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 220, or two units of 211, 212, 231, and 232.

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 211 - The Renaissance World and the Birth of Modernity I

Full course for one semester. Beginning with the cultural and intellectual entanglements of the Christian and Islamic worlds in the Middle Ages, this course examines how Europeans’ understanding and experience of the world they inhabited were transformed between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Through readings of authors such as Ibn Tufayl, Averroës, Dante, Machiavelli, Diaz, Luther, Rabelais, Marguerite de Navarre, and Montaigne, we will explore how the momentous social, cultural, political, religious, philosophical, literary, and artistic developments of this period—encounters with non-Christians in the Mediterranean and Atlantic worlds, the emergence of new genres in the literary and visual arts, and the social and religious upheaval of the Protestant Reformation—provoked a period of crisis and creativity that transformed the complex legacies of the ancient world. In particular, we will study how the reconfigured understandings of humanity’s relationship to nature, society, and the divine challenged assumptions about political, intellectual, religious, and gendered authority. Prerequisite: Humanities 110, sophomore standing, or consent of the instructor. Lecture-conference.

Humanities 212 - The Renaissance World and the Birth of Modernity II

Full course for one semester. In the wake of the political, religious, and cultural upheavals in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans pursued new forms of knowledge, literary and artistic expression, social and religious life, and domestic and political authority.  In doing so, however, they also provoked new questions about the individual’s relationship to God, nature, family, and polity. By examining the writings of authors and artists such as Shakespeare, Teresa of Avila, Cervantes, Artemisia Gentileschi, Galileo, Descartes, Molière, Hobbes, and Milton, this course will examine topics such as the Counter-Reformation, the development of philosophical skepticism, the so-called Scientific Revolution, Mediterranean encounters with the Ottoman Empire, and the ongoing tension between absolute monarchy and constitutional government. 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 231 - Early Imperial China: The Qin-Han Unification

Full course for one semester. 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. Prerequisite: sophomore standing; however, second-semester freshmen are welcome with instructor’s consent. Lecture-conference.

Humanities 232 - Middle Imperial China: The Great Song Transition

Full course for one semester. The transformation of Chinese civilization during the “Song renaissance” (960–1279) is our major concern for the fall semester. China mentally realigned itself, first because it had to acknowledge other players in the world such as the powerful nomad states along its own northern borders and second because those nomads would occupy the northern half of China during what is called the “Southern Song” (1127–1279). Buddhism, a foreign religion though it had been introduced to China many centuries before the Song period, flourished alongside the indigenous popular pantheon. Furthermore, China underwent internal changes such as the emergence of a vibrant urban culture. Self-representation changed in tandem with the rise of a new social stratum, the shidafu, and the literati culture it produced. The change rippled into the fine arts as well. We will study the new contexts of Chinese civilization through travel essays, cartography, and reports and journals of diplomatic envoys. Tiantai Buddhism, Chan Buddhism, and indigenous popular religion will be examined through their primary texts. We will observe the changes in culture via storytelling and dramatic texts and via Song cityscape paintings. We will “learn about the Way” (daoxue) with Zhu Xi, China’s second-most famous scholar, who recast his forerunner Confucius to make him the linchpin of middle and late imperial education. In literature, we will study Song shi- and ci-poetry. Shi-poetry showed expanded topics and the mindset of the new literati class. Ci-poetry transformed the very notion of poetics. In art, we will analyze monumental landscape painting, printed illustrations, and Song aesthetic theory. The Qin-Han unification may have laid the basic foundation of China, but many have argued that the Song gave modern China its distinctive cultural heritage. Prerequisite: sophomore standing; however, second-semester freshmen are welcome with instructor’s consent. Lecture-conference.

Not offered 2017–18.

Humanities 411 - Senior Symposium

One-half course for one semester. Each section of the senior symposium is limited to 15 students and is guided by two or three faculty members representing different divisions. The course engages students and faculty from different majors and disciplines to discuss how various authors and artists present and interrogate problems of our age, from the political to the personal. Selected works comprise a variety of genres, such as memoir, graphic novel, short fiction, poetry, sociological case study, film, and investigative journalism. Authors include Michelle Alexander, Svetlana Alexievich, Barbara Demick, Arlene Russell Hochschild, Hope Jahren, Rutu Modan, Melissa Mohr, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, and Ayelet Tsabari. The course considers themes such as understanding how we talk to one another, appreciating the meaning and history of words and their weight once they have been spoken, reflecting on the difficult art of describing other people’s lives, and recognizing just how hard it is to listen and hear and translate others’ experiences. Offered on a credit/no credit basis only. Prerequisite: senior standing. Discussion.