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Founding Fathers

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Left to right: Robert Dahl, Herbert Kaufman, Robert Lane

“Eric, come right inside,” a note posted on the door of Robert Lane’s apartment informs me.  The air-conditioning clicks on as I enter.  Two large bookshelves line one wall while faded posters supporting Howard Dean and Barack Obama are tacked up in the adjacent kitchen.  “Professor Lane?” I ask the empty den.  No answer.  I drop my backpack on a chair and walk down a hallway, past a modern-looking painting, toward the one room with the lights turned on.

“Professor Lane?” I ask again.

“I’ll be right with you,” a quiet voice responds,  “I’m just finishing up now.”

Robert E. Lane is the Eugene Meyer Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Yale University.  He arrived at Yale in 1950, where he taught full-time until 1987.  In 2003, Lane and his wife Helen moved into an apartment in the Whitney Center, a continuing care retirement community in Hamden, just a few miles from Yale’s campus.

When I meet him, Lane is wearing a gray cardigan; he has thick, saucer-like glasses and a hearing aid in each ear.  As he guides me back to the den, he moves with a sure-footedness that belies the 96 candles on his last birthday cake.  “Tell me again,” he says as he takes a seat at the kitchen table, “what exactly you’re looking for.  You want to talk about Yale’s political science, and the department after all of these years?”

***

The Whitney Center is a large, curving, red-and-purple brick building.  The first floor has a cafeteria and a spacious lobby filled with high-backed red-and-white chairs.  Posters advertise a variety of events: a wine tasting, a symphony, a lecture on “Birding in Israel.”  A mostly completed 1,000-piece puzzle sits on a low wooden table.

According to Lane, the Whitney Center is the destination of choice for many elderly Yale professors.  “This is the place that humanists and social scientists retire to.  Natural scientists, less so.  There are one or two here, a very distinguished chemist and a distinguished physicist” — Lane clears his throat and grins — “who was my enemy because he didn’t believe in climate warming.  He wrote for the local Whitney Center paper here, and so I had to answer him.”

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Lane was among the best-known political scientists in the country.  He twice headed Yale’s political science department, as well as the American Political Science Association and the International Society of Political Psychology.  Today, he lives with his wife Helen on the sixth floor of the Whitney.  “This is the place professors ought to go, because of the clustering of Yale people,” Lane tells me.

Thirty-eight current residents of the Whitney — about 17 percent of the community’s total population — are former Yale faculty members.  “If you were to factor in those who are alums, who worked for Yale or had a spouse who worked for Yale, including researchers, scientists, etc. the count would probably be closer to 60 percent,” Gretchen Joslyn, the Whitney Center’s Director Of Community Relations, said in an email.

Lane, indeed, is far from the only Yale political scientist at the Whitney.  Two floors below him is Robert Dahl, who is almost 98, and his wife Ann.  Just down the hall from the Dahls is Herbert Kaufman, 91, and his wife Ruth.  James Fesler, another former member of Yale’s political science department, also lived in the Whitney until his death in 2005 at the age of 94.  All taught at Yale and chaired the political science department in the 1950s and 1960s, during which time the university was almost universally recognized as having the best political science department in the country.  According to University of Washington Professor Margaret Levi, Yale’s professors built “the first modern department of political science, a department that asked major substantive questions while using the best social science techniques available at the time.”

David Mayhew, Yale’s Sterling Professor of Political Science, said it is “pretty remarkable” that the men — four of the last giants of political science — all moved into the same retirement community.  “It’s a great generation, and we’ve been losing people.  We’ve lost three faculty members in the last few years.”

“Yale students really don’t realize the tremendous resource they’ve got at the Whitney,” Mayhew continued.  “These guys were pretty incredible professors.

***

Political science professors and staff in the late 1970s. David Mayhew is third from the left.

Political science professors and staff in the late 1970s. David Mayhew is third from the left.

In 1940, Robert Dahl, now the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science, earned a PhD from Yale’s newly created government department.  After six years serving in Washington and fighting in World War II, Dahl returned to New Haven.  The department that greeted him was “not very large or prestigious,” said Dahl.  “It was still an Ivy League university, but its scholarship was falling somewhat behind.  The concept of political science,” he continued, gesturing quotation marks in the air, “was fairly new.  Classical political theory, yes; but the idea that there might be an empirical science there was a new idea.  And the conservatives in the department were outraged.”

Political science at the time was grounded in philosophy, history and constitutional theory.  The field very much resembled that of Plato’s time, when his The Republic, The Laws and In The Statesman created the discipline.  Leading professors primarily focused on classic theorists and historical perspectives on the public sphere.  In the late nineteenth century, a first wave of formal, descriptive studies were conducted, but the methodological analysis of politics was still almost entirely philosophical and juridical.  As A. Lawrence Lowell, a former American Political Science Association President, remarked in 1909, “We are limited by the impossibility of experiment.  Politics is an observational, not an experimental science.”

Beginning at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, social scientists began to study political behavior using empirical techniques.  They demonstrated for the first time that politics could be both innovative and scientific, a field distinct from history, law and philosophy.  But in the subsequent decades, academics continued to resist changes in the study of politics, largely adhering to the discipline as they had learned it.

Under the direction of Dahl and his colleagues, Yale expanded on the Chicago School and began to build “a quite new kind of political science establishment that was not inhibited by tradition,” Mayhew said.  “It was like Israel or Singapore or like the USA in 1800.  They could do new things.  They were lucky or wise enough to bring and keep here some very, very, very smart and creative people — a generation of innovators who could create a new political science.”

Mayhew explained that many of Yale’s young political scientists wanted their discipline to be “more sciency” — to look at the actual behavior of people in the real world.  In the 1950s and the 1960s, they pioneered what has since been termed the behavioral revolution, during which time rigorous, empirical study of individual and group behavior began to dominate the field.  “During that period, we were outstanding, because we were first in accepting the behavioral science,” Lane said.

Instead of simply examining institutions and interpreting texts, professors and students explored the motivations behind political activities: who was running for office, who was voting, and other behaviors.  Behavioralism “became almost a fetish,” said Kaufman, another of the professors at the Whitney, making Yale’s graduate students exceedingly employable and spreading the doctrine to universities across the country.

“A lot of these people were veterans from World War II — that was important,” Mayhew explained.  “The experience showed them a new cut of the world; it took them out of their hometowns or academics.  Some were in the service and some in the government, and the experience of the war made them think freshly about what politics might be and how they could investigate the world.”

“Serving in the army, I quickly lost any scholarly snobbishness I might have had about people without formal education,” Dahl agreed.  “The world became much more concrete for us, and we decided to investigate it more deeply.”

***

Between 1955 and 1970, six Yale professors served as president of the American Political Science Association, including Dahl and Lane.  According to Richard Merelman, the author of Pluralism at Yale, a Professional Visibility Index determined that from 1954 to 1994, one in ten of the nation’s top scholars was a Yale political scientist.  “As of 1970 or so,” said Kaufman, “the Yale political science department was setting the standards for political science in the country.”

The Whitney Center, a senior community in Hamden, CT.

The Whitney Center, a senior community in Hamden, CT.

“One of the things that accounted for the prominence of the department was people like Bob Dahl,” Kaufman continued.  “Practically every university tried to steal Dahl away from us.  He was probably the most prominent political scientist in the country in his day, and possibly in the world.”  His books, such as A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956) and Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City (1961), remade the study of U.S. politics.  Today, he is alternately described as the “Dean” and the “Pope” of American political science.

The university at which Dahl first arrived in the 1930s would be unrecognizable to the diverse community that Yale is today.  “The ‘Old Blues’ were still running the place,” said Kaufman, who began as an assistant professor in 1953 and, as a Jew, was “the department’s first minority.”  Yale was dominated by families that had been sending their sons to New Haven for generations.  Many of them were graduates of private preparatory schools.  Nearly all were white and Protestant.

The university presidency of Kingman Brewster, however, ushered in a wave of changes to admissions policies.  “What Kingman did was to suddenly go for the best people he could as undergraduates, and not weigh whether you went to a typical feeding prep school, Choate or Phillips Exeter,” Lane said.  “We didn’t get any rotten people anymore.  The caliber shifted dramatically to the bright and curious, and that was because we didn’t get these guys from Choate who knew all the answers, but didn’t have any questions.  That was exciting, and it was really a delight to teach those guys.”

According to Mayhew, there was also significantly “more ideological combat in the 1950s and 1960s.  Marxism was still alive at universities and there was a certain undecidability about where the world was going.”  He continued, “It was a gripping time.  A lot of things were going on: the universities were in revolution, cities were self-destructing, the Vietnam War was going on, there was considerable policy innovation, the Cold War was in full tilt.  There was more combustibility and change.”  Academic life was greatly enriched by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which welcomed political scientists into government with far greater frequency than either Presidents Eisenhower or Truman ever had.

Many of Yale’s professors were politically active.  Dahl became a leading opponent of the Vietnam War, attending protests and writing columns in The New York Times.  He also sought — and won — a seat on the local Board of Aldermen.  “New Haven already had the beginnings of an interesting city,” he said.  “It was a wonderful and stimulating time to be there.”

Kaufman was appointed to the New Haven city plan commission and later worked at the Brookings Institution.  Fesler had served on Franklin Roosevelt’s National Resources Planning Board, consulted with the United Nations and worked in the administrations of Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso and New Haven Mayor Richard Lee.  Lane, meanwhile, participated in marches on Washington while his wife traveled to Selma, Alabama for the Civil Rights protests.  Yale was a “sensitizing” place, he said, where professors attempted to instill in students a drive to do great things.

By the time Dahl, Lane, Kaufman and Fesler left the department, Yale — and the study of political science — had changed entirely.  Women, blacks and other minorities were being admitted to the university in record numbers and town-gown relations had improved dramatically.  What’s more, the new political science created at Yale had already influenced a noteworthy generation of public figures, from Joe Lieberman to John Kerry to George W. Bush.  “So much happened so quickly,” Kaufman said.  “It’s quite remarkable if you stop and think about it.”

***

In many ways, political science is a less exciting discipline today.  There has not been a breakthrough comparable to the behavioral revolution in generations.  According to Fred Greenstein, who received a PhD in political science from Yale in 1960, the field is “less exhilarating in the pioneering sense.”

For Dahl, Lane and Kaufman, days are no longer filled with graduate seminars, academic conferences and groundbreaking research.  But that doesn’t mean they are ready to sit around idly all day.  Lane, for instance, is still very much the political activist he was as a student.  At Harvard in the 1930s, he helped organize the first union for waitresses and busboys, and convinced the university to offer scholarships to hundreds of student refugees following Kristallnacht.  Since he arrived at the Whitney Center, Lane has established the National Senior Conservation Corps, which promotes ecofriendly practices at some fifty retirement communities nationwide.  He still writes prolifically; after our interview, he returned to his current essay on “what happens after evolution.”

“Lane has aged into his nineties acting very much the same as he did in his fifties,” Greenstein said.  “He’s kind of like the Hollywood version of a tireless professor.”

Nonetheless, Dahl, Lane and Kaufman are all now well past ninety years old and, of course, live in a continuing care retirement community.  Dahl recently suffered a stroke and often resides in the nursing home wing of the Whitney.  “But even with a stroke, he started at such a high level, he’s still ahead of most of us,” Kaufman quipped.

In fact, of the political science faculty in the 1960s, Mayhew is the department’s only remaining holdover.  And 45 years after arriving at Yale as an assistant professor, he is currently in the second of a three-year phased retirement.  But when asked if he might one day move into the Whitney, Mayhew laughed off the question.  “I’m not at that point quite yet,” he said.  “Even if I were, there’s so much more to do.  Political science is still changing.  Who knows what will be the next revolution.”

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Eric Stern

Eric Stern, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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