Did you know that Albert Einstein corresponded with Louis Brandeis about the idea that eventually became Brandeis University? Did you know that Einstein was the one who insisted it be named after Brandeis?

I am reading a report in the Hoot about a lecture given by Professor Stephen Whitfield about the early days of the University and I find it just fascinating:

[Einstein] began corresponding with Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis about creating a Jewish-sponsored institution of higher learning. Einstein’s dream to create a secular university founded on Jewish values led to a 1946 gathering of prominent Jewish businessmen and attorneys to form it. They faced opposition from many who feared assimilation, including Chaim Weizmann.

Despite the misgivings of Weizmann and others, Einstein went through with his plan. However, when founders offered to name the university after him, he declined. At that point, he had been in the United States for barely more than a dozen years, had been a citizen for only six years, and still spoke broken English. He wanted the school to be named after “a great Jew who was also a great American.” The obvious choice was to name the school after Justice Brandeis, who had died a few years earlier.

Also, did you know that Brandeis was explicitly founded as a liberal school?

“The name Brandeis,” founding president Abram L. Sachar said, “will combine most felicitously the prophetic ideal of moral principle and the American tradition of political and economic liberalism.”

Also, it seems like Brandeis classes in the early days kicked ass.

The three professors contributed to an active intellectual social life, with professors and their spouses crossing departmental lines to socialize and discuss topics of the day. At the time, lines separating disciplines were blurred both physically, with music practice rooms and labs in the same building, and professionally, with many professors having several specialties.

Whitfield praised Brandeis’ ability to cultivate innovative and esteemed professors and lecturers, including people like Abraham Maslow, author of a book about values and the higher life, Herbert Marcuse, a leftist politics and philosophy professor often named in conjunction to Karl Marx and Mao Zedong, and Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady of the United States.

Brandeis kicks ass! This sort of stuff is part of why I love this place so much. That idea – departments not really mattering, a life of the mind, being taught by people like Herbert Marcuse (the FBI soon forced Brandeis to kick him out) – is so cool! A Brandeis alum recently told me that “Brandeis in the fifties was a different place. You had all these amazing professors, but eventually they retired. They signed up for something revolutionary, but Brandeis stopped trying to Brandeis and started trying to be Harvard”

I can’t wait to read more of Professor Whitfield’s research into this topic. I can’t wait until we* start trying to be Brandeis again.

* Actually, I think most students do want Brandeis to be great on Brandeis’ terms. It’s the “adults” (the Board of Trustees? The high-level administrators?) that are the ones that try to turn us into something we’re not, I think.

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