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Wake up and pay attention

Published: January 30, 2009
Section: Opinions


Throughout high school, I dreamed that college would be something like a vignette from Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland: a buzzing institution of the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll, where professors were all brilliant victims of the Nixonian reaction, radicals planned secession, and every moment was documented by the Death to Pigs Nihilist Film Kollective. Upon learning that Abbie Hoffman went to Brandeis, I constructed happy fantasies where we, circa 1970, would go to California, meet up with Ed Sanders, and break into Gary Hinman’s police-taped house in order to do research for The Family. So maybe I was in my post-adolescent idealistic phase, wrapped more in the nostalgia for a time I have never known than anything else, but shouldn’t the college experience live up to some of the ideas promulgated to future students by popular culture? Sadly, when I came here, I must say I was let down in a multitude of ways.

As a student body, we are incredibly dedicated to our studies, to our future ambitions, and to our current ambitions. While these traits are admirable, and probably will get us far, they do not for a fun or remotely interesting time make. The problem with having a sole focus on academic excellence, on getting into medical school, of becoming a dentist and making Aliyah, is that no community outside of the synagogue is fostered. As an institution, we are not widely known to the general public, and those who do know us are only aware of us with some vague and nebulous concept of a Jewish research institution. To our detriment, in the public consciousness, we lack athletic ability, artistic merit, historical merit, idealism, activism, anything that makes us something other than a stepping stone to Yeshiva.

It did not always used to be this way of course. I worked at the Alumni Reunion last summer and had many amazing conversations with alumni from the 1960s and 1970s, who painted a different and wonderful picture of Brandeis. Brandeis used to recruit artists and free thinkers, those on the cutting edge who could cause controversy and create change. The small size of the school allowed intimate professor/student relationships, which leads to the amusing anecdote of a professor who got bored during an exam and asked a group of his favorite students to skip with him and smoke in his car. Students for a Democratic Society was huge and we even had students in the Weathermen. I heard the best conspiracy theory from several members of the class of 1973, who may have been free-spirited in the sixties but are now thoroughly in the “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” category: the conservative donor base was getting frightened by Brandeis’ outspoken liberalism, and influenced the school to start recruiting quiet, scientific-minded students instead of outspoken artistes.

I am not attacking Brandeis or its business-minded policy changes. I am merely leading up to announcing the obvious fact that what we are now is not as good as it was, nor as good as it could be. We possess many brilliant minds among the faculty and students, and it is painfully obvious that contributions not dedicated to promoting the math/science/research acumen of the university are going rather unappreciated. We build a multimillion dollar science center that can be seen from Boston, while students in the studio arts must find workspace off campus. There are cuts to the funding and size of the arts programs while said new science center will provide over 175,000 feet of laboratory and teaching space for the sciences. The entire linguistics department is resigned to a hallway off of Volen. Should we not be hearing more from the Crown Institute, or are we worried about the university patrons still complaining of Shikaki’s hiring?

After attending a meeting of the Brandeis Budget Cuts Committee, comprised of some very intelligent and passionate members of our community, I walked away loving the idea of rebranding Brandeis as an institution dedicated to Social Justice in more than just words and a motto that sounds better in Hebrew. Stop this research institution stuff. Our literature claims that we are a liberal arts institution. I came here seeking a liberal arts institution with a storied history and a unique and diverse perspective. We used to have a branch in Israel, and I believe the building still stands. Why do we not reopen such a promising element of our identity? Catholic schools teach about conflict resolution in Ireland. There should be special programs here about the much more pressing issue of peace in the Middle East. Brandeis could try making the most of being a Jewish sponsored university. There are so many ways to rebrand ourselves to make us more appealing to prospective students and increase the size of the applicant pool. I cannot stress enough that Brandeis has all the potential in the world to be a truly distinctive educational experience if only it would utilize its tools and stop trying to blend in as a Tufts with a yarmulke.

Please see this piece as a call to arms. Get involved in what is happening at Brandeis. Times of crisis are the times when the greatest good can be achieved. Lots of alumni are very upset over the “lazy” student body which does not protest or picket enough for anyone’s liking. Get out and protest. You do not have to stand with signs and chant “Kumbaya” or “We Shall Overcome.” Attend meetings, stage rallies, write blogs, make proposals to your class or your union representatives. Be vocal. Just dig your noses out of your text books (I know it’s hard) and pretend you care about what happens to Brandeis in the coming years. Our tuition covers a good chunk of the University’s operating expenses. We as students, or paying consumers of education, have a say in what happens. An undergraduate experience should be a lasting force on a student’s life, and such a force should be somewhat enjoyable. So, dear students, it’s a brand new day. Won’t you open up your eyes?