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In praise of creativity

Diver at podium
Student body president Chris Moses '03, left, and alumni association president Pat Pruyne '83, right, listen to President Diver's address  

We all know that Reed is deeply committed to the ideals of liberal education. But what do we really mean by a “liberal” education? That question is usually answered by focusing on the negative—that is, by identifying what liberal education is designed to liberate us from. By this account, a liberal education is designed to free us from the bonds of ignorance, prejudice, hasty judgment, or sloppy thinking.

But what about the positive side of that question? What does a liberal education liberate us for? My counterparts at some colleges would say: We educate students for moral, intellectual, or spiritual leadership. Some would perhaps emphasize service to the community, or the shaping of economic or social structures. Others would answer more simply—in a fittingly libertarian spirit: Our job is to enable our graduates to live happy, fulfilling, and productive lives, whatever they choose to do.

What do we liberate minds for? How should Reed College answer that question? Reed, of course, is a complex and evolving organism that serves many purposes and speaks with many voices. So, most of the answers that I have just given would be included in a complete account of Reed’s ambitions. But I would emphasize one answer that is not on the list that I just reviewed: and that is creativity. As I see it, Reed College should be devoted centrally, and fundamentally, to developing in its students a capacity for creativity—that is, the capacity to make genuinely original and valuable contributions to human knowledge or human society.

That Reed should set for itself such a task is hardly surprising, given its history. After all, the college was born during a time of unprecedented creative ferment. The works of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Schönberg, Eliot, Joyce, Wright, and dozens like them were challenging understandings that had ruled the Western worlds of science, art, and literature for centuries. A world-view built on assumptions of continuity, objectivity, harmony, and perfectability suddenly found itself forced to confront disturbing ideas like atonality, cubism, deconstruction of texts, cultural and moral relativism, quantum discontinuity, radical uncertainty, interchangeability of mass and energy, physical and temporal relativity, biological determinism, and the behavioral determinism of unconscious urges and suppressed sexuality. In a statement that has come to be seen as a birth announcement for the age of modernism, Virginia Woolf once famously declared: “In or about December 1910, human character changed.” The very next fall, Reed College threw open its doors, defiantly proclaiming its own discontinuity from the clubby consensus that had ruled the Eastern Establishment for decades.

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