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The first and last religion major at Brandeis

Published: September 16, 2011
Section: Features

The late ’60s were an interesting time to be at Brandeis and probably at any college. The ground felt shaky but the possibilities seemed endless. The prospects for disaster, such as being drafted to die in a civil war in Asia, were imminent, but so was the sense of hope. Many of us felt dizzy from trying to make the world change, but that same vertigo opened into a giant chasm of possibility. Indeed, we seemed to be somewhat successful in transforming the society around us. Yet, the prevailing culture was potentially dangerous in both its power of conscription and its hatred of all things hippie.

At the same time, our dominant responses to the U.S. scene were not ones of fear. Mostly, the world of those older than 30 felt boring to us, a mass culture of narrow roles and narrower media. Instead, we were into alternatives.

It was in that milieu that I decided that I should be able to become a religion major at Brandeis, although there was no such department. Religion was a big trend in the late ’60s. No one seemed particularly interested in theology, at least as we understood it; rather, we had a widespread fascination with alterations in “human consciousness.” Psychedelic drugs seemed to be achieving that, of course, but so did certain Asian religions.

Knowing little about similar experiences available in Kabbalah, we thought that only the Advaita Vedantists (Hindu mystics) and the Buddhists (especially Tibetan and Zen) were exploring consciousness. The most popular authors stirring our interests at the time included Alan Watts, especially in “Psychotherapy East and West,” Hermann Hesse, especially in “Siddhartha,” and Huston Smith. Smith’s classic on world religions was then called “The Religions of Man.” It made the rounds with those of us at Brandeis thirsty to learn more about Eastern religions. The fact that he did not understand Judaism only added to our impression that spirituality was only found in the East.

In truth, we felt uncomfortable even with the word “religion,” having negative associations with it. Most of us who were studying Asian religions would instead call them “Eastern philosophies,” “Asian sources of wisdom” or “Eastern meditation systems”—pretty much anything other than “religion.”

This fascination with changing the nature of consciousness and especially with Asian religions extended beyond students at Brandeis. Some of our professors were getting into the act. A little of it was in the Psychology department. Although the department was focusing on sensory research under Sidney Stecher’s leadership, the subject was physiological bases of perceptions and certainly not the perceptual alterations brought on by psychedelics or meditation. However, we had one course in “transpersonal psychology” (translation: “spirituality”). More of the action took place in the Sociology Department. Actually, most of the action at Brandeis in every revolutionary area was happening in the Sociology department, including the National Student Strike.

Morrie Schwartz, a Sociology professor, had interests in Asian spirituality, later described in Mitch Albom’s book about the last days of Morrie’s life. However, the biggest influence was through the classes of Larry Rosenberg. He later left academia to study Buddhist meditation, going on to found a meditation center in Cambridge focused on vipassana (usually translated as “mindfulness”).

While at Brandeis, Larry had come up with a way to study the subject as a sociology course, which both amused us and intrigued us. As the spiritually minded psychologists had come up with “transpersonal psychology” to legitimize mystical inquiry, Larry called his course “The Social Psychology of Consciousness.” It was the class to take for any Brandeisian wanting to learn more about these subjects. It was where we learned about the alternatives in exploring mystical experience, it was where we met other students so inclined and it was also where we met Ram Dass.

Imagine walking into a sociology class and seeing a serene-looking, white-robed fellow with a reddish beard sitting in a cross-legged position. The class began with a riddle: What do Brandeis and this surprise guest have in common? The answer was that both were founded by George Alpert.

Alpert was an early founder and chairman of Brandeis (1946-1954), and he was the father of our guest, Richard Alpert. Larry explained that Richard Alpert had been fired as a Harvard professor along with Timothy Leary for experiments with LSD. However, Alpert no longer espoused drugs. Instead, he had traveled to India, learned about Vedantic Yoga and had returned as Baba Ram Dass to teach about it. He went on to do just that, becoming a popular teacher, as well as writing a book that became another standard source for us, called “Be Here Now.”

This class, however, was the first outing of Ram Dass. None of us could mention his appearance, because of the banning of Leary and Alpert, though he now advocated the practice of Vedanta, not the ingestion of psychedelics. None of us said a word to the administration, but there was quite a buzz among the students.

It was in this environment that I thought I should get to be a religion major at Brandeis. I met with Leon Jick, the dean of students, and brought a list. I had tabulated all of the applicable courses, and there were more than enough for the eight required for a major, but they were distributed among several departments of the university. I called my prospective major “Religion and Human Consciousness.”

Dean Jick, after he asked me to stop touching things on his desk, was very patient with me. He looked at my list and said that they indeed did comprise a nice list of courses on the subject. Then he politely informed me that they could not start a department for me.

Confused, I inquired, “Why do I need a new department to offer these same courses, when we already have them at Brandeis.”

“That’s how it works,” he explained. “Only a department can establish a major.”

I felt disappointment for two or three seconds and then it hit me. “If only a department can establish a major, are they free to accept whatever courses they want as a major?”

“Yes,” he answered, “but they are expected to follow certain standards in doing so.”

I thanked Dean Jick and headed directly for the Pearlman building. Asking who was in charge (if anyone could be considered to be running the Sociology department), I learned that there was indeed a chairperson, but he was on sabbatical. Approaching the acting chairman, I told my story and gave him my list.

A few days later, I had my answer. A few of the guys had run into each other in the men’s room, I learned, and decided I could do it. Recall that this was before e-mail and the Internet, so the decision was made there.

The next year, the chairperson, Phil Slater, returned. I thought it prudent to check with him, too, though it worried me to do so, as I had already proceeded with my individualized major. He explained that, in fact, he had now learned about this. “If I had been here, I don’t think I would have agreed to it, but I don’t want to take it away from you,” he said. I felt grateful and thanked him.

I officially graduated as a sociology major, but I never took a course in actual sociology, except Larry Rosenberg’s version of it. Yet, I learned more that would benefit my later work than if I had slotted myself into any of the extant majors. I went on to study religion in graduate school and then earned a PhD in psychology. I love my work, partially because my style of practice is different from that of most of my colleagues. I attribute much of this to my days as Brandeis’ first and last religion major.

Dr. Rick Blum graduated from Brandeis in 1971 and went on to receive degrees from the University of Iowa, Syracuse University and Saybrook University. He currently has a full-time psychotherapy practice in Connecticut and is the father of quadruplets. Blum recently published his first book, “The Tao of Your Psychotherapy Practice; How to Best Serve Your Clients While Maximizing Your Professional Freedom.”