To the End, Donald Kagan Argues for the Primacy of the West

Michael Marsland

Donald Kagan
May 13, 2013

Since 1969, Donald Kagan has been an admired scholar and sought-after professor at Yale University, but a consistently contentious figure, too.

At the end of next month, the 81-year-old Mr. Kagan will retire and become a professor emeritus, 11 years after he was granted Yale's prestigious academic rank of Sterling Professor—in his case, of classics and history.

Born in Lithuania but raised by his mother in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Kagan was the first member of his family to attend college. He studied classics and history at Brooklyn College and Brown University on the way to obtaining a doctorate in history at Ohio State University, in 1958.

Since then he has become an esteemed scholar of ancient Greece and of the history of diplomacy. His stature derives, above all, from his four-volume account of the Peloponnesian War, the series of conflicts that brought the Athenian empire to its end. George Steiner called the series, published by Cornell University Press from 1969 to 1991, quite likely "the foremost work of history produced in North America in this century." In 2005 the National Endowment for the Humanities accorded Mr. Kagan the high honor of giving the annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.

But academic and cultural figures have assailed Mr. Kagan's ideas about contemporary politics—why America should be even stronger militarily, for example—and higher education's place in society. His consistent contention has been, as he puts it in a telephone interview, that "the world has been more shaped by the experience of the West than by any other, and therefore the products of Western civilization are of broader consequence and significance than those of other great civilizations."

Consequently, he says, learning about the West should form the core of an American college education—not as an exercise in obeisance, but as a process of gauging how the West "got that way, and what are its strengths and what are its weaknesses, what are the possibilities and what are the threats."

Among his battles at Yale was one over his proposal, in the early 1990s, when he was dean of Yale College, that the study of Western civilization should be central to a Yale education. Cries of protest greeted his plan to create a Western­-civilization course with $20-million in funds from Lee M. Bass, a philanthropist and Yale alumnus, who withdrew his gift when the controversy persisted.

The loss still nettles Mr. Kagan. In his formal "farewell lecture," in April, he lamented that on campuses "I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness." He called the study of history not only essential to the humanities but also paramount in them, for its attention to "high politics, constitutions, diplomacy, war, great books, and ideas."

But he has no doubt about the outcome of the so-called culture wars of the 1990s. "Totally lost!" he exclaims, sounding rather like a vanquished general on a Peloponnesian battlefield.

Mr. Kagan's disaffection with modern higher education has a long history. In 1969, while he was teaching at Cornell University, armed black student protesters occupied a campus building and demanded curriculum changes. That so irked him that he not only moved to Yale but also renounced his liberal-Democratic outlook.

He views that era's student unrest with a jaundiced eye. For him, campus opposition to the Vietnam War derived not from principle but from guilt at leaving the fight to draftees, who lacked college deferments: "And how do you square that circle? You have to say that it's not cowardly or indecent to avoid taking on the risks that everybody else is taking; in fact, it's noble."

Sadly, he argues, protesters and many of their professors further compensated: "They developed a stake in being hostile to the United States in the first instance, but also to the culture that shaped the United States—that is, the West."

At the same time, American higher education, as he saw it, suffered from political self-replication in the professoriate. "And that's a complete disaster," he says, "because the critical part of education is precisely controversy."

That stance has long attracted Yale students to Mr. Kagan's courses, particularly his seminars on classical civilization. Sometimes called a "one-man university," he "is not afraid to stake his own position, but he takes a genuine interest in what students have to say," says Harry Graver, a junior from New York who is studying classics and humanities.

"He has a reputation that is larger than life," Mr. Graver says, "but he comes as close to matching it as anyone could."