Returning to Reed College
Reed College is one of the more inimitable four-year American colleges. The combination of hyper-intellectuality, exceedingly hard work, offbeat lifesytles and marginal political philosophies meet and do battle on the idyllic 50-acre campus nestled in a comfortable Southeast Portland neighborhood. I had the privilege of teaching religion and humanities at Reed from 1982-88. When friends would query me about the "real Reed," I would diplomatically say that Reed had a comparatively higher percentage of unconventional students than most other American colleges.
I had not been on the campus more than a few times since I departed in 1988, and so I was delighted to receive an invitation to the first Religion Department reunion on March 7, 2004. True to the Reed tradition, before there was any socializing we had three hours of grueling intellectual debate on three aspects of modern Islam. Offering up the intellectual fare were two Reed graduates, class of '99, currently pursuing Ph.D.s at the University of Chicago, and a brilliant young assistant professor of religion. The topics ranged from modern Islamic movements in Turkey, to the attempt to impose Islamic law in the Sudan to three post-Khomeini Iranian religious movements.
As I began to listen to the first presentation I realized immediately that I had come home. Within the first five minutes, the barbate, bespectacled and earnest graduate student, who was even wearing a tie, had dispatched of the Sameul Huntington (of "Harvard," said pejoratively) thesis of the clash of East and West and had set up a ping-pong match between Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault as to which post-modernist theorist might provide greater insight into modern Turkey. Was it the "Habermasian communicative act" or the "Foucaudian governmentalism" that provided the more adequate template to understand rising tension between Kemalists and modern Islamacists? No one knew, but it was a wonderful display of erudition. Then, the second graduate student took on the veil, so to speak, and spoke of the implications of migrations of non-Arab Muslims from Southern Sudan to Khartoum on the governmental attempt to impose Shariah law. Posters of women clad in the veil were displayed outside of a woman's university in Sudan, and that led to a lot of reflection on the semiology of the veil.
Ah, now I knew I was really at home. At the mention of semiology and semiotics, the audience came alive. Questions began to fly like arrows from Homeric heroes. What was the difference between Islam and Islamism? What were the various semiologies of the veil? And then, from a thoughtful scholar, Would a Turkish transexual male with conservative religious leanings take on the veil after his sex change operation? Or, again, would a Turkish male cross-dresser wear the veil while in drag? Somehow that image stayed with me far longer than it should. The questions flowed like streams down the Cascades in the Spring. To me, as I teach the intricacies of the Uniform Commercial Code at a law school, I felt as if I was mainlining semiotics.
The three hours passed much too quickly, and nine of us then went to dinner at a fashionable downtown restaurant. At dinner I was seated next to an attractive young woman, class of '95, who didn't seem to be a "Reedie" at first. She confessed she didn't feel as "intellectual" and "creative" as all the speakers, but liked to listen nonertheless. She was an Oklahoma native, a Reed graduate, and now a manager in an advertising firm in downtown Portland. The more I listened to her, however, the more I saw that her creativity was in an area that Reed really didn't recognize: in connecting concepts in a practical way, in organizing a diverse plate of tasks, in lending pragmatic insight into workers' problems.
I left thinking that my difficult Reed years of 1982-88, when the Religion Department was not highly respected on campus, and even was subject to attack from some of the more edgy, hard-bitten, utterly secular senior faculty colleagues, had now been replaced by a true Golden Age of religion study at the college. I took a bit of pride in that fact, and I left feeling a surge of energy at what the department had become. A most remarkable place.