Sallyportal: Madly Blogging Reed

Paideia Pandemonium

Reed alumni have been even more passionate and engaged than usual in recent weeks over an issue that outsiders will find hard to fathom—Paideia.

Paideia is, of course, Reed’s “winter term.” During a week in January, students, alumni, and staff hold classes on any subject they deem worthwhile. From the geology of Portland to underwater basketweaving to how to play a didgeridoo, the classes range from the serious to the surreal. Dr Demento is a regular attraction. (I’ve held a “reporters bootcamp” for the last several years, in an effort to acquaint students with journalistic fundamentals. And in deference to those fundamentals, I should remind readers that I work at Reed and that my views are correspondingly colored-- see comments.)

Students gain no academic credit for these classes—indeed, most of them are one-time gatherings of like-minded souls who want to go birdwatching, deconstruct Zappa, or decorate Dixie cups.

But sometimes the offerings are not quite so innocent. One class, titled “Adroit Anticipation of Awesome Altered Adventures 201,” was a session on preparing yourself for a psychedelic experience. Another class, titled “Put that in your Pipe and Smoke it” was a workshop where participants could roll joints from legal herbs such as kava kava or damiana. A course on kombucha and fermentation promised to “teach the populace that using entirely junk and food and stuff from around their kitchen, they can provide themselves with all the booch and booze and kraut they could ever desire!”

Alcohol and other drugs are subjects of enduring interest for college students and always will be. It is, of course, a problem when it seems as if the college is condoning their use. The problem with these classes is that they occupy a legal nomansland where an attorney could argue—and a jury might believe—that Reed is doing just that.

The official status of Paideia is murky—it was originally constituted as part of the college’s academic program. Although it has not actually served that role in many years (the faculty having essentially walked away from it) the college still endorses the event in various ways—the dorms are opened early, classes are held in Reed classrooms, and so on. There is, however, no requirement that Paideia instructors have any expertise in their field—which is no big deal when the subject is Genres of Heavy Metal, but could have profound consequences if the subject is Altered Adventures.

Barely a week before Paideia began, Kroger asked students to cancel the class on Altered Adventures and Put That in your Pipe and asked the fermentation instructor skip the section on brewing alcohol.

He explained the decision in a statement to the Quest:

As you know, I made the decision to cancel two Paideia classes. One involved the smoking of unregulated depressants, and the other was on how to trip on hallucinogens. The first class raised significant health and safety concerns; the second both health and legal issues. The college staff also asked a student to modify a class on fermentation, which promised students, including underage students, instruction on how to make all the “booze … they could ever desire.” The student was asked to teach his class without the alcohol component, again for health and safety issues.

Alcohol and drugs cause significant and sometimes lethal harm to students at colleges and universities across the country. As you know, I have already seen several of our students go to the hospital because of dangerous misuse of both alcohol and drugs.

As president, I take seriously my responsibility for the health and safety of our community members. I am sorry about the lack of process that preceded these cancellations. Normally, I would wish to have a larger community dialogue, with full community participation, before taking any such steps. Unfortunately, I learned about these classes right before Paideia began and felt I could not responsibly let them go forward without real risk of harm to community members.

The episode—which hit the front page of the Quest under the headline “Paideia Classes Censored at Kroger’s Request”—has stirred passionate debate among Reedies near and far. Some support the decision wholeheartedly. Some support the decision but not the process. Some agree that Paideia’s curriculum needs better oversight, but disagree about the specific classes. Some think that classes such as Altered Adventures are crucial ways to mitigate the harm of taking hallucinogens. And some believe that any attempt to interfere with a Paideia class violates the principle of academic freedom and is on those grounds indefensible. (Take a look at some of the letters, articles, and summaries—including a detailed 3,500-word analysis by Jim Kahan ’64.)

Without attempting to rehearse all the arguments, it seems to me that the fundamental concern among critics seems to be, once you begin to fiddle with Paideia, where do you draw the line? Saucy books in the library? Chemistry 110? Classes on demonism? By imposing any restrictions on the free exchange of ideas, no matter how slight or well-intentioned, you give up on the animating principle of Reed, according to this view.

As a rule, Reedies dislike drawing lines. We resent their inherent arbitrariness. We recoil at the imbalance in power relations that they imply. We rebel against their uniformity, their inflexibility, their reduction of complex equations to a single value. We challenge the notion of spatial definition. We defy binary stereotypes.

And yet.

Reed is a community of live breathing human beings who push their intellectual limits every day. From different backgrounds and perspectives. With differing degrees of maturity. Many are at an age when seemingly minor decisions can have lifelong consequences. Some whose sophomoric wisdom has yet to be tempered by experience. Some of whom still believe in the myth of adolescent invulnerability.

It is tempting to think that Reed’s glorious intellectual purity absolves us of the necessity to engage in the grubby, tiresome, thankless, and inconsistent business of drawing lines. But most of us would admit that—in the real world—they have to be drawn somewhere. What about a class on how to perform open-heart surgery—bring your own scalpel? A rafting expedition down Shearer’s Falls? A class in trading sexually explicit photos of children?

There is an analogy here, it seems to me, with the debate over gun control. While there are absolutists on both sides, most people agree on the need to impose some restrictions on ownership. The vexatious problem of where to draw the line does not end the debate—it is the debate.

Some alumni recoil at the suggestion that anyone worry about the consequences of purely theoretical instruction. This is a good point, but in my opinion it skips over two issues. First, Paideia has a robust tradition of experiential learning, so the distinction between learning and doing is not always sharp. Someone has to consider the real-world consequences of, say, a room full of students smoking damiana in case one of them suffers an abreaction.

Second, these classes do carry the stamp of institutional endorsement in a way that is fundamentally different, I would argue, than the books in the library. Is it really censorship when a college decides not to sponsor a class? What about a publisher who rejects a manuscript? An editor who doesn’t print a letter?

Without doubt, there are Big Questions here and room for reasonable people to disagree. I love Paideia. But I’ve also spent enough time on campus recently to witness first-hand the consequences of students’ alcohol and drug use—for themselves, for others, and for the community. I don't think it's fair to shrug our shoulders at the wellbeing of our students in the name of intellectual purity.

As I write this, the college is planning to set up a task force to look at these questions and establish a framework for tackling these issues next year. I trust that alumni will weigh in with their own ideas about how and where to draw the line.

Tags: John Kroger, Paideia, drugs, harm reduction