On a Saturday morning, Robert Lane greets me at the door of the Whitney Center in Hamden. It’s a quiet, beige-colored assisted living community, but when either Lane or his friend Stan must move to let the other pass with his walker, I can’t help thinking of the Wild West. They stare each other down for a bit, but then both move aside, laughing. “Stan looks good — and he’s 99!” Lane remarks.
Lane himself is 97, but looks younger — he wears black frame glasses on a remarkably unlined face. Despite his unworn appearance, Lane has a formidable history: stirring up trouble at Yale, leading the national political science academic circle, helping hundreds escape from Nazi-occupied Europe and laying the groundwork for the modern discipline of political psychology. But Lane downplays these accomplishments if given the chance.
“I once had to write a series of essays,” he recalls as we sit down to talk. “I called one ‘The Timid Rebel’ — and that was me.” He rebelled against Kingman Brewster, then University President. He rebelled against Poland, which blocked him from attending a conference because he’d protested the government during the repressive Eastern bloc regime. And he rebelled against Soviet Russia, which he says was “easy to fight — it was such a tyrannous organization.”
Tyranny has always moved Lane to action: He is known for a 1938 effort that brought young refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to study at Harvard and Radcliffe. He then led a grassroots push for universities all over the country to accept refugees. A 2006 article in the Harvard Alumni Magazine praises the project for achieving “three interconnected purposes: the humanitarian goal of rescuing individuals whose education was interrupted and whose lives were in jeopardy; the political goal of affirming American core values of tolerance and democracy; and the academic goal of improving the quality of higher education.” Many of the student refugees went on to become professors, deans and foreign officers.
When I ask Lane about this achievement, he seems to consider it not as a moral undertaking, but rather as something of a successful student club project: just a day in the life, just a normal thing to do.
Lane has always been an activist. As President of the Harvard Student Union in 1938, he organized workers and waitresses in the House dining halls, annoying Harvard’s 1938 administration. “I was a troublemaker,” he now says, then grins and slowly takes another bite of apple pie. Activism, the connections it brought him, and his involvement in the then-unpopular anti-communist left, all came together during a 1938 protest on Harvard’s Crystal Lawn against the treatment of Jews in Europe. Lane recalls a friend there asking him: “So now what? You haven’t done much for them, have you?”
So in November 1938, three students, including Lane, went to the President’s office to get scholarships and visas for students suffering under the Nazi regime. “It went surprisingly well,” Lane now says. “I hardly knew why.” In went — so well that Lane soon left Harvard to lead the Intercollegiate Conference to Aid Student Refugees, the national organization in charge of organizing the growing project. With offices in New York City, it included students from 100 colleges.
Lane worked with three men to run the Conference, including “a law guy deputized to keep an eye on me — who turned out to be my best friend, so [keeping an eye on me] didn’t work so well.” That “law guy” — Abba Schwartz, on his way to a Foreign Service degree from Harvard Law — went on to become Assistant Secretary of State for Security and Consular Affairs. By January 1939, 600 colleges had thrown their doors open to refugees. Scholarships and student visas safely brought hundreds of Central European students to the U.S. Lane and his Harvard buddies were the authors of it all.
Lane didn’t go on to more activism, instead joining the Air Force during World War II, serving as a registrar for an officer’s training school in Florida. From there, it was on to Yale, where Lane’s work would set the stage for the development of political psychology — but not without more troublemaking.
By the time he arrived at Yale in 1950, Lane had served in the armed forces and earned Harvard degrees in economics and political science. But he was more interested in psychology, especially as it pertained to politics. Lane saw most of the political investigation of the time as flat and uninformative — electoral polls, marking only support for Eisenhower or Stevenson. The meaning of that opinion was not captured, making Lane’s research methods a new approach at the time. Borrowing methods from psychology, he wanted to search “for the things a person can’t say.”
He taped subjects talking about their lives so as to contextualize their political ideas. “You don’t understand what a person’s political ideas mean,” he explains, “until you understand how they fit into his life, and what he plans to do with them.” Lane’s essential idea was that ideologies, despite their influence on people’s behavior, were being ignored by the methods of the times.
As political science professor Ian Shapiro puts it, “Bob Lane pretty much invented political psychology. He was revolutionary.”
Shapiro recalls that Lane’s searching led to endless conflict with then-President Brewster, who wanted political science to take its academic cues from law’s more cut-and-dried, standard approach. But Lane prevailed. In the 1950s, political science was an emerging and distinct discipline, but it now reflects influences from psychology, sociology, economics and history.
Lane himself taught a class called “Public Opinion and Political Ideology: Scope and Methods,” which focused on empirical political theory. When Lane began teaching, political theory was just the history of ideas — Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau — but he “didn’t think that would get anywhere.”
Instead, he focused his teaching on theory relating to current problems — a description that would seem right at home in today’s Blue Book, where many political philosophy classes promise discussion of the greats alongside discussion of how their ideas still matter.
Lane taught from 1950 until 1987, as Yale developed one of the nation’s foremost political science departments. On teaching he says, “It’s a marvelous life. If you’re interested in ideas, you have time to elicit from students the best that they have. I can’t see how anyone would want to live any other way.”
These days, life is quiet at the Whitney Center, where we sit in the dining room, opposite a vast wall of windows looking out on a somewhat melancholy backdrop of quickly turning trees. Though Lane is still writing books, he limits his political discussion to playing Risk with his driver. He likes to play as China, and cackles when he mentions it. I wonder what Lane’s China has done lately; I suppose it would depend on his political ideas. In any case, it’s an interesting possibility to imagine: Robert Lane, in his glasses and argyle sweater, on a banner in Tiananmen Square.
I’ve heard about psychology in politics before, in a discussion on the Cuban Missile Crisis. It could have been so different, if it weren’t for people. If John F. Kennedy hadn’t needed to hold fast after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and if Khrushchev weren’t facing intense internal disapproval from Soviet leaders, perhaps the standoff wouldn’t have come so close to the brink of nuclear war. Lane nods at this idea when I bring it up, and makes it even more universal. In his interviews, he’s met many people from powerful families. Their reactions to pressure, he says, have bred a desire to acquire power, in order to undermine their bullies and competitors.
Lane isn’t a trained psychoanalyst, something he’s happy to admit, but his breakthrough was simply in seeing that political science and psychology could come together. Ian Shapiro, when I interviewed him, seemed in awe of Lane’s legacy in academia. For breaking down boundaries between disciplines, he said, Lane is considered one of the primary forerunners of fields like behavioral economics. His academic career has always been guided by curiosity, rebellion within his chosen field and a refusal to play by the rules.
Lane sums it up: “I think you can make any discipline interesting if you don’t allow it to take over — you ask of it interesting questions.” And here, perhaps, is the “timid rebellion” that has been most important to Lane’s life. Today, political science is open to ideas and methods from the study of economics, of human behavior, of culture and thought, rather than becoming a factory line for Brewster’s lawyers.
At 97, Robert Lane has begun working on a new book, on evolutionary theory as it relates to forms of government — “very undemocratic forms, of course.” He’s attempting to picture evolution as an ideology — “a sort of authoritarianism without authority, except nature, or God. There’s no moral criterion in nature.” Rather, Lane focuses on the laws of the jungle, family and compassion. Throughout his career, he’s always been attracted to writing. “I think … I have the natural disposition to criticize. I wrote my first book criticizing the English department, and my last two books criticizing the economics department.” He gruffly laughs, and remarks — “and I loved it.” The rebellion continues.