Donald Kagan

National Humanities Medal


“Education in a democracy ought to have as its goal civics, the education of citizens,” says Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, where he has taught for more than thirty years. He is perhaps best known for his comprehensive knowledge of classical Greek politics and wars, including a four-volume study of the Peloponnesian War. He is also known for his teaching of ancient history.

“At first I focused on modern history, but then I got sidetracked by a good teacher,” Kagan says. “Looking at classical Greece, I was struck by this amazing thing: it was a turning away from the typical pattern of civilization before that time. The Greeks and what came from them, including our society, are different from other societies. The Greeks are more immediately relevant than anything in between.

“The Greeks began with the remarkable assumption that the human being is not trivial. They were the first to say that human beings belong to the same race as the gods. They focused on life here on earth.

“What the Greeks did was to win fame or glory, which they called kleos, by their actions. If you did something splendid for your city--the equivalent of a country today--someone would write about it and you would be remembered by the citizens and by your children. That was the basis of their idea of achieving immortality. . . . It is an argument not for quietude but for excellence.”

These are ideas that Kagan stresses in his introductory course at Yale. He feels that a civic education should include a common curriculum. “One of the most powerful ways people educate themselves is through conversation, discussing ideas. That can’t happen if people are not looking at the same things.”

Kagan points to Yale’s Directed Studies course as an example of what a common curriculum should be. The year-long course surveys the literature, history, politics, and philosophy of Western civilization from ancient Greece to modern times, focusing on key ideas and primary sources. Typically, there are three times as many applicants for the course as there are spaces.

“There are enormous benefits to this,” Kagan explains, and not just for students but also for their teachers. “We have to collaborate on a curriculum and stretch ourselves beyond our specialties.”

At the start of his career in 1958, Kagan received a Fulbright to study in Athens. More fellowships and teaching awards have followed, including the Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching from Cornell University and a year at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Among his many books are Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, and The Western Heritage.

Kagan has also explored his interest in modern history. In While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today, Kagan and his son Frederick, a military historian, look at the possible consequences of military reductions and disengagement from international affairs by the United States in the post-Cold War era. “Now my sons tell me I have a responsibility to write a history and commentary on what has happened in the world of education in the last fifty years,” Kagan says.

In the meantime, he is savoring his National Humanities Medal and the kleos it represents. “In my soul I’m an ancient Greek,” he explains. “It is a way of being singled out for honor by my fellow citizens that I really appreciate.” .

By Lisa Rogers

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.