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Prof. Woll reflects on Brandeis’ changing political landscape

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Features

February 5, 2016

Politics professor Peter Woll has been teaching at Brandeis since the 1964. He has witnessed the reactions of Brandeis students to historical events such as the Vietnam War, the Reagan era and the War on Terror. Throughout his years of teaching, Woll has written several books on American politics, including “American Government Readings and Cases and Civics: Government and Economics in Action.” As an expert on American Politics, he is a uniquely astute observer of American political culture and the ways in which that culture is reflected by the Brandeis student body.

When asked about his views on Brandeis political culture, Woll had plenty to say about Brandeis’ reputation as a radical institution, noting that Brandeis students are “politically motivated, but not necessarily radical.” He shared a story of a telling interaction with his conservative-leaning friends: “When I explained to my golfing friends that I taught Politics at Brandeis, they would joke around by saying that I was teaching communism. Of course, things have changed now, but the public still views Brandeis as radical.” Woll’s perspective on Brandeis diverts from this view.

Professor Woll explained that Brandeis’ political leanings have changed in accordance with the changing political eras, but it remains a relatively moderate school. For example, Brandeis had its most formidable Republican presence during the Reagan administration, and was at its most radical during the student protest movement of the late 60s and early 70s. Woll observed that changes in Brandeis political culture are “primarily a generational phenomenon” that, like most other universities, remains fluid in its political leanings from era to era.

Woll remembers the start of the Obama administration as one of the most exciting times in Brandeis politics. Before the 2008 election, the American population was frustrated and exhausted with their political and economic woes, from the Iraq War to the financial crisis. According to Woll, “Obama’s election invigorated the student body,” reawakening its political fervor. Brandeis students were thrilled to see the inauguration of America’s first president of color, and Obama’s stances on political issues were considered refreshing and exciting.

Brandeis’ excitement about politics contrasts sharply with traditional American attitudes, stated Woll. He observed that “politics is a pejorative term” in American culture, since “most people see politics as synonymous with corruption.” To illustrate this point, Woll told an amusing story about his roofer: “When I came back from work, I made conversation with a roofer working on my house. He asked about my job, and I told him that I was a Politics professor. He responded with, ‘Oh! You teach politics. That means that you teach your students to lie, cheat and steal.’” Woll believes that Brandeis’ enthusiasm for political change diverts from this quintessentially American contempt for politics.

Despite oscillations in our university’s political culture, Woll makes an effort to keep his teaching style consistent. He stated that, “As time passes, I might add more content to my historical curriculum, but I try to keep my teaching straightforward.” Woll resists changing his curriculum or teaching style in order to provide an even, balanced learning experience for his students, despite the unique challenges of the political era in which they live.

Brandeis students have much to learn from Professor Woll. He has lived and taught through several major political and historical shifts, yet has remained steadfast in his teaching style. His views on the enthusiastic political culture at Brandeis display his appreciation for the student body with which he has worked for half a century.

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