01/17/2013 12:50 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Robert Bork: Great Teachers Transcend Ideology

For me, the recent death of Robert Bork -- judge, professor, and former Solicitor General --represents a personal moment of sadness. Judge Bork and I disagreed on most issues of constitutional interpretation. But, it was Professor Bork who taught me how to disagree with him, and exerted a positive, lifelong influence on my approach to examining the difficult issues that beset our society.

As a student, I was privileged to work with many outstanding teachers. But, the two people who had the greatest influence on my intellectual development came from the opposite ends of the political spectrum: One is a famously liberal environmentalist and the other is a famously conservative legal scholar. Yet, they shared many remarkably similar characteristics.

In the spring of 1980, I graduated from Dartmouth College where my adviser and academic mentor was the late Donella ("Dana") Meadows, one of the authors of the Limits to Growth, which came to be associated with the Club of Rome. It's hard to imagine anyone that, in today's language, anyone would be thought of as more left wing.

Then, a few months later in the fall of 1980, I entered Yale Law School, where Robert Bork was my professor in first-year Constitutional Law. It's hard to imagine anyone who would be further across the political spectrum from Dana Meadows than Professor Bork.

Yet, both of these individuals would have a lasting and deep impact on my approach to the world. They serve as a reminder to me that great teachers transcend their own ideology: From what I experienced, these teachers of deeply held conviction would be happy if you agreed with them, but far happier if they believed they had taught you to think for yourself.

Recently, Linda Greenhouse wrote in a The New York Times blog post ("Robert Bork's Tragedy") that Judge Bork was changed and unfortunately embittered by the personal trauma of his confirmation hearings. This discussion relates to the professor I experienced earlier in his life, when he created the foundation of work that ultimately led to his nomination.

In reflecting on the traits shared by Dana and Professor Bork, several characteristics stand out:

First, they both believed that the most important part of any discussion was the assumptions that underlie your thinking. Dana would ask us to write papers that included all of the assumptions inherent in our arguments. Inevitably, these papers would be returned with red ink with questions designed to cause us to think about these assumptions ever more deeply.

Professor Bork's role was to teach us constitutional law. In fact, he was far more concerned with teaching us to analyze the elements of an underlying argument. In his class, it was not uncommon for him to ask a question, listen to the first five words of your answer, and then hear him break in and say the sometimes dreaded words, "Now, stop and argue the other side." He taught by insisting his students have the ability to understand questions from all perspectives.

There's no question both Professor's Meadows and Bork held that, in their view, there was a single appropriate answer to the questions they raised. But, it was far more important to them that their students develop their own answers with a full understanding of all sides of the question.

Second, neither of these teachers cared much about grades. They wanted to teach students who wanted to learn. At Yale Law School, first term courses are pass/fail. The persistent (although never confirmed) rumor was that Professor Bork simply picked up our exam booklets, took the unread pile into the Registrar's office and told her "These people all pass." In a seminar, Dana was decided to let every student grade themselves.

Third, a difference in ideology did not mean someone was an enemy. When I arrived at Yale, I quickly learned that Professor Bork's closest friend had been Professor Alexander Bickel, one of the most influential constitutional scholars of our century who had sadly died at age 50 in 1974. Bickel's views and Bork's were often far apart. Indeed, according to student lore, I had missed one of the most extraordinary classes in the history of Yale Law School, which was co-taught by Professors Bork and Bickel. In our class, Professor Bork once described this class as "tremendous fun... he (Professor Bickel) would say something ridiculous... I would answer... and we would just argue back and forth." For students, the two scholars demonstrated their warm affection for each other despite their sometimes vast differences of opinion, their belief that the underlying assumptions behind any argument are most important, and their respect for any opinion which was based on well-thought out facts and reasoning.

Fourth, they were individuals of tremendous principle. Professor Meadows lived on a farm outside campus with people from all walks of life (since she believed her tremendous accomplishments and intellect did not make her "better" than someone who worked with their hands for a living), and attempted to use as few of the planet's resources as possible. I was invited to her home on two Thanksgiving holidays. She served turkey, but noted that she had not required the invitees to watch the turkey (one of her flock) beheaded earlier in the day, and that meat was rarely eaten on the farm. Her point was clear: She did not object to eating meat, but she objected to resources needed to raise animals on a large scale for human consumption, the treatment of the animals while they lived, and the ease with which modern-day consumers could avoid responsibility for the killing of the animals.

As an environmentalist, Dana also told me that she limited her travel. She was frequently invited to speak around the world and would later receive a MacArthur ("genius" grant) fellowship. However, she did not believe she should be using the jet-fuel needed to carry her on all of these excursions. In her words, she chose her trips "with intention". She also believed that no one should keep more money than they needed. When the College would not let her return a portion of her salary, she established a fund to support the work of her students.

Similarly, as Linda Greenhouse makes clear in her recent The New York Times, post -- better or worse -- Judge Bork never sugar-coated his views during his Supreme Court nomination hearings. He was unwilling to play the game that has now become the norm in Judicial hearings. He voiced his principled beliefs with unflinching clarity.

Finally, both Robert Bork and Dana Meadows were optimists with a sense of humor. One of might have thought that the person who wrote one of the most compelling books about the collapse of the planet would be dour: In fact, Dana was among the nicest, most optimistic people I have ever met. Similarly, Professor Bork jovially approached each class, mixing humor (never at the expense of students) with case discussions and occasionally providing a glimpse, with a gleam in his eye, of his encounters with what we now call "the left."

There are a variety of lessons I have attempted to draw, both for myself and our society, from my studies with these two, very different teachers. They include:

First, assumptions matter. Both professors focused their energies on teaching their students to understand the basis for their arguments and the beliefs of others. In our deeply polarized and often ideologically driven society, this type of understanding and analysis is now more valuable than ever.

Second, optimism and humor are vital to those with strongly held views. In 2009 (long before Occupy Wall Street) I wrote in It Could Happen Here (HarperCollins) that, based on my historical analysis, the continuing rise of extreme inequality in the nation would lead to political paralysis, economic catastrophe, anger and mistrust throughout the society, and ultimately much worse. Sadly, this analysis has, to date, been proven correct. Yet, like Dana I work to retain my optimism, and like Professor Bork, I work to retain a necessary sense of humor without cynicism.

To the extent both of these professors were activists, they showed me that dour and gloomy is often less effective than openness, optimism, and a willingness to approach all points of view with respect.Third, assumptions matter. The focus of both teachers was on understanding the assumptions that underlie beliefs and decisions. As a nation confronting tremendous difficulties, it seems to me that this type of thinking is more important than ever.

Third, respect, tolerance and the ability to see the other person's point of view are a necessity for teachers and policy-makers. While these teachers were recognized as leading global or national figures, they were also classified as extremists by those with opposing ideologies. As far as I could see, these classifications and disagreement with their views was irrelevant to them. What mattered to them was the willingness of those who disagreed with their views (whether students or Cabinet members) to engage with them in honest discussion and debate.

Today, our public discourse has sadly lost much of this type of well-reasoned discussion.

Finally, as the title of this article makes clear, great teachers are not bound by ideology. Our leaders at the national and state level are also teachers. We need them to decide on a course of action, explain why it makes sense, and engage in honest discourse with those who oppose their actions.

Great leaders are also great teachers.