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Matthew E. Smith ’66

May 19, 2019, in Olympia, Washington.

When Matt was growing up in Iowa, every summer his family drove across the country to Shelton, Washington, where his father had a seasonal job as a camp custodian. The trips brought the family closer, and Matt took to the Northwest woods. He returned to the Northwest to attend Reed, where Humanities 110 and 210—the Greeks and Romans, medieval Europe, Renaissance and Reformation—hooked him on “the genuine joy of doing hard intellectual work.”

Majoring in political science, he undertook fieldwork on trade unions in England and wrote his thesis, “Union Democracy in Great Britain: An Investigation of the Politics of the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers,” advised by Prof. Kirk S. Thompson [political science 1964–71]. Years later, Thompson would be a colleague at the Evergreen State College. Matt also earned an MA in teaching from Reed and taught high school at Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, before going on to earn a PhD in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1973, he began a more than 40-year career on the faculty at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, an alternative, public liberal arts college with a focus on interdisciplinary programming. Most of those years, Matt taught a form of classes that are distinctive to Evergreen: year-long, full-time, thematic studies led by one to three faculty colleagues from diverse backgrounds.

In those early teaching teams, he steeped himself in sociopolitical thought, in Weber, Arendt, and Marx. He went on to work in environmental studies, connecting his training in political economics to the questions of environmental stewardship, and learning from his teaching partners in geology, environmental policy, and botany. Those early years in the Northwest had seeded in Matt an environmental awareness, a sense of place, that he imparted to his students.

Through ethnographic, geographic, community and cultural studies, he honed his grasp of social worlds. He taught one year on Northwest poetry and American literature. Though he jested that his work made him a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, in reality Matt’s work consistently explored vital, vexing questions about the relationships of people to the places they inhabit and their capacities to find meanings in these experiences. His work embodied the liberal arts ideals of breadth and integration.

Matt also contributed extensively to the administration and philosophy of the evolving Evergreen experiment, serving as academic dean in the mid-’80s. During that time, he led the academic aspects of the college’s accreditation self-study, which articulated for the first time the educational commitments for an alternative institution previously self-identified only via negatives (no grades, no tenure, no departments, no requirements). A few years later, as the college grappled with how to assure the core of a liberal arts education in a curriculum without requirements, Matt was central to identifying outcomes for an Evergreen graduate. The language from those two projects guides the college in its aspirations to this day.

“In seminar with his students, Matt seized the text, wrestled with it, illuminated it, and posed canny questions to students,” said Sam Schrager ’70, emeritus faculty at Evergreen. “Whether it was Carolyn Kizer’s poetry or postmodern theory, Matt was a superb reader. Students learned from him how to read with care. He was as intensely devoted to the practice of writing, to teaching students how to research and to craft arguments and narratives. Matt fused thinking and social practice and was highly respected for designing valuable field trip experiences.”

He would have a group of five or six students conduct daylong “town studies” in which they asked people they happened to meet how they saw the past, present, and future of their place. As Matt put it, students discovered that when they open up to a place, the place opens up to them.

“Overall,” said Sam, “Matt had a spectacular sense of program design; how to craft a learning community around a set of meaningful, often vexing questions. When the program was actually unrolling from day to day, he had the ability to size up the potential of all kinds of situations and offer teaching strategies suited to the moment. The inquiry was always open, and in some ways risky. Over time, it would build a strong sense of community among students, and they would invest much of themselves in it.”

After retiring, Matt went to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a network of ancient pilgrim routes that stretches across Europe, which he found exhilarating.

Matt is survived by his three sons, Jason Eliot Smith ’93, Eamon Smith, and Paul Smith, and by his brother, Christopher Anthon.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2020

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