Road Trip: "Aha! Moment" at Reed College

Last stop on my tour of colleges in Washington and Oregon was Reed College; regardless of one’s perspective, it is well known.  My “aha! moment” at Reed: one can’t trust what one reads and must spend time there – more than a brief tour — to understand it. 

I will start with a story the admissions officer shared about Pancho.  Pancho is a long standing Reed professor who, for the 1st discussion class of freshman year, comes in late, puts his books on the table, sits down (I imagine slouched with feet on the table) and waits for a student to begin the discussion.  There is no explaining of his actions.  It drives home the expectation of intellectual curiosity. Pancho does not need to wait long for discussion to ensue. 

So, sitting in the info session I check my phone for Reed’s US News ranking — just to get perspective — and see “#93”.  Confusing?  Not really, because in 1995Reed stopped participating in the ranking. US News however continues to rank them using data they find elsewhere.  In 1983 Reed was ranked #9 (it doesn’t share 1994 rank).  Its ranking factors have only improved since then. Reed shares their perspective on what has happened to their ranking here.  It is a good reminder to take care with how one uses rankings. 

Reed hangs its hat on intellectual engagement.  The Pancho story portrays that well.  To know Reed’s success at intellectually engaging for sure (and for you) one would have to attend a few classes. An oral history project from 2013 sheds light on what past students say about the subject.  It also enlightens us as to how Reed got a reputation for “atheism, communism, and free love”; a description bestowed during the Red Scare, then embraced by the students, and to some degree still remaining today. 

There is no doubt that Reed students were on the more quirky and easy going end of the spectrum among the Pacific Northwest colleges visited on this road trip, but they were by no means in a far left league of their own.  To that point, the first thing I saw on campus was a huge inflatable outdoor bouncy playroom — the kind elementary-age children play on at county fairs.  Doesn’t really fit the “atheism, communism, and free love” moniker.  By way of explanation, the inflatable was apparently a remainder of Nitrogen Day.  Students decided that nitrogen, as an element, was under-appreciated, so they created Nitrogen Day with carnival-like events to celebrate its myriad uses.  Intellectual? Maybe. Fun too.

Not surprisingly, Reed does not embrace the typical grading system.  Professors do assign grades, but only advise students of them if a C or below.  Students can and do ask, however.  Most ask at least once early on in their academic career.  Those on a professional track (law, medicine…) check more frequently given their importance to acceptance into professional schools. Again, not fitting snugly into the moniker.

A few more tidbits to help form an impression of Reed College: There is no Greek system.  There is a Senior Thesis requirement for graduation. Its East Coast version is Colby College (according to Reed’s admissions officer who graduated from Colby). If intrigued, visit.

Consider Reed College if you are most comfortable with the progressive and politically liberal and you want an environment that requires you to think.