History in the Making

New book "Comrades of the Quest" provides invaluable insight into the history of Reed.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | June 1, 2012

The new book, Comrades of the Quest: An Oral History of Reed College, which forms the backbone of our cover story this issue, represents a genuine milestone in Reed history and Reed historiography. (And I’m proud to work at a college where I can write “historiography” in my opening line without the audience nodding off.)

No one has ever completed a comprehensive history of the college. True, sociologist Burton Clark wrote insightfully about Reed in The Distinctive College, but only tackled the first fifty years (and diluted it with swill about Antioch and Swarthmore). Dorothy Johansen ’33 [history 1934–84] made a valiant attempt but died before she could extend her history of the college beyond 1919. Richard Jones [history 1941–86] wrote an unpublished history of the Reed curriculum. There’s a history of the Reed physics department, a chronicle of the Reed religion department, a fragmentary (but entertaining) version of events in the Student Handbook, and an even more fanciful Reed Almanac.

Surveying the landscape, I imagine a succession of explorers scaling the bluffs and buttes that gird a slumbering volcano, eyeing the pinnacle but never attempting a direct assault for fear that the journey is too long, the ground is too treacherous—or perhaps, even, that the mountain might just blow her top.

Until now.

For more than 12 years, scores of volunteers for the Reed Oral History Project conducted hundreds of interviews with alumni, professors, and staff to bring us Reed’s underground history. This gargantuan body of raw material was shaped into a coherent narrative by John Sheehy ’82, yielding, for the first time, an insider’s view of the college’s first century, including vivid accounts of the crises that nearly destroyed Reed in its early years.

Of course, comprehensive does not imply definitive. One of the great joys of being a student of history is that fresh drafts are being written all the time. Nonetheless, Comrades is a monumental achievement, and we owe a debt of gratitude to its creators for preserving the voices, and the stories, of Reed’s past.

Just as this issue was going to press, Reed announced the appointment of a new president—late-breaking news that we were able to slip into the magazine. Even as we salute President Colin Diver for his decade of service to Reed, we are delighted to welcome his successor, John Kroger, to campus. Look for more details on our website and in future issues of the magazine. 

Tags: Reed History