When Meg Cook graduated from Florida State in 2014, she wanted a next chapter in a very specific setting: an academic environment that emphasized intellectual growth over professional training. “I remember Googling ‘grad schools where you don’t have to decide what you want to do,’” the 23-year-old says.
The search led her to a world far removed from Tallahassee and FSU’s 32,000 undergrads: the mossy Southeast Portland campus of Reed College, and that school’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. The famously heady college’s only graduate program involves 25 to 30 students at a time in small, discussion-based classes, mostly in the evening, tackling an ambitious and constantly varying curriculum. (This fall’s syllabus juxtaposed the politics of space in Renaissance Italy with a historical survey of psychoanalysis. Next spring: Nabokov.)
Cook had happened upon one of Portland academia’s hidden gems: a flexible program started in 1966 with working high school teachers in mind, which has evolved to cultivate a more eclectic group. “Some have been out of school for two years, some for 40,” says longtime MALS director Barbara Amen. “Some just want to explore. Others have something specific they want to pursue.”
Amen adds that for some of its history MALS primarily served older, nontraditional students seeking intellectual enrichment rather than practical payoff. These pure amateurs remain part of the scene. Brad Eamon, 61, graduated from the program last spring.
“I looked at it as unfinished business,” he says—specifically, a theology degree he abandoned in the ’70s in favor of a business career. “I’m a huge proponent of the program for anyone who wants to challenge themselves.” Amen says the last 15 years or so have brought an influx of younger students like Cook, and more aiming to combine MALS with professional development.
“In terms of what we offer the larger Portland community,” she says, “this is a program that takes ideas seriously but makes them accessible.”
Cook puts it slightly differently. “You can focus on your interests, but you also get this incredibly broad view,” she says. “I’m not even sure how it exists.”