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.

  • theantiyale

    This emperor’s-new-clothes debate about the role of education begs the question implicit in professor Kagan’s final lecture on the liberal arts : Will the University serve thought or will it be the servant of innovation? (edX; Kahn Academy; Mooc; Coursera)

    • The Anti-Yale

      Inquiry v. Innovation? That is the question.

  • inycepoo

    Mandating the study of certain subjects whilst stressing the liberal arts. Hm.

    Yeah, and all students must study biochemistry, biophysics, and quantum mechanics as well. Society has become increasingly ignorant with how the natural world works.

    • Cincinnatus80011

      You have failed to comprehend the core message, which is about citizenship.

      • yalengineer

        Yes, knowledgeable citizens who vote on topics like climate change and healthcare.

        • Cincinnatus80011

          Indeed. I never disputed the idea that students should be well-versed in many subjects. I myself spent many years as an engineer in the telecom industry before returning to my humanist roots. Both are crucial, but without a moderating and independent-minded streak from the liberal arts, business and science all too easily become the handmaidens of the technocracy.

          It is no accident that the greatest scientists communicate their findings in a fashion that is poetic in nature.

    • ldffly

      I don’t disagree with this. Natural science is part of our western culture. Physics, for example, is a cultural artifact as is Beowulf and needs to be studied by those who would be called learned. Knowing something about how the world works provides some basis for the matter of whether and how humans should engage in the natural world’s manipulation. An area of moral judgment on human action that should be informed by historical, philosophical and scientific understanding.

  • ldffly

    “Liberal arts education should also promote freedom of speech and a learning environment that encourages challenging popular views, Kagan said.”

    I don’t remember Kagan as a fan of the touchy feely technique in education and this quote corroborates my memory. The quote characterizes the learning environment I remember at Yale, both College and graduate school. Not much respect would be doled out to students who simply believed an instructor when he might say “up is down, right is left.”

    What makes me nervous is that by highlighting freedom of speech and right to challenge, Kagan is pointing to a sinister trend in the academy. He is concerned about the creation of unchallengeable realms of dogma. Nearly simultaneous with the rise of facile postmodern relativism, or perhaps because of it, this has been going on since the 1980s. I am pessimistic that this trend is going to change back toward Kagan’s ideal.