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

“The humanities”—literae humaniores in Latin—referred originally to the study of texts written by human, rather than divine, hands. In modern education, the humanities have come to include the study of literature, history, philosophy, religion, politics, and the arts. From these perspectives, students of the humanities consider some of the ways in which people have represented and reflected on the physical, social, psychological, and ideological features of the world in which they live. They investigate the various materials that form the basis of a culture and that simultaneously provide key terms for its critique and transformation. Typical questions include: How have different cultures distinguished appearance from reality, nature from culture, particular from universal? How have they made sense of the connection between the individual and the various groups in which individuals claim membership? How can we understand the relations between reason and desire, word and deed, the worldly and the transcendent? In pursuing such questions, moreover, humanistic study seeks to employ a set of analytic perspectives—literary, aesthetic, historical, philosophical, social scientific—that have helped shape our intellectual tradition and now compose the foundations of a liberal arts education.

One and one-half course for one year. Humanities 110 introduces students to humanistic inquiry by considering a range of artistic, intellectual, political, and religious strategies that emerged in ancient Greece and in the larger Mediterranean world of which it was a part. The course examines how varieties of human thought interact to produce a culture’s distinctive way of life. Recognizing that no culture is self-contained, we seek as well to interpret ancient sources as artifacts of cultural exchange, influence, and differentiation. For example, we might consider how materials from ancient Athens intersect and diverge from one another in their reflections on democracy, empire, gender, race, or class, while also considering how these materials compare with those of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Persian, Israelite, Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman, or early Christian cultures. In doing so, we will encounter issues of continuing relevance pertaining to ideals of truth, beauty, virtue, justice, happiness, and freedom, as well as challenges posed by social inequality, war, power, and prejudice.

As the only course required of all first-year students at Reed, Humanities 110 serves as the college’s foundational writing course and introduces students to the skills and habits of mind necessary for academic inquiry in their future work at Reed. Over the course of the year students should become more practiced and adept at framing questions that elicit deeper analysis; cultivating intellectual curiosity; crafting, analyzing, critiquing, and defending arguments using evidence; expressing ideas in writing and speech clearly, persuasively, and honestly; participating productively and respectfully in a Reed conference discussion; interpreting primary sources in a range of media and genres; and practicing the basic methods of various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Lecture-conference.

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 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.