Book review: Learning on the Left

This book celebrates the many well-known alumni of Brandeis University, situated just outside Boston


Learning on the Left: Political Profiles of Brandeis University by Stephen J. Whitfield (Brandeis University Press, £30)

This book celebrates the many well-known alumni of Brandeis University, situated just outside Boston. Political thinker Michael Walzer, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Black Communist activist Angela Davis, anarchist wit and campaigner Abbie Hoffman, and Congressman Stephen Solarz, all parade across Brandeis’s stage in this absorbing account.

The author, Stephen J. Whitfield, tells the broader story of the American left and the disproportionate contribution of the Jews. The institution projected an unbiased openness to all-comers of academic talent.

Founded in 1948 as “a Jewish-sponsored non-sectarian university”, it was embedded in the struggle of the second generation of American Jews “for the right to be equal while also asserting the freedom to be different”. Which was in contradistinction to the view of William Jennings Bryan, a three-times presidential candidate, that no member of faculty at a US university should be allowed to teach unless he or she was a practising Christian.

There was a quota for Jewish students at Columbia such that Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winner for Quantum Electrodynamics in 1965, was turned down and told to apply elsewhere.

Robert Oppenheimer, the conscience-stricken father of the US Atom bomb, was recommended to Cambridge “as a Jew, but entirely without the usual qualifications of his race”.

Albert Einstein, who had similarly suffered exclusion, wanted a college based on liberal values that was not specifically a religious institution such as Yeshiva University. Enlisting the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt at the outset, Brandeis proved a haven in the 1950s from political persecution by Senator McCarthy and his Un-American Activities Committee. Felix Browder, the brilliant son of the head of the US Communist party, was given his first teaching post at Brandeis, alongside many refugees from Nazism.

The mathematician, John Forbes Nash, a paranoid schizophrenic and the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind (2001) researched at Brandeis — and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994. Ralph Miliband, the doyen of British left-wing thinkers, lectured in the sociology department for many years.

His sons, David and Ed went to local schools and played baseball with classmates. A youthful David Miliband campaigned for Mel King, a Black Democrat, to become mayor of Boston and was beaten up for his pains in an Irish neighbourhood of the city. Even Noam Chomsky taught Hebrew at Brandeis.

Whitfield, an academic at Brandeis for over four decades, describes the institution as “one academic kibbutz”, which attracted speakers as different as Pete Seeger and Martin Luther King.

Stokely Carmichael who went on to become a leader of the Black Panthers, had grown up with Jewish friends in the Bronx and initially wanted to go to Brandeis, but then decided against it.

Brandeis’s genial openness occasionally embraced future leaders of violent action. The biologist, Aafia Saddiqui, was awarded her doctorate in 2001. Radicalised, she became a jihadist and was captured in Afghanistan. A supporter of al-Qaeda and a devout antisemite, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison in 2010.

This fascinating book of vignettes of figures who have shaped our times will appeal to readers of a certain age — and to their perceptive heirs. A welcome reminder in the age of Trump of the best in America.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor 
at SOAS, University of London

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