Donald Kagan — former classics, history professor and dean — dies at 89
Kagan, known as a defender of conservative values on campus, served as Sterling professor emeritus of classics and history and was a former dean of Yale College
Donald Kagan, Sterling professor emeritus of classics and history, former dean of Yale College — and just about everything in between — died on Aug. 6. He was 89 years old.
Born in Lithuania in 1932, Kagan grew up in New York, where his family emigrated after his father’s death. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1954, then achieved a Master’s degree from Brown University and a Ph.D from the Ohio State University shortly thereafter.
Kagan spent the better half of the 1960s as a faculty member in the history department at Cornell University, and it was there that, after watching Black students occupy university buildings to demand the formation of an Africana Studies Center and protest racially motivated incidents, the formally liberal Kagan became much more conservative after Cornell agreed to start a Black studies program.
“Watching administrators demonstrate all the courage of Neville Chamberlain had a great impact on me,” he said in a 2002 Yale Alumni Magazine article, calling the experience “disillusioning.”
While at Cornell, he once debated William F. Buckley, Jr. ’50 and represented the left in favor of the welfare state. Decades later, he guided a group of undergraduate students to found the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, whose faculty he joined in 1969, and on campus he was known as a staunch defender of conservative values.
He also vigorously defended studying Western civilization. A $20 million gift to the University by businessman Lee Bass ’79, intended to establish an interdisciplinary program focusing on Western civilization, was motivated by a 1991 speech Kagan gave lauding the academic discipline. Bass would later ask for his money back after years of intense debate over the need for the program and Bass’ own stipulations. Kagan said he regretted the loss of the program.
“Donald Kagan was Yale’s least politically correct professor and hence, among his students, one of its most loved,” Robert A. Lovett Professor of History John Gaddis wrote in an email to the News.
Indeed, students of all political persuasions flocked to his overflowing classes, classes that are still fondly remembered decades later.
Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science, only took one of Kagan’s classes while at Yale, and he still remembers the opening lecture of the course: “Miltiades and the Battle of Marathon.”
“He taught me to care about something that happened 2,500 years ago and 5,000 miles away,” Amar said. “That’s a charismatic teacher, who can get into your head even if you’re not someone who does ancient Greek history, and I don’t. He taught me what it was to be a scholar.”
Steven Calabresi ’80 LAW ’83, professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and one of three co-founders of the Federalist Society — an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution — took Kagan’s ancient Greek history class during the first semester of his first year, later calling it “the most life-changing class I’ve ever taken.”
Kagan told the class, when discussing Pericles’ funeral oration of Athenians, that the oration should be a lesson to anyone who chose to go into politics — “wrap yourself in the glory of your ancestors,” he said, similar to what Pericles urged fellow his Athenians to do.
Calabresi named the Federalist Society after Kagan’s words, calling the organization one “wrapped in ancestors’ glory.”
Kagan was known for inviting students to the front of the classroom during his lectures to form a hoplite phalanx — a military formation used in Ancient Greek battle. John Hale ’73, director of the Liberal Studies Program at the University of Louisville, remembers during the height of anti-Vietnam protests at Yale, Kegan opened the windows during one lecture about revolution in Athens to “allow revolutionary voices into the room for a change.”
“I always felt [his classes] were a conversation,” Hale, who maintained a close relationship with Kagan long after his own graduation, said. “If we were a different set of people, he might say different things. It made those classes a much more living and lived experience than some classes can be, and we all admired him for that.”
Scholarship was another core tenet of Kagan’s life, and he is perhaps best known for his four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, though he also wrote several other critically acclaimed books. In an interview with the News, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — who said that he admired Kagan “enormously” — called the chronicle a “penetrating understanding of human motivations.”
“There was a day of speeches about my work, and he came as a friend of mine,” Kissinger said, “but he spent a lot of time criticizing aspects of the foreign policy with which I had been associated. But he did it in a way that still made me feel proud that he came.”
Kissinger paused and then added, “in a way, a part of my world has gone with him.”
In 2002, President George W. Bush ’68 awarded Kagan the National Humanities Medal. He later delivered the 2005 Jefferson Lecture, which the National Endowment for the Humanities describes as “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.”
Kagan was a fierce fan of sports. Kissinger and Kagan, who have been friends for over 30 years and are both Yankees fans, would frequent Yankee Stadium, where Kagan would talk incessantly through and about the game.
At Yale, he would attend football games, similarly keeping a “running commentary” on the action. Both Penelope Laurans, former head of Jonathan Edwards College and special assistant to the president, and former University President Richard Levin specifically remember how both Kagan and Sterling Professor Emeritus of the Arts Vincent Scully, often sat next to each other at the games. The two, whose political views could not be more different, fiercely disagreed on everything — except their love for Yale football.
Former University President Benno Schmidt noted that Kagan, up until his 60s, would even play football with the Timothy Dwight intramural team, as he was Master of the residential college for two years.
“Donald Kagan was a legendary figure in Yale history – opinionated and outspoken, but deeply loyal to the institution to which he dedicated his career,” said Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler. “He was a fiercely devoted teacher of undergraduates.”
Kagan had a short stint as Dean of Yale College from 1989-1992 during the administration of President Benno Schmidt, though he ultimately stepped down — alongside Schmidt —amid controversy over a plan to reduce the number of faculty amidst a budget crunch. His views on the primacy of the study of Western civilization did not help matters, as Schmidt said that a contingent of leftwing faculty opposed Kagan “vigorously.”
He even briefly stepped in as acting director of athletics from 1987-1988 and served as the department chair of classics — receiving the Phi Beta Kappa DeVane Medal for teaching and scholarship and the Byrnes/Sewall Teaching Prize.
“He cared deeply about Yale, and about the academy generally,” Schmidt added, noting his various positions throughout all domains of the University. “Even though he was critical of it at times, he loved it very dearly.”
Just this past June, Kagan was honored yet again by the government of Greece, who bestowed upon him the Order of the Phoenix at a ceremony at the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C., for his work as a Greek history scholar.
“He just seemed undimmed, so happy, so sharp, so connected, so physically fine,” Hale said. “I know that he was still firing on all cylinders, still keen and alert and enjoying life.”
Kagan retired from Yale in 2013.