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Brandeis History of Ideas panel ‘Prehistoric Brandeis: Everything, Everywhere, All At Once’

The Brandeis History of Ideas Program hosted their fall 2023 conference “Prehistoric Brandeis: Everything, Everywhere, All At Once” at the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. The overarching theme of the event was contemplating the role of past contingency, accidents and chance in shaping the reality of the present. Professor of History and Director of the History of Ideas Program David Katz moderated the event. Faculty members and students in the History of Ideas Program presented a series of talks concerning this theme and how it related to their personal journeys in Brandeis. 

Katz began by sharing the motivation of centering the event around the theme of paths not taken. He first cited an example from European history; had Cleopatra not had particular features, such as a long nose, Mark Antony may not have fallen in love with her and initiated the series of conflicts that led to the foundation of the Roman Empire. Without the Roman Empire, historians speculate that the course of European history would be drastically different. “Historians and philosophers and writers have often pondered the role of chance, contingency and accidents which have often determined the choices that face us, often under the heading of Cleopatra’s nose,” Katz explained. 

The name of the conference nods to the Oscar-winning 2022 film “Everything Everywhere All At Once” directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Just as this film considers the existence of a multiverse, or an infinite set of life paths determined by minute choices, the event prompted the audience to consider how Brandeis students, faculty and staff make individual choices from multitudinous options that have shaped the identity of the university today. In order to reflect on how Brandeis has evolved, Katz invited senior faculty members from diverse disciplines to discuss their personal multiverses at Brandeis. 

The first faculty speaker was Robin Miller, an Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities and a Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature. Miller introduces how the canonical Russian writer Leo Tolstoy made “strenuous efforts to understand through fiction, history, autobiography, historiography and philosophy…the unceasing push and pull between causality and the random, order and chaos.” Tolstoy deviated from the Great Man theory in history and instead adopted the view that historic events depend on the coincidence of rules and the people who participated in the event. He also pondered why men all over Europe who had not been drafted to war would abandon their farms and crops to fight in wars. This consideration is important to make for students and their own lives, since students are busy acquiring knowledge and marketable skills, Miller posited. These case studies in history “may help inspire [students] when [they] encounter the many forks in the road that will be blooming for each of [them],” Miller concluded. 

The first student speaker was Lance Rothchild ’26, who discussed the various merits of different note-taking techniques to draw a comparison to how history can be explored. In his deepdive into the various note-taking techniques developed over the course of history, Rothschild found one technique by German sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann that particularly resonated with him. Instead of organizing notes in chronological order, Luhmann organized his notes in a slip box with notes that had similar themes from other sources. “The beauty of this slip box is that it lets ideas from different works, authors, fields and periods coexist and interact with one another,” Rothchild shared. This slip box method encapsulates the qualities of a good liberal arts education; by facilitating interdisciplinary programs and events, Brandeis creates a microcosm of accidents that lead to a study of history from multiple angles, Rothchild explained. 

The next faculty speaker was Irving Epstein, a Henry F. Fischbach Professor of Chemistry and an Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor. Epstein was also the first Dean of Arts and Sciences at Brandeis. Epstein reflected on the foundation of Brandeis, from its namesake to its grounding values. He asked the audience to consider whether or not Brandeis would be different if it was located elsewhere, such as New York or the Midwest, which were candidate locations for a new university founded on inclusion of the Jewish community. Epstein also shared how Judge Louis Brandeis was not the first consideration for the university name, but rather Albert Einstein was. Additionally, he considered people in leadership positions at Brandeis have shaped the university in ways that are appreciable today. In contemplating these potential points of divergence of the history of Brandeis, Epstein concluded, “I think the course of Brandeis would have been rather different.”

Following Epstein, student speaker Natalie Greenfield ’26 took the stage. Greenfield dissected contingency as a concept in history, and how it has defined possibilities, what is unfeasible and what is significant. She discussed some of the main, relevant points from a book titled “Contingency and the Limits of History” by Liane Carlson. The key arguments in the book, as well as certain case studies in social history, support the notion that while the accidental meeting of separate entities like people and ideas may not be an innate feature of the universe, it is a natural phenomenon that we just do not have the ability to control. “Our history, and enveloping elements of social history into the spheres of intellectual history, will only provide insight into patterns that have led us to meet accidentally today. The world is very chaotic, and is no less chaotic outside of academic buildings and college students,” Greenfield concluded. 

The next speaker was Elaine Wong, who was formerly the Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education. She joined Brandeis in 1982 and worked in numerous positions for 40 years before she retired in 2022. Wong discussed the many metrics that can be used to characterize how Brandeis has changed over time, such as its financial profile, its undergraduate and graduate student size and demographics, student life satisfaction and how the curricular emphasis has changed. She reflected on the growth of programs and the passing away of programs. Wong discussed how the decisions made about Brandeis cannot be siloed from the socio-economic context of the nation. Economic recessions, political debates and social initiatives from students existed in conversation with leaders at Brandeis in order to inform decisions about the university at large. “What will be in the future, and what will contribute to what we might aspire for in those areas?” Wong asked. “These are only a few of the questions we need to think about.”

Zachary Mayer ’25 was the next student speaker. Mayer contemplated the namesake of Brandeis, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Louis Justice, and whether the current social and academic climate at Brandeis reflected the same value that Louis Brandeis embodied. Given the discontinuation of the Social Justice, Social Policy minor, as well as the publication of the Oppressive Language List, indicating which words Brandeis community members should refrain from using, Mayer felt as though the university had betrayed its namesake. He emphasized the need for a return of the social justice spirit at Brandeis through student activism and through curricular changes. “There’s still a need for a social justice department, and a desperate need for students of the next generation to try to fix the social and environmental wrongs of the generations that came before us,” Mayer urged. 

The penultimate faculty speaker was Jonathan Sarna, who is the director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish history. Sarna spoke about the foundation of Brandeis, the ideas in debate at the time and the some Brandeis leaders who contributed to those movements. One of the central points that Sarna addressed was an application reviewing practice adopted early in the history of Brandeis, proposed by the first president of the university Abram L. Sachar. This application review process precluded the reviewer from knowing anything about the applicant’s name, race or creed. “Seventy-five years have now passed, and it’s certainly worth asking how Brandeis might have been different had the pledges and emphases of the founders been maintained,” Sarna stated. 

The last student speaker was Lana Taffel ’25 who discussed the concept of contingency and contemplated ways in which to synthesize the hindsight into a cohesive narrative. Taffel notes that in trying to understand the history of the past, and the many possibilities of how there could have been different outcomes, scholars have to keep in mind that their ideas are colored with modern day discourse, as was the case for studying evolution as a force in biology. She also discusses how the contingency is related to the butterfly effect, or the alteration of a path with high sensitivity to minute decisions made prior. Ultimately, whether the outcome is contingent or not does not seem to affect the end state of where we end up, Taffel considered. “Though it may be difficult to consider the many alternative choices that may have led us to different historical outcomes, our awareness of the precariousness of life history concerns our understanding,” she concluded. 

The final speaker of the evening was Eve Marder, the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Biology. Marder reflected on her time at Brandeis as a student and later as a faculty member, talking about how Brandeis had changed and how her personal academic inclinations evolved. As a high school student, Marder considered several different academic disciplines for her future career, such as political science, history and science. She discussed a common sentiment felt by students: the search for the single best career path optimized for interests and lifestyle goals. Ultimately, she advised the audience that what is more important is choosing a good enough path that leads to a fulfilling life, and that we cannot know the most optimal path. “In many ways, the decisions that you think are going to be so crucial, like where you are going to graduate school, don’t actually shape the decisions in the present,” she explained. The course of her research interests also advanced through some accidental discoveries, Marder shared. For example, after carefully mining data about the crustacean nervous system, her lab found that there were cryptic changes occurring in the nervous system that may have been influenced by climate change. 

Overall, the students, faculty and staff speakers shed light on their personal multiverses, ways in which Brandeis could have been different and ways in which student journeys could have been different by considering a diverse range of academic and social experiences.

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