Like Rodney Dangerfield, the humanities in Washington “don’t get no respect.” Not as much as they should, anyway. We’re a company town and the company makes politics. But like a blind squirrel who finds an acorn once in a while, politicians and the journalists who cover them gather occasionally with others who crave more profundity than the noise in political rhetoric to listen to the annual Jefferson Lecture.
The lecture is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Established in 1972, it’s delivered by a distinguished intellectual honored for his public achievement, the highest honor the federal government bestows in the humanities.
This year Donald Kagan, Sterling professor of Classics and History at Yale, followed David McCullough, Walker Percy, Saul Bellow and Robert Penn Warren to deliver the 34th annual Jefferson Lecture, and he declined to patronize politicians with insecure egos.
“In Defense of History” was not for faint-hearted liberals or politically correct journalists. It was filled with big ideas that sprang from the minds of the dead white males so enthusiastically trashed on the modern campus. Anyone who wants to be up to speed on the importance of the classical Greek historians, tragedians and philosophers can read it at www.NEH.gov.
The professor, who has been described as “a combination of John Wayne and Winston Churchill,” lives up to both, shooting from the hip and hitting his targets with rare eloquence, teaching and provoking. As a cultural conservative, he dares to attack the post-modern mindlessness that can pass for academic thought in the teaching of literature, philosophy and history. This pervades the political culture in Washington as well as the campus lecture hall. He’s eager for us to understand that what we call “liberal studies” should be essential reading for every citizen of democracy — mechanic as well as minister, plumber as well as professor — with the challenge to aim for the highest public and private aspirations.
“The training of the intellect was meant to produce an intrinsic pleasure and satisfaction but it also had practical goals of importance to the individual and the entire community, to make the humanistically trained individuals eloquent and wise, to know what is good and to practice virtue, both in private and public life,” he says. This ought to rattle the bones of everyone on Capitol Hill.
“Such was the understanding of the ancient Greeks and of the Renaissance humanists,” he continues, “but not, I fear of many teachers of the humanities today, who deny the possibility of knowing anything with confidence, of the reality of such concepts as truth and virtue, who seek only gain and pleasure in the modern guise of political power and self-gratification as the ends of education.”
A critic for The Washington Post inevitably sniffs that these ideas are “boilerplate,” a cheap appeal to the neo-cons in power in Washington who criticize multiculturalists and academic deconstructionists on college campuses. But the professor speaks with experience in the culture wars.
He has been a professor at Yale for 36 years, and lost a major battle a decade ago when Yale returned a $20 million gift to set up an interdisciplinary program for the study of Western civilization, which he thought would counter the “politically correct opinion” pervasive on campus. He saw it as a substantial loss for everyone. “Even if we conservatives are all stupid, crazy, and ill-informed,” he told the Yale alumni magazine, “we have the absolute value of providing an alternative to what students are being told by everyone else and helping them see through the cant.”
You won’t find many politicians or policy-makers in Washington rushing out to Borders or Barnes & Noble to find one of Don Kagan’s books on the Greeks, and that’s too bad because they could find needed lessons. In trenchant analyses of the ancient Greeks at war, which run to many volumes, he dissects the interplay of circumstance and choice, the relationship of leadership to preparedness, the interaction of personality and politics. “The Peloponnesian War was not caused by impersonal forces unless anger, fear, undue optimism, stubbornness, jealousy, bad judgment, lack of foresight are impersonal forces,” he writes. “It was caused by men who made bad decisions in difficult circumstances.”
Don Kagan counts Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and Otto von Bismarck among his heroes. At Yale he assigns his students to form a “hoplite phalanx,” the famous strategic lines of ancient armies that allowed each soldier to lean right to cover his unprotected side with the shield beside him. It’s not modern warfare, but it shows how a man depends on the guy next to him. Take note, Don Rumsfeld: Technology changes, but not the lessons of history.
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