Classics and history professor Donald Kagan was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the 2005 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government awards for scholarship in the humanities.

One of the world’s foremost scholars on ancient Greece, Kagan will follow in the footsteps of previous Jefferson lecturers such as literary critic Toni Morrison, historian David McCullough and fellow Yale professor Vincent Scully, an art historian. Kagan, a former dean of Yale College, was awarded the 2002 National Humanities Medal by President Bush.

He will lecture on the discipline of history as “a means of understanding the human predicament” in Washington, D.C. on May 12, he said.

“I would strive to attain the highest aspiration possible with realistic understanding with the limits of what the human being could do,” Kagan said. “The Greeks recognized that there is such a thing as a human nature, which is both an ennobling and limiting factor. Previous ages have focused on the limiting side, and our time is inebriated with the enabling side without any sense of the limits.”

Kagan said he became inspired to pursue a life in academia by his ancient civilizations professor during his undergraduate years at Brooklyn College. Though first enraptured by her demanding personality, which he regarded as a reflection of the fact that she took her students seriously as scholars, it was the study of ancient Greece that “sidetracked” him from his previous focus on modern history, he said.

“The tragic spirit of the Greeks was the greatest appeal to me,” Kagan said. “They accept the fact that human beings are very important and very able to achieve things. At same time, we are mortal and have limited capacities.”

A Sterling professor — Yale’s highest honor for its faculty members — Kagan has taught thousands of Yale students the ways of the ancient Greeks since arriving at Yale in 1969.

“He’s racking your mind and racking his own mind, trying to get ideas from you to help him in his thinking,” said one of Kagan’s advisees, Patrick McGill ’06. “He’s amazing, so willing to talk with you and engage with you. I’ve never met as animated a person, as sharp as he is.”

Kagan, who had previously taught at Ohio State University and Cornell University, is the author of several award-winning books on the Peloponnesian War and is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on ancient Greek history.

“I think it’s an extraordinary honor for an extraordinary historian whose contributions to Yale and to the profession are legendary,” said Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, a former chair of the History Department.

As a professor, a former director of athletics, a former master of Timothy Dwight College and undergraduate dean, Kagan has served Yale in several different capacities. During his tenure as dean of Yale College — an experience Kagan said was “as turbulent as I expected it would be” — Kagan led the initiative to create a two credit per semester freshman course on the history of Western civilization. It was approved and funded by a gift from an alumnus, but ultimately his plan was nixed by other administrators, he said. Kagan ultimately resigned from the deanship amid faculty unrest.