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reed magazine logoSpring 2009
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Norman E. Coleman’s appointment to the presidency triggered a revolt. The faculty seized control of the college and constructed a new curriculum based on the humanities—a curriculum that would brand the college as an intellectual powerhouse for the next eight decades.

How the college was transformed from radical upstart to nonconforming traditionalist—and what it means for Reed’s relevance today, when science and technology again threaten to eclipse the humanities—underscore the critical role the curriculum has played in protecting and perpetuating the college’s essential ideals. That role was never more evident than in the defining moments surrounding Norman Coleman’s appointment as president in 1924.

It is difficult today to imagine higher education without privately-funded liberal arts colleges, but at the turn of the twentieth century many were viewed as anachronisms. The German university model, with its emphasis on research and professional training, seemed more suited to the age of rapid industrialization. Meanwhile, a number of colleges that had traditionally provided training in character and scholarly ideals around study of the classics, lost their bearings, aligning themselves with spectator sports, purchased degrees, and social climbers. “The sideshows are swallowing the circus,” wrote Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson.

The criticisms of American higher education particularly resonated with adherents of pragmatism, a distinctly American philosophy that flowered at the beginning of the twentieth century. Advanced largely by the efforts of philosophers John Dewey and William James, its essential premise was a skepticism of ideologies. Ideas were viewed not as immutable truths but as adaptable responses to the environment—tools of experimentation in getting results. This approach had a liberating effect on a generation of jurists, journalists, policymakers, and academics who comprised the progressive movement. Freed from fatalistic nineteenth-century determinism, progressives sought scientific solutions to social problems in a universe that they viewed as still in play, where people were the agents of their own destinies.

Pragmatism was a major influence on Reed’s founding board president, Thomas Lamb Eliot, the Portland Unitarian minister who originally secured the funding for the college from local shipping magnate Simeon Reed and his wife Amanda. An outspoken social progressive, Eliot had been raised in a traditional educational environment in St. Louis, where his father was among the founders of Washington University. His initial choice for the presidency of Reed, James H. Tufts, was a member of the Chicago School of Pragmatism and co-author of the seminal book Ethics with John Dewey. Tuft’s and Dewey’s new pedagogy—which viewed knowledge as an adaptive human response to environmental conditions aimed at actively restructuring those conditions—fit well with Eliot’s longtime crusade for the moral and cultural improvement of Portland. With the help of national educators like Tufts, Eliot persuaded his fellow trustees—conservative business associates of the Reeds who envisioned a technical or vocational school—to launch a new type of college that would depart from the traditional model in both its intellectual seriousness and its fostering of social change in Portland.

After negotiations for the presidency with Tufts broke down, Eliot found the “masterbuilder” for his dream college in William Trufant Foster, a young professor at Bowdoin College with degrees from Harvard and Columbia. Foster, who had never been west of the Mississippi prior to visiting Portland, wired his wife the simple message, “Elected President.” It came to her as “Electric President”—an error that would prove prophetic.

William Trufant Foster was the quintessential young-man-in-a-hurry. New England’s youngest full professor at 27, he was the youngest college president in the country when appointed to Reed at 31. His rapid rise in academia, coupled with his aversion to orthodoxy, tagged him as a brilliant upstart. The same reputation would soon be attributed to Reed.

Having just completed his doctorate under the influence of John Dewey at Teacher’s College Columbia University, Foster traveled to over one hundred colleges across America, studying their curricula. He published his findings in 1911 in a book entitled Administration of the College Curriculum. The book’s closing summation, entitled “The Ideal College,” became the intellectual charter for Reed.

What Foster had in mind was a radical alternative to what he derisively called “the sheep-dip method of education.” Starting with a clean slate, unencumbered by nostalgic alumni or institutional traditions, he set out to create a place where the Socratic ideals of critical examination and intellectual freedom were dominant from day one. Students would be challenged to take charge of their own thinking, engaging with faculty as “comrades of the quest.”

reed magazine logoSpring 2009