Presidents of Reed

Colin S. Diver’s speeches, letters, and articles

Centennial Fanfayre Convocation
Remarks of President Colin S. Diver
June 10, 2011

Happy birthday, Reed! And welcome to Renn Fayre for grownups. Actually, looking out at this gathering makes me realize what freshman convocation would look like if we didn't have to waste our education on the young. In fact, it's not too late. We'll give you an admission application. The tuition's only $42,000. And you could keep living in the dorms. And eating in the commons. For four years. Every day.

I really appreciate your coming to this centennial reunion, and the miraculous work that so many of you have done to make this a truly historic event. I especially like some of the hilarious aphorisms appearing in our graffiti exhibition next door and on bumper stickers in the parking lot. One of my favorites says: "If ignorance is bliss, why aren't more Americans happy?" Well, you'll be pleased to know that Reed is continuing to play its historic role in helping to stamp out bliss.

In the long countdown to Reed College's centennial, I have been reading its history, reveling in its stories, and thinking deeply about this question: what, fundamentally, is Reed College? What is the glue that has held it together, across the generations, through wartime and peacetime, through periods of turmoil and periods of quiet, through fiscal drought and fiscal plenty?

Like the proverbial elephant, Reed means different things to different observers. It is a corporation, governed by the rules of an elaborate constitutional structure. It is a beautiful place, filled with iconic buildings, sweeping lawns, and majestic trees. It is a collection of people: 1,400 students, 500 employees, 15,000 living alumni, and many thousands more who made their imprint on the college, and then passed on. It is a treasure trove of stories and memories, many thankfully preserved by our oral history project, in our archives, on our website, and soon to be published in a book and captured in a documentary. Reed is an amazing array of wild and wacky traditions, like the Doyle Owl (where, by the way, is the Doyle Owl?). It is a rich collection of courses and classes, services and programs, all devoted to fulfilling the college's official mission as "an institution of higher education in the liberal arts devoted to the intrinsic value of intellectual pursuit and governed by the highest standards of scholarly practice, critical thought, and creativity."

Reed is all of these things. But it is not, it seems to me, fundamentally any of these things. Fundamentally, I think Reed is an idea—an idea that animates action, inspires belief and loyalty, and transmits an institutional culture across the generations. What is that idea? To me, it is an idea about authenticity—about the necessity, the nobility, and the beauty of the authentic life. I use the term "authenticity," not in a strictly philosophical sense. Yes, I think Reed embodies many of the ideas expressed by existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, Adorno, and Fromm. But, as its philosophical lineage, I am content to invoke Socrates' famous injunction that the unexamined life is not worth living.

As the embodiment of this idea, Reed College has been consistently devoted to five qualities that produce and constitute authenticity: inquiry, discipline, practice, principle, and meaning.

First, inquiry. The examined life requires examination, exploration. Throughout its history Reed has emphasized those virtues in all it does. The conference method is all about examining, contesting, debating, and refining ideas. The senior thesis is about developing habits of mind necessary to ask a question worth exploring, and mastering the technique necessary to find compelling ways to answer that question.

Second, discipline. Examination requires focus and sustained attention, persistence and sheer hard work. We are not afraid to push our students and we are not afraid to push ourselves. Indeed, if we don't actually enjoy being pushed, and pushing back, we just aren't doing it right.

Third, practice. Authenticity requires acquiring knowledge from the inside out, as well as the outside in. At Reed we learn by practicing the arts and methods of the disciplines, not simply reading, observing, and hearing about them. We write essays, dissect rats' brains, generate neutron beams, analyze data sets, and dig into archives. We sing, we act, we dance.

Fourth, principle. To convert examination into the actual living of a life, one needs a compass, a guiding light. From its earliest years, Reed has sought to instill a sense of ethical awareness and reverence for virtue. The Honor Principle expresses this notion that action must be grounded in principles that transcend the particular and the expedient.

Finally, meaning. What makes us truly human is our need to find, or impose, meaning in our lives. The architecture of Reed's curriculum—from its iconic freshman humanities course, through the distribution and major requirements, to the senior thesis—is designed to provide both a blueprint for the construction of meaning and an exposure to a rich set of models of how others have constructed meaning for their own lives.

In the minds of many observers, authenticity is often associated with rebellion. The authentic individual, on this understanding, has to renounce the corrupt, cheapened, commercialized conventions of a surrounding society. Indeed, there is plenty of rebellion and counter-culture expressed in Reed's history. Many students—you know who you are!—came to Reed looking for a kind of libertarian utopia, an existence set apart from the world's perceived hypocrisy, a place to thumb their noses at the conventions of the outer society. Like so many of the individuals who have attended Reed, the college itself has often manifested what some people interpret as rebelliousness. Reed's celebrated refusal to participate in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings is a contemporary illustration, but the spirit of rebelliousness goes back to the founding. William Trufant Foster, Reed's first president, literally fled from what he saw as the hypocrisy and mediocrity of the Eastern Establishment. And of course, there is that famous slogan: Communism, Atheism, and Free Love. Is it really the college's official slogan, or just a joke?

But, authenticity—as expressed in Reed's history—is not fundamentally negative. It is not simply about rebellion. It is, in Isaiah Berlin's famous formulation, about positive liberty, not simply negative liberty. The rebels in Reed's history have built authentic lives in engagement with their community and their culture. Reed College has gone its own way over the years, not primarily to be in opposition to a prevailing or conventional way, but rather to achieve the positive goal of enabling its students to lead an authentic life, and to do so in an institutionally authentic way. We have resisted grade inflation because the evaluation of student work should be an occasion for dialog, not simply labeling or credentialing. We still require all freshmen to take a yearlong humanities course, so that students will have a shared basis for exploring what some of the ancient Mediterranean world's greatest authors, thinkers, and artists believed it meant to be truly human. We still have many curricular requirements, because the examined life requires a full range of methodologies, perspectives, and lenses through which to observe life. And we have an honor principle because virtue is the true path.

So here we sit, poised on our centennial, looking backward, but also looking forward. What promise does the future hold? We can say for certain that Reed will continue to change, adapt, adjust, refine, and improve. The superficial things, the instrumental things, about Reed will change, as they always have. There is, so far as I can tell, a new version of Olde Reed about every four years.

But the fundamental things will not change. Of course I go out on a limb with that statement. I have no crystal ball. I cannot guarantee the future. But I can predict with confidence that Reed College at its core will remain Reed. The pursuit of authenticity is in our bloodstream, it is our DNA. My fondest wish, and my honest expectation, is that the speaker at the Reed College bicentennial will dredge up a copy of this speech, and nod her head in approval, and say, "Yes. That is the Reed College I know." She will say, "Yes. That is why I am here and we are all here." And a hundred years from now I hope that graduates of the college will gather, as you have gathered, on this very spot, and say, "Yes. That is why we return to this magical place, years after having graduated, to celebrate the nobility of the examined life, the worthiness of the authentic life." And they will say, "I can absorb once again the spirit of this place, even if only for a few days or a few hours, and then go back into a different world—and do my part to make it more authentic."

One of my greatest teachers, and one of the greatest mentors to my wife Joan, was Howard Thurman, the great preacher, mystic, author, source of inspiration to Martin Luther King and a generation of social justice activists. Howard Thurman once wrote these words:

There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.

Reed College has been devoted for a hundred years to helping generations of students, faculty, staff, and, yes, presidents listen for the sound of the genuine in themselves, challenging them to explore it, nurture it, develop it, and translate it into the basis for a truly examined life, a life of agency, a life of authenticity. May it ever be so.

Thank you.

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