(Editor www.thereportcard.org: The National Association of Scholars study points out that Western Civ courses, once the backbone of American Liberal Arts curricula in higher education are vanishing. The Common Core Standard now adopted in 46 states may deal a coup de grace to Western Civilization courses, American History, and rigorous reading and writing in our Nations K-12 schools. In the attached Wall Street Journal editorial, Yale’s great classicist Donald Kagan fears that America as a Constitutional Republic might be finished. Dr. Kagan says prophetically: . “There is no hope for anything if you don’t have a population that buys into” a strong and free society, he says. “That can only be taught. It doesn’t come in nature.”
Yet, Classical Education is still taught at St. Johns College, Hillsdale and a few places of higher education. The Report Card just completed a three part series on Great Hearts Academies in Phoenix. Great Hearts schools are dedicated to the value of a classic liberal arts education and their results are nothing less than phenomenal. So, the choice is ours: educate our children to appreciate the value of liberty as our heritage, or sink into the abyss of the all-powerful state. Dr. Kagan of Yale makes it quite clear what will befall liberty if we abandon our roots.
‘Democracy May Have Had Its Day’
Donald Kagan, Yale’s great classicist gives his final lecture, fighting as ever for Western civilization
.By MATTHEW KAMINSKI The Wall Street Journal
New Haven, Conn.
Donald Kagan is engaging in one last argument. For his “farewell lecture” here at Yale on Thursday afternoon, the 80-year-old scholar of ancient Greece—whose four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War inspired comparisons to Edward Gibbon’s Roman history—uncorked a biting critique of American higher education.
Universities, he proposed, are failing students and hurting American democracy. Curricula are “individualized, unfocused and scattered.” On campus, he said, “I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness.” Rare are “faculty with atypical views,” he charged. “Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our Western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values.” He counseled schools to adopt “a common core of studies” in the history, literature and philosophy “of our culture.” By “our” he means Western.
This might once have been called incitement. In 1990, as dean of Yale College, Mr. Kagan argued for the centrality of the study of Western civilization in an “infamous” (his phrase) address to incoming freshmen. A storm followed. He was called a racist—or as the campus daily more politely editorialized, a peddler of “European cultural arrogance.”
Not so now. Mr. Kagan received a long standing ovation from students and alumni in the packed auditorium. Heading into retirement, he has been feted as a beloved and popular teacher and Yale icon. The PC wars of the 1990s feel dated. Maybe, as one undergrad told me after the lecture, “the pendulum has started to swing back” toward traditional values in education.
Mr. Kagan offers another explanation. “You can’t have a fight,” he says one recent day at his office, “because you don’t have two sides. The other side won.”
He means across academia, but that is also true in his case. Mr. Kagan resigned the deanship in April 1992, lobbing a parting bomb at the faculty that bucked his administration. His plans to create a special Western Civilization course at Yale—funded with a $20 million gift from philanthropist and Yale alum Lee Bass, who was inspired by the 1990 lecture—blew up three years later amid a political backlash. “I still cry when I think about it,” says Mr. Kagan.
As he looks at his Yale colleagues today, he says, “you can’t find members of the faculty who have different opinions.” I point at him. “Not anymore!” he says and laughs. The allure of “freedom” and “irresponsibility” were too strong to resist, he says.
His sharp tongue and easy sense of humor hearken to the Brooklyn of his youth. Born in 1932 in a Lithuanian shtetl, Mr. Kagan was raised in Brownsville, which was then a working-class Jewish neighborhood. He rooted for the Yankees on Brooklyn Dodgers turf—”everything you need to know about him,” as his son Robert, the neoconservative writer, once said. He was a high school fullback. Mr. Kagan is personally warm, always tough and occasionally smart alecky. Imagine Robert DeNiro as an eminent conservative scholar of ancient Athens. He has no patience for “nonsense” or “wrong ideas.” He’s a guy who’ll tell you what’s what and that’s that. Generations of faculty and students came away bruised from Kagan encounters.
The tussles over course offerings and campus speech of course speak to something larger. Democracy, wrote Mr. Kagan in “Pericles of Athens” (1991), is “one of the rarest, most delicate and fragile flowers in the jungle of human experience.” It relies on “free, autonomous and self-reliant” citizens and “extraordinary leadership” to flourish, even survive.
These kinds of citizens aren’t born—they need to be educated. “The essence of liberty, which is at the root of a liberal education, is that meaningful freedom means that you have choices to make,” Mr. Kagan says. “At the university, there must be intellectual variety. If you don’t have [that], it’s not only that you are deprived of knowing some of the things you might know. It’s that you are deprived of testing the things that you do know or do think you know or believe in, so that your knowledge is superficial.”
As dean, Mr. Kagan championed hard sciences, rigorous hiring standards for faculty, and the protection of free speech. Those who see liberal education in crisis return to those ideas. “Crisis suggests it might recover,” Mr. Kagan shoots back. “Maybe it’s had its day. Democracy may have had its day. Concerns about the decline of liberty in our whole polity is what threatens all of the aspects of it, including democracy.”
Taking a grim view of the Periclean era in Athens, Plato and Aristotle believed that democracy inevitably led to tyranny. The Founding Fathers took on their criticism and strove to balance liberty with equality under the law. Mr. Kagan, who grew up a Truman Democrat, says that when he was young the U.S. needed to redress an imbalance by emphasizing equality. The elite universities after the war opened to minorities and women, not to mention Brooklyn College grads like himself—then “it was all about merit,” he says.
The 1960s brought a shift and marked his own political awakening. Teaching at Cornell, Mr. Kagan watched armed black students occupy a university building in 1969. The administration caved to their demands without asking them to give up their rifles and bandoliers. He joined Allan Bloom and other colleagues in protest. In the fall of that year, he moved to Yale. Bloom ended up at the University of Chicago and in 1987 published “The Closing of the American Mind,” his best-selling attack on the shortcomings of higher education.
In the decades since, faculties have gained “extraordinary authority” over universities, Mr. Kagan says. The changes in the universities were mirrored in the society at large. “The tendency in this century and in the previous century at least has been toward equality of result and every other kind of equality that could be claimed without much regard for liberty,” he says. “Right now the menace is certainly to liberty.”
Over lunch at the private Mory’s club last week, we marvel over the first-ever NCAA championship for Yale’s hockey team, the oldest program in the country. “Unbelievable!” says Mr. Kagan with the gleam of a sports obsessive. In 1987, he stepped in for a year to direct Yale’s athletic department—probably the only classics professor ever to hold the post anywhere. His first initiative was to call to disband the NCAA or take Yale out of it. “I wish I had,” he says. “It’s so disgusting, it’s so hypocritical, it’s so wicked. The NCAA is just a trade organization meant to increase profits.”
Whether athletics, democracy or war are the topics of discussion, Mr. Kagan can offer examples from the ancients. His lifelong passion is Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War—the epic clash between those former allies, militaristic Sparta and democratic Athens, that closed out the fifth century B.C.
As Thucydides wrote, people go to war out of “honor, fear and interest.” War, he also said, “is a violent teacher.” Another enduring lesson from him, says Mr. Kagan, is “that you can expect people, whatever they may be, to seek to maximize their power”—then a slight pause—”unless they’re Europeans and have checked their brains at the door, so mortified are they, understandably, by what happened to them in the 20th century. They can’t be taken seriously.”
These days the burden of seriousness among free states falls on America, a fickle and unusual power. The Romans had no qualms about quashing their enemies, big or small. While the U.S. won two global conflicts and imposed and protected the current global order, the recent record shows failed or inconclusive engagements in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Some would argue that free societies are too soft to fight brutal wars too long. Mr. Kagan offers culture and political leadership as an explanation. “We’re a certain kind of culture which makes it hard for us to behave rationally when the rational thing is to be tough,” he says. “We can do it when we’re scared to death and there seem to be no alternatives. When it’s time to nail down something, we very often sneak away.”
The protection and distance offered by two oceans gives America the idea—or delusion—of being able to stay out of the world’s problems. Mr. Kagan also wonders about possible “geocultural” shifts at play. A hundred years ago, most people worked the land for themselves. Today they work for a paycheck, usually in an office. “Fundamentally we are dependent on people who pay our salaries,” says Mr. Kagan. “In the liberal era, in our lifetime, we have come more to expect it is the job of the government to provide for the needs that we can’t provide. Everything is negotiable. Everything is subject to talk.” Maybe that has weakened the American will.
Also don’t forget, says Mr. Kagan, “unsubtle Christianity” and its strong strain of pacifism. “Who else has a religion filled with the notion ‘turn the other cheek’?” he asks. “Who ever heard of such a thing?! If you’re gonna turn the other cheek, go home. Give up the ball.”
In 2000, Mr. Kagan and his younger son, Frederick, a military historian and analyst, published “While America Sleeps.” The book argued for the reversal of the Clinton Cold War peace dividend to meet unforeseen but inevitable threats to come. The timing was uncanny. A year later, 9/11 forced the Pentagon to rearm.
With the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the U.S. is slashing defense again. “We do it every time,” Mr. Kagan says. “Failing to understand the most elementary childish fact, which is: If you don’t want trouble with somebody else, be sure he has something to be afraid of.”
Brownsville, not Thucydides, taught him that. “Any kid who grows up in a relatively tough neighborhood gets quick early lessons in what the realities are,” he says. His 1995 book, “On the Origins of War,” made a moral and strategic case to exert as much effort and money to safeguard peace as to win a war.
Thucydides identified man’s potential for folly and greatness. Mr. Kagan these days tends toward the darker view. He sees threats coming from Iran and in Asia, yet no leadership serious about taking them up. The public is too ignorant or irresponsible to care. “When you allow yourself to think of it, you don’t know whether you are going to laugh or cry,” he says.
The Kagan thesis is bleak but not fatalistic. The fight to shape free citizens in schools, through the media and in the public square goes on. “There is no hope for anything if you don’t have a population that buys into” a strong and free society, he says. “That can only be taught. It doesn’t come in nature.”
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.