Hardcover pub. date
April 2012
ISBN 9780870716676 (hardcover)
9 x 10.5 inches, 576 pages. B&W photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index.

Comrades of the Quest

An Oral History of Reed College

John Sheehy

Visionary. Iconoclast. Rebel. William Trufant Foster set out in 1911 to launch the “ideal college,” and succeeded in building an intellectual liberal arts powerhouse that over the next one hundred years would perpetually seek to break the hard crust of custom and orthodoxy. Foster’s quest for excellence and truth generated a steady yield of students – ranging from poet Gary Snyder to muckraker Barbara Ehrenreich to Apple founder Steve Jobs – who left Reed College eager to challenge society’s dominant paradigms.

Comrades of the Quest chronicles the colorful cultural and social history of this band of young and fiercely unorthodox West Coast intellectuals, and of the institution that nurtured them. Drawing from interviews with more than 1,400 people and from unpublished memoirs stretching back to the college’s first decades, John Sheehy weaves together a riveting story told from first-hand perspectives of this unique community’s ongoing efforts to bring Foster’s vision to life.

With a punch considerably mightier than its weight, the Reed community undertakes an arduous journey through the political and educational developments of the past century— from the progressive education movement in the 1910s, the general education programs between the two world wars, scientific methodology in the 1950s, political relevance in the 1960s, theories of structuralism and deconstruction in the 1970s, the cultural wars in the 1980s, political correctness in the 1990s, to ideological bias in the 2000s—while keeping its founding ideals largely intact.

At a time when America is struggling to sustain its innovative edge, Reed College remains an iconic model, equipping students with a rigorous set of skills and attitudes possible for questioning status quo thinking in a rapidly changing world. Its story, populated with a rich cast of characters, and marked by intense focus, demanding social freedom, and unconventional creativity, is no customary college history, but rather an intellectual thriller of American idealism played out against the hard world of social, religious, and political conformity, ascending great heights and persevering through near-fatal confrontations.

Visit the book's website for more information about Reed College and the making of the book, and and to read excerpts.


About the author

John Sheehy is a writer and former publisher at Time Inc., Utne Reader, and Afar magazine. A graduate of Reed College, he lives in Sonoma County, California.

Read more about this author

Comrades of the Quest is as dramatic as the best of fiction, beginning with a complex and doomed central character —William Trufant Foster, the 31-year-old visionary idealist and first president of Reed College. It’s a great story, brilliantly constructed and told from multiple and brief, always shifting, points of first-person view. The story never lags.”
—Robin Cody, author of Ricochet River and Another Way the River Has

“Clearly and logically organized, each chapter moves with a sort of free-association style, with one subtopic overlapping and blending into the next, which makes page-turning reading. In the process, we get a compelling portrait of cultural radicals and intellectual conservatives interacting to mold the history of a fascinating educational institution whose wide influence has far outweighed its small size.”
—Carl Abbott, author of Portland in Three Centuries

“A great book that skillfully weaves hundreds of disparate oral histories into a coherent historical account.”
—Michael Munk, author of The Portland Red Guide

“The book is almost impossible to put down.”
—Porter Abbott, author of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative

“Not only provide rich pleasure to those who know the place from the inside but could well serve as a model document for all those interested in the history of American higher education.”
—Roger Porter, author of Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers

“Not just a great history of the college, but an amazing trip through American social history... A remarkable piece of work.”
—John Kroger, author of Convictions

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