Reed College Catalog


Reed College offers an educational program based on “an honest effort to disregard old historic rivalries and hostilities between the sciences and the arts, between professional and cultural subjects, and, I might add, the formal chronological cleavage between the graduate and the undergraduate attitude of mind.”

The above statement was taken from the remarks made to the Association of American Colleges by Richard F. Scholz, second president of Reed College, in 1922. It remains a fundamental commitment today. A major focus of that commitment is the humanities program, which, since its inception in 1943, has served as a model for many similar programs throughout the nation. In 1995 the program opened a new chapter with the inauguration of Chinese humanities as an integral component.

Each Reed student’s educational program includes one year of humanities studies in the first year. The student may elect to continue the study of humanities with courses in the early modern and modern periods of European civilization or in the foundations of Chinese civilization.

The humanities curriculum places primary emphasis not upon information, important as that may be, but upon the development of disciplined thinking and writing through the interpretation of works of art, literature, or other means by which people have expressed themselves and ordered their lives, individually and socially. Courses acquaint students with poetry, drama, painting, sculpture, music, religion, philosophical systems, forms of political and social order, and historical works.

Students are encouraged to think about course materials in their cultural contexts and from the perspective of a variety of individual disciplines. For instance, in the plays of Aeschylus the handling of aristocratic legends reflects the contemporary political concern with tyranny, as in the Agamemnon, and with the substitution of city justice for blood revenge, as in the Eumenides. Similar methods of interpretation apply to later periods in Europe, with such figures as Dante, Shakespeare, Locke, J.S. Mill, Flaubert, Conrad, and Woolf. In the study of Chinese civilization, Sima Qian’s Shi Ji is examined both for its philosophy of history and for its implications concerning narrative theory, while the shi- and ci-poetry of the Song dynasty are treated as embodiments of both an expanding aesthetic vision and changing social values. All the courses attend to the fine arts: for example, the Acropolis as a focus of the city-state, the sculptural program of Augustus’s Altar of Peace, architecture of the Italian Renaissance, eighteenth-century interior decoration, funerary art of the Han period, and landscape painting of Song China.

In a structure that allows Reed students to develop multiple perspectives on a common body of learning, scholars from many disciplines lecture and lead conferences in the course. One of the three units of credit for Humanities 110 reflects the attention given explicitly to developing analytical and writing skills, where the representative works studied are effective subjects for frequent papers, discussed in individual paper conferences.

Course Requirements

  1. All first-year students are required to take Humanities 110, as are those transfer students who have not completed equivalent transferable courses.
  2. It is recommended that sophomores take Humanities 210, 220, or 230.

Transfer student humanities: students transferring more than six units may substitute one of the 200-level humanities courses and one additional unit from Group A or Group B for the first-year humanities requirement. Courses used to fulfill the humanities requirement may not be used to fulfill other college distribution requirements.

Humanities 110 - Introduction to Humanities: Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean

One and one-half course for one year. Lecture-conference.

Fall semester: The Ancient Mediterranean

The fall semester focuses on the interaction of different civilizations in the ancient Mediterranean. The course begins with the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh and other documents from Mesopotamia, then examines Egyptian texts and artifacts, as well as foundational narratives from Hebrew scripture, before turning to a consideration of Homer’s Iliad, the didactic poetry of Hesiod, and lyric poetry and works of art from the eighth through the sixth centuries BCE. The course then examines different perspectives on the Persians during the reign of Cyrus and the period encompassing the Persian-Greek War; works studied include Persian royal inscriptions, Herodotus’s Histories, and monumental Persian palace architecture. Finally, the course considers works from classical Athens, including the Parthenon, dramas by Aeschylus, and Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War. Throughout the semester, the course concentrates on the Mediterranean peoples’ relation to the gods, to their political communities, to each other and to other peoples, and seeks to study these relations through the evidence of material culture (sculpture, vase painting, and architecture) as well as literary, historical, philosophical and political texts. Themes for the semester include the development of civic and religious architecture, the rise and development of the Greek polis, the relations between different cultures, notions of virtue and justice, and questions having to do with gender identity and gender relations, slavery, and the encounter with groups considered “other.”

Spring semester: The Hellenistic Period and the Rise of Roman Empire

The second semester continues the study of the ancient Mediterranean, tracing the development of Egypt, Palestine, and Rome from the fourth century BCE to the first century CE. The term begins in fourth-century Athens with the critiques of individual and polis virtues made by Plato and Aristotle in The Republic, The Nicomachean Ethics, and The Politics. This first section concludes with a transitional examination of the encounter between classical Greek, Macedonian, and Egyptian cultures in the Hellenistic period; works studied include Theocritus’s Idylls, Hellenistic statuary, and the city of Alexandria. The course then turns to the rise of Rome within this larger context, tracing the transition from republic to empire in the works of Cicero, Livy, Virgil and Ovid, as well as Roman civic monuments. The course concludes with a comparison of different models of virtue and vice throughout the Roman empire, now encompassing the areas studied earlier in the semester, with a reading of first-century Jewish texts and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, a work that brings together most of the cultural traditions encountered throughout the year. As with the first semester, the question of how different cultures interact and develop is prominent, and a range of cultural products are studied and compared: history, poetry, drama, philosophy, statuary, and civic architecture.

Humanities 210 - The Renaissance World and the Birth of Modernity

Full course for one year. This course explores the momentous social, cultural, political, religious, philosophical, literary, and artistic developments and innovations that took place between the late Middle Ages and early Enlightenment, laying the foundations of modernity. Opening with an examination of cultural and intellectual exchange between Islamic and Christian culture in the late medieval and early Renaissance period, the course then turns to theories and practices of social and religious life, including the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. Among the subjects we examine are the interaction of new and old forms of knowledge; the emergence of new genres in the literary and visual arts; popular cultural traditions; and Western Europeans’ cultural entanglements with other Mediterranean and Atlantic societies and cultures, including Islamic Spain, the native populations of the Americas, and the Ottoman Empire. The first semester culminates in an examination of crisis and creativity in the sixteenth century with authors such as Ibn Tufayl, Dante, Machiavelli, Luther, Rabelais, Marguerite de Navarre, and Montaigne. Study of these issues is further deepened in the second semester through the reading of works by writers such as Cervantes, Shakespeare, Teresa of Avila, Galileo, Descartes, Molière, and Milton. In particular, we focus on the development of philosophical skepticism, the so-called scientific revolution, and the ongoing tension between absolute monarchy and constitutional government. Prerequisite: Humanities 110 or equivalent. Lecture-conference.

Humanities 220 - Modern European Humanities

Full course for one year. An interdisciplinary study of the development of modern European humanities, from the Enlightenment to roughly the mid-twentieth century. Primary attention is given to the transformations of ideas, political institutions, social structures, and forms of artistic, literary, and philosophical expression that characterize the modern world. The course addresses such crucial topics as the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, liberalism and socialism, the modern city, imperialism, Darwinism, psychoanalysis, modernist art and literature, the Bolshevik Revolution, and twentieth-century war, totalitarianism, and genocide. The course includes lectures, discussions, and papers on topics of individual interest that are developed in each conference. Prerequisite: Humanities 110 or equivalent. Students may not register for the course if they have a conflict with the lecture hour. Lecture-conference.

Prior iterations of the course can be viewed at

Humanities 230 - Foundations of Chinese Civilization

Full course for one year. This course is an interdisciplinary examination of two pivotal periods in Chinese history, the Qin/Han (221 BCE–220 CE) and Song (960–1279 CE) dynasties. Prerequisite: Humanities 110 or equivalent. Lecture-conference.

Fall semester: The Qin/Han Unification

In geography and cultural advances, the Qin and Han dynasties surpassed their predecessors, and together they number among the world’s greatest empires. This course examines their heritage through a selection of primary texts including the Confucian Analects, the enigmatic Dao de Jing, the cosmological Book of Changes, and the historical narrative tradition of Sima Qian’s Shi Ji. It samples cultural expression ranging from the poetic discourse of rhapsodies and pentasyllabic verse to the religious endeavors manifested in funerary artifacts. Alongside textual studies, this course explores the Han’s physical remains, including the ruins of its capitals, the Wu Liang shrine, and its important tombs. The Qin/Han portrays itself as a territorial, political, and cultural unifier, and it sets the benchmark against which all later dynasties must measure themselves.

Spring semester: The Great Song Transition

During the Song renaissance, China mentally realigned itself, as it acknowledged nomad states who would eventually occupy the northern half of China. Foreign religions such as Tiantai and Chan Buddhism flourished alongside the indigenous popular pantheon; we study all of these through their primary texts. These texts and others were propagated through the new woodblock print medium. Furthermore, China was undergoing internal changes such as the emergence of a vibrant new urban culture, which we hear through Song drama and see through Song cityscape paintings. This realignment found other new expressions in intimate lyric poetry, calligraphy, and monumental landscape art. The Qin/Han unification may have laid the basic foundation of imperial China, but the Song marks the beginning of modern China.

Humanities 411 - Senior Symposium

One-half course for one semester. The senior symposium provides a common core of study for seniors of all divisions and promotes an exchange of experience in an effort to understand critical problems of our age. Each section of the course is limited to 15 students and is guided by two or three faculty members representing different divisions. Basing discussion on significant works written in recent years by such people as Alison Bechdel, Stewart Brand, Lynn Nottage, Errol Morris, Michelle Alexander, Rutu Modan, and Rebecca Skloot, the course considers interpretations of current artistic, social, and political concerns; the problem of the relation of science to society; and the nature of science and the limits of knowledge. Ultimately the course is concerned with basic diagnoses of our age made in terms of differing fundamental points of view. Offered on a credit/no credit basis only. Prerequisite: senior standing. Discussion.