Rebellion, Authority, and Knowledge

Disciplined thought and expertise are essential to the advancement of knowledge.
By Robert Post

It was as a Harvard undergraduate in the class of 1969 that I was taught to think for myself. I was privileged to meet masters of the mind and spirit, professors like Stanley Cavell, Stanley Hoffman, Erik Erikson, or Sam Beer. They transformed the way I saw the world.

And it was here in Cambridge that I met my classmates, who in the end taught me far more than any formal instruction. They taught me friendship and solidarity, idealism and love, politics and rebellion.

It is the last, which I have put in italics, that most marks my memory of 1969. We were the class who took over University Hall and who forever changed the nature of this ancient university. My old blue work shirt, silkscreened with the clenched red fist of defiance, still hangs in my closet. It is tattered and moth-eaten, but I have nevertheless treasured it all these years. It is a physical token of who I was and whom I hoped to become.

Since my graduation, I have sought to remain faithful to that shirt’s message of idealism and insubordination: Don’t accept things merely because they exist; don’t accept authority meekly because it claims to know better; don’t ever cease struggling to improve and transform the world. Think big; act together.

That shirt pungently reminds me of the wood fire in the living room of the eminent American historian Oscar Handlin. I can still almost smell the sweet smoke in the cloth. In 1969 I earnestly lectured Handlin that we needed more relevance in the curriculum. It was a seminal moment in my coming of age. I will never forget the curdle of condescension and disgust that crossed Handlin’s face as I pressed my case.

In the past several years, as I served as dean of the Yale Law School, that scene in Oscar Handlin’s living room continuously crossed my mind as I met with the many students who came to my office earnestly insisting on curricular reform. It was a perplexing memory, because it made me more inclined to identify with the students who were complaining than with my own decanal authority. It made me feel somehow misplaced, as though I should be with the protesting students rather with than the school administration. I was more than a little confused, as I think the students were also.

It has become important to me, therefore, to understand the nature of the rebellion of the Harvard class of 1969, which has affected me so deeply.

My class and I grew up in a world saturated with authority. We reached consciousness during the conformist fifties, when complacency was frozen in place. The ice had begun to crack while we were in high school, with Freedom Summer and with the great Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But when we arrived at Harvard, the university was still firmly in the age-old posture of in loco parentis. It exuded traditional authority. This was particularly disconcerting to me, because I had come from Southern California, with its loose beach culture and saturating sunshine. When I tell my students now about parietals, their eyes widen in disbelief. They look at me like I am describing the starched customs of another century, which of course I am. The same is true when I tell them about the ties we had to wear in the dining hall.

In truth, of course, there were much more important matters against which to rebel when we were at Harvard. There was a brutal, dishonest, and thoughtless war. I vividly remember as a sophomore blocking Robert McNamara’s car by lying down in front of it. I was very nearly expunged; my parents had to fly out from Los Angeles to plead for mercy. I also vividly remember my growing awareness of our responsibilities for pursuing racial and social justice. I recall conversations with Stokely Carmichael (as he was then known) when he passed through campus.

As I look back on it, it seems that when Harvard stood firmly for the traditional authority of in loco parentis, it was asserting a parental authority that we were precisely seeking to displace. We wanted to become our own masters. We were in full-fledged Oedipal revolt. We did not trust the world as it was, and we wanted to remake it. The university’s claim to represent traditional authority was fuel for our passion and resistance.

I can see now that Oscar Handlin was affronted not merely by my ignorance, which was considerable, but also, and more fundamentally, by my lack of appreciation for his status as an expert who had earned his authority and who deserved respect. And this insight raises for me very sharply the question of what exactly I was resisting about Oscar Handlin’s claim to deference.

The question arises because I am now frankly afraid of the intolerant populism sweeping the globe. There are many ways to define the kind of populism I have in mind: It is a politics that reifies and demonizes the other. It is a movement that refuses to abide by the ordinary norms of political bargaining and reciprocity. It is a popular mobilization that embraces a nationalism that violently extols historic ethnic identities.

But the aspect of contemporary populism that troubles me with regard to my own youthful rebellion does not concern any of that, because I don’t think we were guilty of those sins. It is rather modern populism’s profound disdain for the authority of knowledge. This disdain is evident, for example, in its refusal to credit scientific judgment in matters like climate change; in its hostility to medical expertise in the context of issues like vaccination; in its open contempt for institutions of higher education, like Harvard.

Apparently the infinite gush of information now cheaply and easily available on the internet has made every person an authority on every subject. The upshot is that for many truth is no longer the product of patient inquiry and disciplinary craft. It is instead merely an opinion produced in the echo chambers of like-minded partisans.

Was my challenge to Oscar Handlin simply an early manifestation of this know-nothingism? What exactly was I rebelling against in my fireside chat? If, as has been said, the motto of our generation was “question authority,” precisely what dimensions of Handlin’s authority was I questioning?

Contemporary resentment at elite forms of knowledge is of course a complicated phenomenon. It seems to me powered in part by justifiable anger at growing economic inequality; at the loss of opportunities for upward mobility; at the marked tendency of institutions of higher education, like Harvard, to reproduce elite status; at the increasing privatization of what should be essential public goods, like education and health care.

But it is fair to say that this anger is also sometimes directed at repudiating the very possibility of knowledge itself, on the ground that knowledge is merely a form of elite domination. When I was young, was I expressing this form of populism in my challenge to Oscar Handlin?

I distinctly remember disputing Handlin’s judgment about which historical events deserved close scholarly scrutiny. I infer from this that Handlin turned to history to answer questions that passionately interested him, and that he chose to study historical episodes that illuminated his questions. But in 1969 I had turned to history to answer different questions, questions that fascinated me. I wanted to study different events because they shed light on my questions. Does this imply that I had no respect for the authority of historical knowledge?

I think not, or, at least, I hope not. I never doubted that Handlin was a monumental historian who knew his stuff and who had much to teach me. True, my politics were different from his, and so I looked to the past to solve different puzzles than he did. But all along I wanted to produce work that master historians, like Handlin, could recognize as excellent history. I wanted to internalize and apply the methods and discipline that great historians used to construct historical knowledge. If I sought to write a different kind of history, my ambition was to write it in a way that was cognizable as history by creditable historical scholars.

In retrospect, my experience with brilliant professors like Handlin left me both dazzled and rebellious. I was dazzled by the immense treasures of learning and expertise that I discovered at Harvard. But I was rebellious because I wanted to appropriate those treasures for my own purposes.

The kind of contemporary populism that worries me is rebellious, but it is never dazzled. It has no respect for claims to knowledge that are validated by practices of craft and method. It has no respect for the independent status of facts. It is instead anxious to press its political views and to use the brute force of political will to override competing considerations.  

What I learned as an undergraduate at Harvard is that disciplinary knowledge is inconsistent with this kind of naked political will. I learned that disciplinary knowledge requires patience and craft, and that it contains within it nonpolitical criteria of its own validity.

That may sound like a complicated concept, but it can be illustrated by a simple example. We cannot know whether human behavior is causing the planet to grow warmer by counting votes in the Senate, even though the Senate can affect the budget and direction of federal climatological research. We can understand the nature and causes of global warming only by applying the best forms of science we have available.

What constitutes the best forms of science will, of course, be itself controversial. But in the end we can settle that controversy only by using the methods of science itself. It cannot be determined by senators fondling snowballs in the well of the Capitol, even if those very senators have the votes to block pertinent federal research.

We cannot know whether vaccinations cause autism by putting the question to a voter referendum or by counting the Twitter audience of vaccination opponents. Our only option is to apply the most competent epidemiological methods available to the science of public health.

At their best, institutions like Harvard stand for the integrity of these methods. That is precisely why they are now subject to political attack and contempt. I should have realized more distinctly than I did that institutions like Harvard stood for this same integrity even in the 1960s. In retrospect, I believe that some of our protests might best be understood as efforts to preserve that integrity by disentangling the university from the contaminating influence of the political leadership that was pressing the Vietnam War.

Surely the effort to protect the integrity of disciplinary knowledge grows more important now as our political life grows more tribal. The extreme polarization from which we are suffering means that perhaps we can reasonably expect to have in common only bare facts and reliable research. These preserve at least the possibility of constructive political dialogue between sides that have grown increasingly estranged. Without the distinct authority of disciplinary knowledge, without a respect for facts, we will all tumble down the rabbit hole and die with the rabbit.

So how, then, should I now understand my rebellion way back in 1969?

As I confessed at the outset, the spirit of revolt instilled by my undergraduate experience has never left me. I am forever delighted that I was empowered, mostly by my friends and classmates, to strive with others to reconstruct the world, to follow a moral compass unbound by the authority of in loco parentis.

Together we stood up for a powerful vision of a transformed America. We were not afraid wholeheartedly to pursue it. We questioned traditional authority in the name of a better future. That attitude has fueled great social achievements, some barely discernible in 1969—the movement for gender equality, for example, or for LGBTQ rights.

That attitude has also underwritten for me an unalienated relationship to my own work. Throughout my life I have insisted on making sense of the world in ways that are responsive to values I hold dear. I am now a legal scholar—I teach in a law school—and I perennially ask of the law my questions, according to the moral compass I learned from my college classmates. Even the overpowering institutional authority of the Supreme Court cannot budge that needle from true north.

Yet, paradoxically, my legal scholarship is also always saturated with the best possible legal understandings of the law that I can muster. This is because I have internalized the practices and understandings that constitute the discipline of law. The education I received at Harvard, the respect for learning and knowledge that it instilled in me, has made that possible. It is clear that we now need that kind of professionalism in law more than ever.

The ongoing impact of 1969 is thus deeply paradoxical.  My personal rebellion was infused with a constitutive appreciation of the authority of disciplined thought and expertise. I think the same is true for all of us. We all came to recognize that the world can be improved only on the basis of sound information and research. That is why we were never afraid to modify our idealism in light of our best understanding of the world.

In retrospect, therefore, we exemplified a strange compound of both rebellion and authority. Perhaps that compound is unstable. Perhaps it is too easy to slip into complacency, on the one hand, or into a kind of Luddite populism, on the other. We are today sadly flooded with all too much evidence of both. But I am convinced that now, as everything that is solid melts into thin air, as the center cracks and buckles, we represented in 1969 a balance between rebellion and authority that is more necessary than ever. It is a balance I hope to heaven we can maintain.

This article was adapted for Academe from Robert Post’s address to the fiftieth reunion of the Harvard class of 1969.

Robert Post is Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He served as the school’s sixteenth dean from 2009 until 2017. Among other books, he authored Democracy, Expertise, and Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State (2012) and, with Matthew W. Finkin, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (2009). He has served on the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure from 1990 to 1993, from 1998 to 2008, and from 2018 to the present. From 1992 to 1994, he was general counsel of the AAUP.