The Scholar and Teacher

By Strauss, Barry | Humanities, May/June 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Scholar and Teacher

Strauss, Barry, Humanities

I FIRST MET DONALD KAGAN IN THE FALL OF 1974 WHEN I ARRIVED AT YALE to begin the doctoral program in ancient history. Perhaps "met" is not quite the right word: although not yet the nationally known figure he is today, Kagan was already a phenomenon. "Encounter" may be a better way to describe an introduction to one of the most intellectually challenging educators I have ever known. Or "matriculate" because Kagan was little short of a one-man university.

During my years at Yale in the mid- to late-197Os, Kagan seemed to be in perpetual motion. He was chairman of the classics department, master of Timothy Dwight College, advocate of freedom of speech, gadfly, scholar, author, editor, raconteur, political commentator, sports fan, film buff, family man, and one of the most popular and highly regarded teachers on campus. He was exuberant in his causes and rapid-fire in his wit. And yet, ask a question and, seemingly without any hesitation, he would answer in the prudent and measured words that would have taken most of us the better part of an afternoon to put together.

There is something of the Renaissance about Kagan, classicist though he is, and not just that overused term "Renaissance man," although he is the soul of versatility. And it isn't just his fondness for the Florentine statesman and historian Francesco Guicciardini, whose maxims he often quoted back then. Rather, he has a humanist's passion for Greco-Roman antiquity, an orator's way with words, a diplomat's shrewdness, a neo-Platonist's idealism, and, last but not least, a sense of humor that leaves Puck in the shade. He displays, moreover, patriotism enough to rival a Florentine's love of his city-state. And in those days of the 1970s, in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate, it was as courageous as it was unfashionable to be patriotic, especially for an Ivy League professor. To sum it up, Kagan demonstrates the combination of realism and principle that is, perhaps, the hallmark of the Renaissance.

After the 1970s Kagan went on to serve as dean of Yale College and acting director of athletics at Yale. He began appearing on the op-ed pages and in magazines as well as on radio and television. And he added a number of major awards to his already deeply impressive collection of honors, most notably, the National Humanities Medal for 2002, and now, the Jefferson Lectureship, the highest honor the federal government bestows in the humanities. All of this not only offers well-deserved recognition for extraordinary achievement, but it strengthens the conclusion that there are, in fact, many Don Kagans, from the athlete to the administrator, from the public intellectual to the godfather of campus conservatism, from the vigorous defender of the teaching of Western civilization to the expert witness on foreign policy before a committee of the U.S. Congress. But there are two aspects of this remarkable man that have, I think, remained constants in his career: the exceptional scholar and the nonpareil teacher.

Kagan's lectures are legendary. As a performer he has superb delivery, perfect timing, and complete connection with the audience. He is full of wit and humor, by turns almost vaudevillian, and a master of the deadpan joke. Few will forget his way of asking good-natured student volunteers to form a hoplite phalanx to show how ancient armies tended to lean to the right as they marched so each man could cover his unprotected side by the shield beside him. Yet if part of Kagan's appeal is laughter, another part of it is that he takes himself seriously. For Kagan, ancient history is not just diverting but enlightening, even essential, because studying it makes us better citizens. His lectures are as substantive as they are dramatic, whether they test hypotheses about the causes of war or chart the rise and fall of a civilization. And when, in the last lecture of his introductory Greek history course, he asks students to shed a tear for the death of the polis, you feel strangely moved.

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