Learning on the Left

Political Profiles of Brandeis University

Stephen J. Whitfield

Learning on the Left

Stephen J. Whitfield

Distributed for Brandeis University Press

400 pages | 6 x 9
Cloth $40.00 ISBN: 9781684580118 Published September 2020
E-book $25.00 ISBN: 9781684580125 Published September 2020

Brandeis University is the United States’ only Jewish-sponsored nonsectarian university, and while only being established after World War II, it has risen to become one of the most respected universities in the nation. The faculty and alumni of the university have made exceptional contributions to myriad disciplines, but they have played a surprising formidable role in American politics.

Stephen J. Whitfield makes the case for the pertinence of Brandeis University in understanding the vicissitudes of American liberalism since the mid-twentieth century. Founded to serve as a refuge for qualified professors and students haunted by academic antisemitism, Brandeis University attracted those who generally envisioned the republic as worthy of betterment.  Whether as liberals or as radicals, figures associated with the university typically adopted a critical stance toward American society and sometimes acted upon their reformist or militant beliefs. This volume is not an institutional history, but instead shows how one university, over the course of seven decades, employed and taught remarkable men and women who belong in our accounts of the evolution of American politics, especially on the left. In vivid prose, Whitfield invites readers to appreciate a singular case of the linkage of political influence with the fate of a particular university in modern America.


I. Introduction 3
II. The origins 11
III. Early atmospherics 48
IV. Champions of human rights 92
V. Two Americanists 137
VI. Thinking about justice 179
VII. Foreign-born radicals 223
VIII. Two magazines 268
IX. The Sixties 308
X. Champions of civil rights 350
XI. Racial grievance: January 1969 393
XII. Native-born outlaws 437
XIII. Spasms of violence 478
XIV. Thinking about capitalism 522
XV. The travail of reform 567
XVI. Conclusion 612
Review Quotes
Daniel Horowitz, author of forthcoming Entertaining Entrepreneurs: Reality TV’s Shark Tank and the American Dream in Uncertain Times
"Written by one of the nation’s most prolific, influential, and respected historians of postwar America, Learning on the Left capaciously and compellingly explores the role that people associated with Brandeis University played in shaping the nation’s Left in the three decades after the university’s founding in 1948. In the vast literature on the history of American higher education there is, quite simply, nothing like this."
David A. Hollinger, author of Science, Jews, and Secular Culture
“Filled with fascinating stories, this book shows how the faculty and students of Brandeis University influenced and were influenced by liberal and radical politics. Herbert Marcuse, Anita Hill, Irving Howe, Abbie Hoffman, Martin Peretz, Michael Walzer, Pauli Murray and a host of other remarkable individuals flow in and out of Stephen J. Whitfield’s captivating pages. Learning on the Left explains how the official values of a university founded in 1948 to counteract antisemitism proved to be a fertile matrix for courageous truth-telling in countless domains, and a safe haven for political risk-taking.”   
Julian Zelizer, author of Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker and the Rise of the New Republican Party
“From the moment of its founding, Brandeis University and the modern progressive tradition have been intertwined. In this wonderful book, Stephen Whitfield brings alive the students and scholars who helped to define the Left out of their experience at this premier institution of higher education.”
David M. Oshinsky, author of Polio: An American Story, winner of Pulitzer Prize for History.
"Rarely has a book about a college or university been as riveting—or such fun to read. Learning on the Left eschews the typical brick-and-mortar approach to trace the extraordinary impact of Brandeis, not yet a century old, upon the political movements, progressive reforms, and intellectual ferment of what we call 'modern liberalism.' How did Brandeis recruit such remarkable talent to a small, Jewish, nonsectarian institution? And why have so many of its graduates gone on to high-level careers in government, journalism, and academia? No one can better confront these questions than Steve Whitfield—the world-class historian and prize-winning teacher who spent his post-graduate years and professional life on the Brandeis campus. The result is a brilliant, shrewd, sometimes quirky journey into the soul of a very special place."
Colin Shindler | The Jewish Chronicle
"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.”
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