Yale history professor Donald Kagan was one of eight recipients of the 2002 National Humanities Medal, which President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush presented at a private White House ceremony Thursday.
Kagan is the author of a celebrated history of the Peloponnesian War and other books about war in the classical world. In addition, he is well-known for his opinions on contemporary America and has had his commentary published in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
First awarded in 1988 as the Charles Frankel Prize, the award honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities. Bush selected the honorees based on recommendations from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“The recipients have made remarkable contributions to our nation’s cultural life,” NEH Chairman Bruce Cole told The Washington Post. “They have all deepened our knowledge of the human condition — Many have helped us become better citizens.”
Kagan, who has served as a member of the National Council on the Humanities, received the award “for his distinguished scholarship on the glories of ancient Greece,” according to a White House press statement.
“As a teacher and author, he has reminded generations of students and countless individuals of the vital legacy of classical civilization,” the statement said.
Kagan’s family flew to Washington, D.C., from around the world — his eldest son lives in Brussels — to join him for the presentation of medals in the Oval Office and the East Room reception that followed.
“It was a family event and I think we’ll all remember it together,” Kagan said. “They really were thrilled. For any American to meet the president at the White House is a stirring experience. It made us all feel very, very good.”
Kagan said it was his first chance to see the interior of the White House and said the staff was so helpful they made the event “glow.”
But Kagan said he also enjoyed meeting the other honorees, whose names were not disclosed until the day of the event.
“It was all a mystery as far as I’m concerned,” Kagan said. “I didn’t know who the other recipients were until the day of the event.”
The diverse group of recipients included a cultural critic, the founder of C-SPAN, a writers workshop, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which maintains George Washington’s Virginia estate.
“I feel surprised [about receiving the award] and very appreciative because I feel it’s something every citizen should be proud of,” Kagan said. “The experience itself was wonderful and splendidly planned and executed.”
Kagan, who came to Yale in 1969 and served as dean of Yale College from 1989 to 1992, said he owes a lot to the institution, which he said has the best humanities program in the nation.
Jeremy Ershow ’06, who took Kagan’s “Introduction to Ancient Greek History” course last term, said Kagan’s experience allowed him to shed an interesting perspective on the material.
“He was a great teacher and he was a great lecturer,” Ershow said. “[But] he wasn’t a great lecturer because he was the famous Donald Kagan, he was a great lecturer because he knew his stuff inside and out.”