Donald Kagan reflects

Yale history/classics professor Donald Kagan is a great old-fashioned scholar and teacher. The author of a classic four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, he has written many other books of distinction including Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy and On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace.

Professor Kagan retired from his position at Yale in 2013. He gave his last lecture to a packed auditorium. The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski attended and sought him out for an interview. Kaminski reported that Professor Kagan had an important message:

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.

Bill Kristol now presents Professor Kagan to reflect on lessons learned in the course of his distinguished career in the most recent installment of his Conversations (video below, about 80 minutes). The video is posted and broken into chapters here; the transcript is posted here.. Special attention is given to Professor Kagan’s unfortunately timely work on the origins of war (and the preservation of peace).

Quotable quote, on American power and global order: “The policy we had during [the] successful phase of [the post-World War II era] was: don’t even think of using force to bring about your desires. And it worked because people believed [it]. They knew we had the force and they believed we’d use it. Both of those elements are critical to preserving the peace.”

It should be noted that Yale has posted videos and transcripts of Professor Kagan’s lectures in his Introduction to Ancient Greek History course. In the introductory lecture, Professor Kagan explains why attention should be paid to the ancient Greeks.

Looking through Commentary’s archives for the essays by Kagan that it has published over the years, I find that many are accessible online. See, for example, “As goes Harvard…” (September 2006), “Peace for our time?” (September 2000), “Lessons of the Great War” (October 1999), “Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad” (December 1997), “Our interests and our honor” (April 1997), “Why America dropped the bomb” (September 1995), “Colin Powell’s war” (June 1995), “An address to the class of 1994” (January 1991), “Heroes, villains & SDI” (February 1989) and “The first revisionist historian” (May 1988). And the review by Algis Valiuanas (November 2009) of Kagan’s book on Thucydides provides a good overview of Kagan’s career. This is great stuff.


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