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reed magazine logoSpring 2009

On the same day as Foster’s resignation, Thomas Lamb Eliot and his board of trustees made a fundamental change in the college’s governance structure. To provide direct oversight of the college, they created a board of eleven regents, comprised of the original five trustee positions, and six new regents drawn from the Portland business community. Eliot, lacking the energy at age 78 to revitalize his dream, handed the reins of the trustees to James B. Kerr, a progressive Portland labor lawyer.

To insure that the college would never again “be moulded (sic) around the individuality of one person’s theories,” the new board assigned the regents full power over the curriculum and educational policy of the college. It would prove in time to be a power they could not resist exercising.

Thomas Lamb Eliot

Unitarian minister Thomas Lamb Eliot hoped a liberal arts college would improve the social fabric of Portland.

Kerr shared the concerns of students and faculty that Reed’s curriculum had come to favor the natural sciences over the social sciences and humanities. To succeed Foster, he recruited a humanist and fellow University of Wisconsin alumnus, Richard F. Scholz. A Jewish history professor at the University of Washington, Scholz’s defining life experience had been the three years he spent at Oxford as one of the first American Rhodes scholars. The lack of curriculum, syllabi or assignments at Oxford had been a positive “soul-blasting” experience for Scholz, as had the fellowship he found with students from other cultures and his travels through Europe. The experience seeded in him a lifelong quest to form a unified view of life.

Personally outgoing and engaging, Scholz stood in complete contrast to Foster’s aloof, hard-driving, evangelist manner. He viewed college as “not so much an institution as a community of like-minded human beings engaged in a common intellectual adventure.” For Scholz, that required an educational model built around co-operative thinking and living; indeed, he was the first to introduce the term “Reed Community.”

While some new presidents might have been wary about inheriting an institution in such a devastated state, Scholz recognized it as an opportunity to engage in “a torrid pursuit of the truth” around an ideal he called “new humanism.”

New humanism was nothing short of a “unified reinterpretation of the whole of existence.” For Scholz, it was a necessary antidote to the disillusionment and disintegration left in the wake of World War I. “Only those who suffer see,” he offered. He felt that the war had simply accelerated the “liquidation” of individual liberty and moral authority already underway by industrialized society. He believed that humanity was passing into an age of human relationships. This new age required “a reconciliation and a synthesis of actual life and the best thought of our time . . . which values human personality as the chiefest good and recognizes to the full the value of the human soul.”

Rejecting the university model of specialization as well as the traditional liberal arts model, which divorced study of the humanities from contemporary life, Scholz proposed creating a Socrates “think-shop” that took all of human experience into some sort of unified understanding. Its purpose was threefold: to equip students to play an active civic role in addressing social problems; to provide them with a broad and socially-minded context for narrower professional training; and to help them attain the art of living fully with their hearts and minds.

Scholz’s key challenge was grafting his vision onto the rootstock of academic rigor, intellectual freedom, and democracy instilled at Reed by Foster. While Scholz shared Foster’s broad conception of education—admitting every experience that had personal or social value assuming it developed critical thinking—he envisioned a much different teaching framework.

Foster had employed an open electives curriculum, believing it best in providing an environment for intellectual freedom and democracy. Scholz, on the other hand, believed that integrating the facets of a broad liberal education into a curriculum of common studies was essential. His vision in 1921 was on the vanguard of the times. Columbia University had led the way, establishing a general introductory course in 1919 to contemporary civilization. St. John’s was attempting to build a program about the great books. Alexander Meiklejohn, president of Amherst College and an influential confidant of Scholz, was attempting to evolve Amherst’s elective curriculum into a modern core curriculum.

The curricular differences of Foster and Scholz have been viewed by Reed historians such as longtime professor Richard Jones as a fundamental schism in Reed’s institutional development. That view, however, overlooks the common educational philosophy that provided an overarching continuity to their differing methods of teaching. Core to that philosophy was a spirit of experimentation in addressing the challenges of the times, and a common belief that education culminated in social responsibility. Both stemmed from the pragmatist movement that gave birth to Reed College.

reed magazine logoSpring 2009