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Donald Kagan’s Last Lecture

by Eliana Johnson

An important career ends memorably

New Haven, Conn. – Donald Kagan’s survey course, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, has for the past four decades been an intellectual touchstone for Yale undergraduates. His final lecture of the semester, during which he recounts Demosthenes’ heroic struggle to defend Athens against Philip of Macedon, is famous for rousing students to their feet as he exits the stage.

The 80-year-old Kagan is retiring this year, and today he delivers a different kind of final lecture: his last as a member of the Yale faculty. He left the Cornell faculty for Yale in 1969; he was by then already a conservative, having been pushed right watching the fecklessness of Cornell’s administrators as black student protesters turned a university building into an armed camp.

In the 44 years since his arrival in New Haven, Kagan has served the university in virtually every position imaginable — as head of the classics department, dean of Yale College, master of the residential college Timothy Dwight, and Sterling Professor of Classics and History. He is perhaps the only scholar of antiquity to have served as a university’s director of athletics. He also happens to be one of the most consequential historians of the 20th century; his four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War has drawn comparisons to the masterworks of Tacitus, Gibbon, and Thucydides himself.

Today, students, alumni, and some of his fellow faculty members pack into an oak-paneled hall to hear his remarks. Some cram awkwardly into small wooden desks intended for younger and more flexible bodies. Kagan, the most visible conservative on the Yale campus, is predictably iconoclastic. (“There are places in this university where a motion to wish me a happy birthday would get a close vote,” he has said.) His subject is not ancient Greece but contemporary America — in particular, the meaning of a liberal education, which has in recent years become a nebulous and controversial topic.

Kagan is greeted at the podium with the type of lingering applause that conveys the warmth and emotion of the audience, but his message is not particularly sentimental. The trendy, specialized, and scattershot courses that now constitute a liberal-arts education, he says, reinforce “a cultural void, an ignorance of the past,” and “a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness” among students, who float through their undergraduate years secure in the belief that “the whole world was born yesterday.”

According to Kagan, the nation’s elite universities are doing little to correct the problem. A liberal education now means that students pick up “enough of the subjects thought interesting in their circle and . . . make friends who may be advantageous to them in their lives.”

This poses a challenge for the American experiment, Kagan tells his audience, because a democracy must educate its citizens. He points to the champions of the liberal arts, from Cicero to Castiglione to Benjamin Franklin, who considered a liberal education an essential element of individual freedom.

Kagan calls for institutions of higher learning to create a common core of studies consisting of the literature, philosophy, and history of Western civilization. The students of today and tomorrow, he says, deserve the same opportunity as those of previous generations; they too must be “freed from the tyranny that comes from being born at a particular time in a particular place.”

This is what Kagan has been doing in his classroom for the past five decades. The foremost living scholar of the Peloponnesian War, he has imparted to students both his intellectual seriousness and his sense of history’s great drama. He is known to pluck kids from the audience of his lecture and arrange them on stage in the rectangular formation of the ancient Greek hoplite phalanx.

Kagan was born in Lithuania in 1932, but his mother brought the family to a working-class Jewish neighborhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, when he was two years old. It was surrounded by rough Italian and black communities. “In our neighborhood, you’d see butcher shops that would have Hebrew writing on the windows, and when you went up the hill, everything was in Italian,” Kagan tells me over lunch. “Sometimes, if you crossed over, you really felt like you were in a foreign country.”

Though he came of age in a community of European refugee Jews as Hitler reigned in Germany, he says it was great teachers who shaped his interest in history. There was Mr. Silverman, a high-school teacher of modern European history who shared Kagan’s flair for drama and asked his students big questions. “He had a wonderful trick of speech that really captured me,” Kagan recounts. “He used to say, ‘So, at that point, Bismarck could have done A or he could have done B. He did neither.’”

“He was the first one I ever saw who resembled in any way what I later came to think of as a historian, in the sense that he used to pose questions and then undertake to answer them, and to make us understand what the issues were,” Kagan continues. “I still think that’s what it is to be a historian: You pose a question that emerges from what you know, and if you’re smart enough, you pose the right question, and then you are very careful to consider the alternatives.” 

This is an old-fashioned approach to history, and it led Kagan to rebut, in his four-volume study, the popular idea that human beings merely behave in accordance with the larger societal forces that work upon them, and that events such as the Peloponnesian War are in this sense inevitable. Thucydides embraced a similarly fatalistic view of history; he believed Athens had simply become too powerful for Sparta to abide, regardless of the policies adopted by either side. Kagan puts the decision-making of individual leaders at the center of the action. “Human beings appear not to be just like artifacts or elements of science,” he argues, but rather to have will, choice, and the capacity to act. “There is no escape, if you want to understand human behavior, from looking into the hearts and minds of human beings engaged in things.”

Kagan’s version of ancient events has come to be widely accepted, and this triumph has helped to loosen the grip of social-science reductionism on the historical profession. He has done something similar on the Yale campus, acting as a consistent counterweight to the forces of political correctness.

After arriving at Yale in 1969, “I almost immediately began making trouble,” Kagan recounts, a note of defiance in his voice. When the Nixon administration compelled the university to formulate an affirmative-action plan for faculty hiring, Yale president Kingman Brewster issued orders to the chairmen of the university’s academic departments to sort applications by gender and race. “I found that objectionable, and I wrote a letter to the president in which I said to him, ‘You’re a liar and I’m not, but I believe this order is illegal, immoral, and unconstitutional, and I will not carry it out.’”

A meeting with Brewster followed. Kagan recalls, “I gave him a little lecture in which I said, ‘You have to know this is bad, and you are the man best situated to fight this.’ I basically said to him, ‘If you had the guts, you could do a great thing here.’” Brewster, who sensed Kagan was not truly looking for a public fight, exempted him from the distasteful business of sorting and asked him to pass faculty applications along to the dean’s office, where it would be done on his behalf. Kagan agreed.

In retrospect, he says, “I was wrong. I should have made it a public fight. It just didn’t occur to me that I could just set myself up and make it a public war.”

The lesson was not lost on him, and he would go on to cause Brewster and others considerable grief. In the spring of 1974, Yale’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom invited the Nobel Prize–winning physicist William Shockley to debate his noxious views on race and intelligence with National Review publisher William Rusher. Brewster had urged the organization not to invite Shockley to campus, a move to which Kagan strenuously objected. “The life’s breath of a proper university is to resist censorship,” he insists. When the debate was about to begin, with the auditorium full, student protesters shouted down both speakers and booed them off the stage. In Kagan’s view, Brewster had been a party to the intimidation, and he denounced the president in a speech before the Yale Political Union.

His agitation led the Yale College faculty to demand that Brewster appoint a faculty commission to study the state of free expression on campus and to make recommendations for its preservation. Brewster appointed the eminent historian C. Vann Woodward to lead the endeavor, and Woodward’s report — which concludes, “Even when some members of the university fail to meet their social and ethical responsibilities, the he paramount obligation of the university is to protect their right to free expression” — remains the university’s policy to this day. The Yale Daily News has noted that the Woodward report brought about among students and faculty “a renewed concern for and commitment to free expression.”

“Scratch Don and you’ll find a combination of Winston Churchill and John Wayne,” Kagan’s colleague and fellow historian Paul Kennedy has said. “You hear about faculty who are intimidated about going against the grain and all that stuff,” Kagan says. “What the hell are they intimidated by, what the hell are they afraid of? You don’t ever have anybody getting up and saying anything that is going to make anybody else sore. It never cost me a thing. I think there’s something about professors, something in their lives,” he muses. “I guess they didn’t grow up in Brownsville.”

Kagan has for years concluded the final lecture of his introductory course with a tribute to those who have defended liberty in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. “Men like Churchill and Demosthenes know that those who love liberty must fight for it, even against odds, even when there is little support, even when victory seems impossible,” Kagan has told students through the years. “In spite of the outcome, it seems to me that the stand of Athens and its Greek allies at Chaeronea may have been, in words that Churchill used in another context, ‘their finest hour.’”

These words are a fitting tribute to Kagan himself as he concludes a career for which he, too, will be remembered as someone who fought for liberty, with little support, when — and where — victory seemed impossible.

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