The Corner

Culture

Brownsville and Beyond

Professor Donald Kagan at home, March 2019 (Jay Nordlinger)

Donald Kagan is a great scholar, a great teacher — a living legend. I’ve done a podcast with him, a Q&A: here. I listened to him when we were recording, of course. I listened to him again, on tape. I don’t think I’m done, frankly. He is a first-rate conversationalist.

He was born in 1932, in Lithuania. He got to America when he was two. What would his life have been if he had stayed? I asked him this question. He said, immediately, “Death.” He added, “They killed all the Jews they could get their hands on.”

Kagan grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. — the Brownsville neighborhood. A slum, basically. “Basketball was the religion of Brownsville,” he told me. Don loved it, of course. There was a great player, Ziggy Banks — “Ziggy” for “Siegmund.”

Another religion of Brownsville, in a sense, was education. According to Kagan, those “poor, miserable immigrant kids” had a great advantage: “They lived in an environment where everyone thought education was the most important thing in the world.”

Kagan went to Brooklyn College. He planned to be a history teacher — a high-school teacher. In those days, history majors had to take a variety of courses, covering many periods and places.

They wouldn’t let you be an ignoramus, Kagan says. These days, if you’re an ignoramus, no problem.

Everyone took a year of Western Civ. Then you could choose. What to choose? Young Kagan thought he would start at the beginning: with ancient history — Greece and Rome. Some upperclassmen said, “Um, that’s fine, but I would wait a year or two. Maybe she’ll be retired by then.”

Who was she? She was Meta Elizabeth Schutz. Formidable. No-nonsense. Un-warm. She had no desire to be your friend. She was your teacher. Kagan signed up for her class.

There weren’t very many people in it. Professor Schutz would call on you, whether you raised your hand or not. And she expected you to know the answer. One young woman, hesitant, unsure, began by saying “Well …,” and Professor Schutz interjected, “It is not well.”

This reminds me of students today — and non-students, too — who begin their sentences with “Like …”

Anyway, Don Kagan thought, “She’s not gonna get me. I’m gonna be ready.” And he was. The first time Professor Schutz called on him, he gave the answer, perfectly. She said, simply, “Yes” — and moved on to the next question and the next person. There were no congratulations. There was no endzone celebration. There was no “Gee, whiz.” Professor Schutz expected you to know the answer. If you did, that was normal and right. If you did not, that was abnormal and wrong.

She did these immigrant kids the great favor of treating them as though they were Choate and Groton grads, enrolled at Princeton. Her expectations for them were no less. Maybe more.

Donald Kagan decided then and there — that very semester — to become an historian of the ancient world. He became one of the most eminent of our time.

By the way, I did some Googling around about Meta Elizabeth Schutz. I found an interview with Leon Picon, a Foreign Service officer. He went to Brooklyn College — and Professor Schutz changed the course of his life. That interview is here.

In our podcast, Professor Kagan talks, generally, about the blessings of education. “You would be terribly handicapped if you were not educated. People can take advantage of you if you’re ignorant.” Education “is self-defense. It’s like carrying a gun.”

He has spent much of his life with questions of war and peace — in the ancient world up to our own times. We talk a little about these questions, too. Don’t forget the role of honor, says Kagan. “People have fought great wars over a chunk of territory that isn’t worth spit because of an attachment it has in somebody’s mind or in history or something like that.”

Human beings are dominated by memory. And “one of the hardest kinds of memory to erase,” says Kagan, “is dishonor.”

I thought of a joke. I first heard it as an Irish joke, but you can choose any ethnicity you want. It is well-nigh universally applicable. “What’s Irish Alzheimer’s? You forget everything but a grudge.”

Kagan and I talk about defense and preparedness. The United States is extraordinarily safe, he says. George Washington spoke of our “blessed location” — remote from the terrors of the world. “It’s hard to frighten us in any rational way,” says Kagan. This can be a problem, in that Americans are prone to letting their guard down.

I quote Jack Kemp, who liked to say, “I’m a dove — a heavily armed dove.” Chuckling, Kagan says, “If you’re heavily enough armed, and blatantly ready to employ your arms, you can afford to be a dove.”

Kagan and I talk about the Left on campus — an important subject, about which the professor knows a lot. We also talk about conservatism and liberalism. “They call me a conservative,” says Kagan. “They used to call me a liberal. I haven’t changed my views at all.”

A familiar and true song.

Bill Buckley went around speaking to audiences for some 60 years, and the most frequent question he got, by far, was, “What is conservatism? What’s a conservative?” He could never answer satisfactorily. He could never answer to his satisfaction.

I ask Kagan to take a crack at it. His crack is interesting. I’ll provide a brief sample: A liberal is likely to have a program. A conservative probably doesn’t have a program. A liberal has a list of twelve things he wants to do to improve the world. A conservative is likelier to say, “Have a nice day.”

At the end of our podcast, I ask Kagan to name some great Greeks — his favorite Greeks. He talks about Pericles and Thucydides. I ask him to name his favorite basketball player, or one of them. He cites Dave DeBusschere — a two-sport threat (playing MLB, too).

I think you’ll want to sit with Donald Kagan. I do too, again: here.

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