REED HOME Gryphon icon
Feature Story
reed magazine logoWinter 2009

The story of Reed is in large part the story of successive generations who shared a conviction, mixed into the mortar of Eliot Hall, that Reed is an exceptional institution where intellectual rigor and academic freedom are the true leaders, and administrators and professors merely the ambassadors. This idea animated Reed’s first two presidents, who were both passionate intellectuals but whose visions of Reed could not have been more different.

Reed’s first president, William Trufant Foster (1910–19), was disillusioned with American higher education, and with Ivy League universities in particular. He saw them as places burdened by “harassing traditions,” where students in starched shirts and ties frittered away their time in sports and socializing, and were granted gentlemen’s C’s. Foster jumped at the chance to build a first-rate college where intellectual pursuit was paramount. “Only those who want to work, and work hard, and who are determined to gain the greatest possible benefits from their studies, are welcomed,” early admission publications asserted. “Others will be disappointed, for the scholarship demands will leave little time for outside activities, other than those which are necessary for the maintenance of health.”

The Old Guard

Marvin Levich
Richard “Dick” Jones

Foster believed students should be able to determine their own course of study, and that the curriculum should eschew tradition, emphasize vocation, and promote specialization. He also stressed community involvement, encouraging faculty and students to get involved in civic affairs.

The honor principle, the senior thesis, and the lack of grade reporting were all Foster ideas. He also initiated Reed’s tradition of faculty participation in college governance.

Reed’s second president, Richard Scholz (1921–24), shared the ideal of academic rigor, but disapproved of Foster’s loose system of electives. In its place, Scholz constructed a core curriculum that emphasized the study of Western culture. Through this immersion, as historian Richard Jones explained in his unpublished History of the Reed Curriculum, “Reed students were expected to acquire a common mode of discourse and a common intellectual framework derived from inquiry into the human condition, human achievement and the physical circumstances of the universe in which humanity must live and work. To leave the process of integration to the student would be to shirk a major responsibility of education.”

The conflict between the Foster camp and the Scholz camp, first ignited in the 1920s, would flare up periodically, with slight variations, in the decades to come. The debate between the Old Guard and Young Turks was, in a sense, a resumption of this struggle.

Scholz’s tenure at Reed was brief (he died suddenly in 1924), but his influence was enormous. Over time, the humanities became central to the college’s identity, thanks to a succession of professors who guided and guarded his vision. These legendary figures, whose photos still line the halls of Vollum College Center, are familiar to Reedies even today: Frank Loxley Griffin (mathematics, 1911–56), Charles McKinley (political science, 1918–60), Reginald Francis Arragon (history, 1923–62), and Maure Goldschmidt (political science, 1935–81).

By the 1960s, Reed’s curriculum was widely hailed as a model of excellence. As Burton Clark wrote in his 1970 book The Distinctive College:

“The [Reed] curriculum was exceedingly lean in the traditional disciplines of the liberal arts, strongly structured with requirements, and firmly muscled with hard grading. It became an operative definition of academic purity and toughness. . . Because the curriculum was also an expression of the understanding among the faculty members that in the classroom, they knew what was best for students, it became a powerful instrument of faculty control over student effort. The Reed classroom became a site of intellectual challenge and logical reasoning. Curriculum and classroom became the components into which the faculty, having won control, poured their heart and soul.”

At this time, the two most influential members of the Old Guard were Richard Jones (history, 1941–86), and Marvin Levich (philosophy, 1953–94). Both were exceptional professors who commanded wide respect on campus; Levich, in particular, was an iconic figure. Wreathed in a perennial cloud of smoke from an endless stream of cigarettes, he spoke in elaborate sentences of Cartesian complexity. His fierce intellect, wry humor, and marvelous debating skills had earned him a reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

The Ivory Tower was an unlikely home for Levich. The son of Russian-Lithuanian immigrants, he grew up in a poverty-stricken household in Iowa during the Great Depression; his first language was Yiddish. After graduation from high school, he spent three years in the 36th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, saw action at the battle of Anzio, and ultimately was discharged after contracting malaria. At one point he worked in a meat-packing plant.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009