All students must study literature, philosophy and history, according to retiring Sterling Professor of classics and history Donald Kagan.
At a Thursday afternoon talk, Kagan gave his last lecture at Yale to roughly 350 students and community members gathered in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall on the importance of a liberal arts education, marking the end of his 44-year career at the University. Kagan, who received a standing ovation, said students at a liberal arts institution should learn the value of gaining wisdom from the past and of speaking freely about their views.
“Liberation can only come from [returning] to the belief that we may have something to learn from the past,” he said.
Kagan is a world-renowned ancient Greek historian, known among undergraduates for his popular lecture course on the subject.
He said understanding and appreciating traditional values is rare today, with a society increasingly ignorant of the past that acts as if “the whole world was born yesterday.” Studying the core liberal arts fields, such as literature, philosophy and history, should be reinforced so that students can learn from the different worldviews of the past, he said.
Liberal arts education should also promote freedom of speech and a learning environment that encourages challenging popular views, Kagan said. Describing his personal experience, he noted that students used to name 10 to 15 professors in total when he asked them to cite professors who seem to have views uncommon among the faculty. This year, the list was down to three. He called on administrators to keep faculty members with a diverse range of opinions.
“To defend those [who are] free is the first obligation of anyone who claims to be engaged in liberal education,” he said.
Kagan described the history of the liberal arts education and explained that the emphasis within academia has shifted from the study of general knowledge and classical texts to the constant creation of new knowledge through specialization. The recent emphasis on the scientific method has created a “war of methodologies within and between fields,” he said.
Although a liberal arts education is still valued as a mark of success, he added, college education today fails to promote students’ understanding of themselves as free citizens. He said current undergraduates are losing a sense of values and possess “a kind of individualism that is really isolation from the community.”
Students interviewed said they found that Kagan spoke about matters of importance for the state of education at Yale.
Sarah Arn ’13 said Kagan himself is “an embodiment of a well-rounded man,” which Kagan emphasized as the goal of a liberal arts education.
Gavin Schiffres ’15 said the lecture was so meaningful that it should be “a mandatory introductory lecture” for everyone at Yale.
Kagan won the National Humanities Medal in 2002.