People who have only seen or heard of Paideia as a week-long collection of silly classes and slacking off are at a clear disadvantage for envisioning its future or potential.
The original Paideia program was proposed by students but supported by faculty who were, at the time, taking a serious look at the way Reed’s academic year should be structured: as semesters, quarters, trimesters or something else. The decision to set aside January as a period for “unstructured independent study” or UIS was part of a larger pedagogical vision, known at the time as the 4-1-4 strategy. By dividing the academic year up into two semesters of four months with a one-month, mid-year interim, they hoped to create space for a variety of other academic opportunities, including student-run classes, meaningful internships, short-form seminars and periods of intense personal study, particularly for seniors and juniors working on theses or preparing for qualifying exams.
Paideia was created during a period when faculty largely ran the college, to serve a substantive pedagogical purpose. For various reasons, faculty attention to Paideia decreased over time and disappeared almost completely under the reorganization of the college from the older, academic bursar/registrar/dean system to the current corporate model under five vice presidents. Before this time, the dean of students was traditionally a faculty member or former faculty member, while the newly-created vice president of student services was a professional administrator brought from outside the college. It was during the mid-1980’s Student Services controversy that Paideia was reduced from a full month to two weeks, partially as a cost-saving measure for Student Services but arguably as part of a larger measure to consolidate control more in keeping with the new corporate, divisional model and professionalization of student services as divorced from faculty control.
When the Paideia Committee was equal parts faculty and students, the director of student activities mainly served as logistical support for coordination of logistics: room reservations, transportation, press releases and so on. With the collapse of the Paideia Committee system, control went entirely to the student body, which attempted to maintain a multi-student committee, but this had collapsed by the late 1980’s to an appointed signator and whomever they could recruit. The focus was almost entirely on student-run classes with only occasional faculty participation and support from particularly generous alumni such as “Dr Demento” Barry Hansen, career expert Donald Asher, meatsmoker Bear Wilner and a few others. The quality of Paideia programs varies wildly, depending on the individual appointed “paideia czar,” how early they are appointed and how much support they can drum up. Structurally this is a weak and haphazard model, which sacrifices continuity and broader vision by placing so much stress on one person.
A revived Paideia can and should include a sense of Paideia’s history and its origins in the 4-1-4 pedagogical model, which set aside as much as a full month each year for students, former students, staff and faculty to work on longer-form projects that are simply not possible during the more structured, academic semester. Individual academic projects are logically one part of this, but focused seminars, service projects, art projects and temporary jobs or short internships are another possibility, whether such activities take place on-campus or off. The support of such a revived Paideia requires an appreciation of structure, however, and how that structure can be built and maintained over time.
The single-signator, super-hero model of Paideia is not sustainable and does not serve anyone. It burns out individuals, limits community input, abandons institutional memory and reinvents the wheel each year. Something like the original Paideia Committee system (perhaps with alumni serving the role no longer filled by career-minded faculty) may be in order, to make Paideia more than a week of goofing off and silliness.