Learning on the Left

Political Profiles of Brandeis University

Stephen J. Whitfield

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.

Cloth: $40 | E-book: $25
ISBN-13: 9781684580118
Pages: 592 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: September 10, 2020

This book is more than a history of one university and its outsized influence on politics and political theory in America. Learning on the Left is an indispensable political history of the Left and other sectors of American politics — in thought and in deeds — over the past 75 years.

Studies in Contemporary Jewry


  • Rarely has a book about a college or university been as riveting—or such fun to read… a brilliant, shrewd, sometimes quirky journey into the soul of a very special place.

    David M. Oshinsky
    author of Polio: An American Story
  • 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 decades after the university’s founding in 1948. Whitfield is a master storyteller, building interwoven lives into a book that uniquely captures the contributions that people associated with Brandeis made to the nation’s history. He has deeply researched this book, in both archival and published sources, over which he has tremendous command. Much but not all of the book presents what he calls “profiles” on well and lesser known figures. In the vast literature on the history of American higher education there is, quite simply, nothing like this.

    Daniel Horowitz
    Mary Huggins Gamble Professor of American Studies Emeritus, Smith College, and author of the forthcoming Entertaining Entrepreneurs: Reality TV’s Shark Tank and the American Dream in Uncertain Times (University of North Carolina Press, 2020)
  • 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.

    David A. Hollinger
    author of "Science, Jews and Secular Culture"
  • 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.

    Julian Zelizer
    author of Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker and the Rise of the New Republican Party
  • These two qualities—delightful humor and substantial scholarship—are not usually found together in one book, and this combination is enough to make this book attractive. But there is one more distinction that this book has. There is no other book that I know of that captures what life was like in the fifties, the sixties and the seventies, not only on the campuses of this country but throughout American society.

    Rabbi Jack Riemer
    The Jewish Advocate
  • Stephen Whitfield’s group portrait of a large number of men and women of the Left who taught and studied at Brandeis from its inception at the end of the 1940s to the present is as attentive to the personalities of his subjects as it is to their ideas. A gifted, prolific, and celebrated scholar of American and American Jewish history, Whitfield earned his PhD at Brandeis, taught there for 44 years.

    Allan Arkush
    Jewish Review of Books
  • 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
    The Jewish Chronicle
  • There is no other book quite like Learning on the Left in the historiography of American higher education. Whitfield ... has provided a comprehensive, deeply researched, and readable history of the liberal and radical students and faculty who have had a relationship, albeit oftentimes tenuous, with Brandeis since its founding. The book reflects a lifetime of reading on American culture and politics. Of Whitfield’s nine books, this is undoubtedly his finest as well as his longest, and no one was more suited to have written it.

    Edward Shapiro
    Seton Hall University, Society
  • The distinguished historian Stephen J. Whitfield, .... is eminently qualified to write a study of this unique institution and the “considerable influence” its faculty and students have exercised in American politics (1). Named for the great jurist Louis Brandeis—.... the university epitomized a characteristically Jewish commitment to the liberal ideals of equal opportunity and social justice for which Brandeis fought.

    Society for US Intellectual History
  • Whitfield offers intellectual history on the highest level…. (He) has offered a fine work, as fascinating as it is first-rate.

    Justus D. Doenecke
    New College of Florida, The Historian
  • ... a comprehensive, thoroughly researched and beautifully written volume. Stephen Whitfield has written a wonderful book... Rich in its insights and analysis, Learning on the Left should be read and enjoyed by anyone interested in the history of Brandeis University or, more generally, of higher education and Jewish liberalism in America.

    Rabbi David G. Dalin
    Modern Judaism
  • It is a remarkable story and Whitfield tells it ... exceptionally well by linking it to a grander narrative charting the evolution of postwar American liberalism....a work, finally, of such reach and distinction.

    Anthony Hutchison
    University of Nottingham, Journal of American Studies
  • This book is more than a history of one university and its outsized influence on politics and political theory in America. Learning on the Left is an indispensable political history of the Left and other sectors of American politics — in thought and in deeds — over the past 75 years.

    Studies in Contemporary Jewry

About the Author

Stephen Whitfield

Stephen J. Whitfield is professor emeritus of American Studies at Brandeis University. He was also a visiting professor in Jerusalem, Paris, and Munich. Whitfield has authored eight other books, including In Search of American Jewish Culture, also from Brandeis University Press, and edited A Companion to 20th-Century America.

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