a rigorous, tough school it was; you really had to have a lot of mettle to stay, to make it through. We saw that as a problem. . . we knew that half those freshman students were not losers. We knew that the school was failing them.”

It seemed to Drukman that many students left Reed because “they felt somewhat constricted here, or unsatisfied here, or at sea here.” As Roush explains, “It’s not that they were looking for some kind of paternalistic institution, but they were certainly looking for a richer life than they were finding at Reed.”

The focus of a Reed education, it seemed to Roush, was to prepare students for graduate school. In this, it succeeded mightily: Reed students were accepted for graduate study, with scholarships and fellowships, at a higher rate than virtually any other college in the country. But the Young Turks felt it was a mistake to treat students as apprentice academics rather than developing human beings. Their view of intellectual life was more holistic; they wanted to prepare students not only for academia, but also for the world.

Reed alumna Betsy Dearborn ‘68, who arrived in 1964 and left after her sophomore year, recognized the profound value of developing skills in critical thinking. But she was uncomfortable in some of her classes. “The dialogue that we were all being taught to have was like piranhas. We were all being taught to eat up the other people in our seminars, to prove that they were wrong and to obliterate them in some way—which is one form of academic inquiry, but I had no heart for it.”

The boot camp mentality of freshman humanities was to blame, according to the Young Turks, for much of the student discontent. Roush went so far as to call its relentless syllabus “a pedagogical disaster.”

“To read Aeschylus in one week, then go on to Sophocles the next week, is to do a real disservice to both Aeschylus and Sophocles,” he says. “I kept thinking that this is some of the most exciting, passionate literature and philosophy, and interesting art, that anybody’s ever produced, and nobody has the time to get interested in or passionate about it.”

In spring 1965, several new professors began meeting informally as CRAP, the Committee to Reform Academic Practice. “We gave ourselves that name as a kind of self-deprecating notion of what we were doing,” Drukman recalls. Hip, confident, and fresh out of graduate school, they didn’t think twice before suggesting changes to the college’s most significant curricular elements. Drukman says they “didn’t realize that junior faculty are expected to keep their mouths shut for the first year or so. We just didn’t know that, and maybe had a slightly starry-eyed view of what it was going to be like at a small school.”

“Even if we had known, we would have thought, ‘Why not anyway? What the hell? Let’s give it a try,’” Roush says. “This is the academy. We challenge ideas here. That’s what this is all about.”

But they did not comprehend exactly what—or whom—they were challenging.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009