Standing Athwart: The Legacy of Donald Kagan

Yale Daily News Magazine


On an overcast day in January, George Will left his hotel room at The Study with a purposeful stride. He had just arrived at Yale on invitation from the Buckley program, and his first request was for directions to the Elizabethan Club. Inside, Donald Kagan was waiting for his old friend, eager to reunite.

The scene was a far cry from when Kagan and Will first crossed paths 13 years ago. Though the then-dean of Yale College and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, respectively, were two of the nation’s leading conservative voices, often championing the same principles in the classroom and in the pages of The Washington Post, they found themselves at an intellectual impasse. Despite their political harmony, the two would forever be at odds on one fundamental topic: baseball.

Will had just published “Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball,” an effort to break down the game to an exact science through managing, pitching, hitting and fielding. It rapidly achieved widespread acclaim, but Kagan, a fellow baseball enthusiast, was not impressed. He quickly took to The Public Interest, a quarterly public policy journal, to pen a 20-page rebuttal, emphasizing Will’s “failure to appreciate the lost grandeur of baseball” and daring to define the work as “democratically modern.”

“I have been called many things, but rarely, if ever, ‘democratic’ or ‘modern.’ This mudslinging must cease,” Will wrote in response.

Kagan’s impassioned rebuttal was far from unusual. There’s a vigor that defines his every cause, from America’s pastime to America’s place in the globalized era. His colleagues herald him a fighter, one who never shies from an opportunity to defend his principles, chief of which is his call for intellectual diversity in higher education. And when the Sterling Professor of classics and history bids Yale adieu this May, after 44 years, it is this banner he will leave behind, a lingering conservative voice in a faculty overwhelmingly colored blue.

On a spring day in 1970, John Hale ’73 struggled to push through the barricade of students outside Phelps Gate. Anti-war demonstrations were in full force on Old Campus, and several professors had caved to the pressure, canceling classes for indefinite periods of time. But Hale and his classmates would not lend their voices to the protests. They were expected promptly in a small seminar room inside Phelps Hall, and professor Kagan was waiting.

“Everything was in disarray,” Hale recalls. “But Kagan was a rock throughout it all. The chanting — it was so loud through the window of our classroom. But he just kept teaching.”

For Kagan, the sounds of Old Campus were all too familiar, a vivid reminder of the reason he fled Cornell less than one year before. When gun-wielding students seized Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall in 1969, Kagan was confounded as the administration surrendered to the occupiers’ demands, including amnesty for all students involved. In the takeover’s aftermath, as Cornell exploded in tension and polarization, Kagan left his post for Yale, one of the few Ivy League schools then untouched by student violence and protest.

Yale, of course, would not carry this distinction for long. “I felt like Typhoid Mary, coming here,” he jokes in reflection. “There was a lot of fear that year and a lot of political pressure to call off classes. But I couldn’t think of anything worse — it was unfair to let those things rule out the educational process.”

Before the Cornell incident and burgeoning unrest at Yale, Kagan was a self-described “FDR-style, New Deal Democrat.” As anti-war aggression spread like wildfire, however, his views would shift sharply right, culminating in the neoconservatism that defines him today. Even then, it was an unpopular torch to carry at Yale, but, as Kagan puts it, a “necessary” one.

“A proper American institution needs a strong balance of ideas,” he says with a smile. “And to get there, you have to cause a stir now and then.”

In the past 44 years, Kagan and controversy have often gone hand in hand. Kingman Brewster, Yale president from 1963 to 1977, first caught wind of the professor’s principled defiance as early as 1972, just three years into Kagan’s time at Yale. Brewster had recently appointed him chairman of the Classics Department, but almost as soon as Kagan took on the position he was threatening to leave it.

Affirmative action policies had just gained a foothold at Yale, and Brewster was quick to inform Kagan of the department’s new hiring guidelines. The requirements would now entail keeping records of and “sorting” job applicants based on race and gender, all in an effort to ensure a steady influx of minority faculty. Kagan refused.

He expressed his opposition in a letter to Brewster. “I told him, although he was a lawyer, and I wasn’t, I was convinced that this order was illegal, indecent and unconstitutional,” Kagan recalls. “I wouldn’t do it.”

Brewster called him and invited him to discuss the matter in person. In the meeting, Kagan remained adamant. “I said: I’m afraid we don’t agree on this one, Mr. President,” he recalls, “so you better find yourself a new chairman of the Classics Department. There’s no way I’m going to do this.”

For Brewster, it was not an attractive option. “‘Yale President Fires Department Chair over Affirmative Action Policy’ — can you imagine? He certainly didn’t want that,” Kagan says. The point of the conversation, he says, was for Brewster to determine if Kagan meant to elevate the issue onto a public stage.

“But I had no desire to do that,” he continues. “I just thought it was wrong.”

Brewster, relieved that Kagan’s grievance would not take on a larger audience, put forth a proposition: Kagan would continue his hiring practices as he had pre-policy, and the Dean’s Office would “take care of the rest.” “In other words,” he says, “they would do their ‘numbering’ and ‘sorting’ by themselves, and I wouldn’t have to play a part.”

He agreed to Brewster’s proposal, holding the title for three more years before stepping down to become master of Timothy Dwight in 1976. But as he recounts the episode, Kagan’s voice is touched with solemnity, and it’s clear that regret still lingers in the story’s outcome.

“Sometimes I think I did the wrong thing,” he admits. “I said earlier that you have to be willing to make a stink about what you believe to be right. Maybe that was a time when I should have.”

According to Kagan, it was clear that Brewster thereafter began to view him as a “problem.” Subsequent Yale presidents might have felt likewise, as it would not be the last time that Kagan questioned administrative decisions. But in spite of the controversy that seemed to accompany the professor’s every move, he continued to field requests for filling nearly every top position at Yale, including an offer to become provost in 1987. (He turned it down. “Being an administrator is no fun,” he explains.)

If the administration viewed Kagan as a problem, it was one deemed indispensable to the University’s functioning and success. Today, however, this contradictory treatment continues to puzzle him: “Even with all the trouble I caused, they just kept asking me to do things,” he laughs. “I’m still trying to figure out why!”

In answering this question, one might look to an educational cornerstone of Yale: Directed Studies (D.S.).

Though viewed today as one of Yale’s most successful recruiting tools, D.S. suffered a rocky beginning. According to Norma Thompson, director of undergraduate studies for the Humanities Department, the program’s first three decades were rife with instability, and “Misdirected Studies” became the title of choice throughout campus. It was failing to attract Yale’s brightest, and as the chaos of the war years escalated, there was a palpable fear that D.S. would soon collapse. Kagan, however, would revitalize the program, crafting the very structure that makes D.S. the prominent fixture it remains today.

“I don’t know where Directed Studies would be today if it weren’t for Professor Kagan,” Jane Levin says admiringly. Levin, director of undergraduate studies for the program and wife of President Richard Levin, credits Kagan with launching the Class of 1937 Guest Lecture Series, which invites distinguished faculty to speak on topics ranging from Greek art to Western views of China. For Levin, these opportunities comprise a large part of what makes D.S. so exceptional.

In addition to introducing the series, Kagan changed the program’s basic structure, scaling it back from two years to one and establishing a required set of courses for enrolled students. “It’s remarkable to think that, before Kagan, a program called ‘Directed Studies’ had no mandatory courses for its students,” Thompson quips.

Should a “History of Directed Studies” be taught by Donald Kagan, he would probably forget to mention his own hand in its success. When discussing the program, he spends most of his time singing the praises of Jane Levin and Norma Thompson, who, for him, are the reasons D.S. continues to thrive.

“They are the best Yale has,” Kagan raves. “They’ve done wonders for that program, and it’s in superb condition thanks to them.” In the end, any attempt to change the subject, or steer the conversation back to Kagan is met with a wave of his hand. “Before that, wait, I just can’t emphasize enough. Those two are just wonderful, and there’s this one more story I have … ”

At the end of the day, Kagan’s memories of Yale are shaped not by his own accomplishments or words of praise from others. Instead, they are the product of those who surround him — namely, his students.

“That’s the magic of his teaching,” Hale says. “For most of my professors, we were clearly just an audience. But Kagan made us feel like we mattered. … It was just in his nature to take an interest in everyone.”

In a small office in the Hall of Graduate Studies, Donald Kagan sits amid a scattering of cardboard boxes. Wooden shelves once heaped with books are now empty, most of their contents stacked neatly in preparation for a new setting. “It is a little strange, seeing everything packed up,” he says.

For Kagan, the decision to retire after 44 years at Yale and 57 total years of teaching comes with a certain acumen. “There’s no potent reason,” he says. “It’s just time. I think I’ve done it about enough, and even I’m tired of hearing myself lecture.”

His departure promises time for the experiences he treasures most, including driving across Connecticut with his wife, Myrna, ever in search of a new favorite lunch spot. (Luc’s in Ridgefield was their most recent try.) But while he looks forward to more days like these, Kagan’s retirement strikes a somber note for those closest to him at Yale. For the University’s small contingent of conservative students and faculty, Kagan has carried a banner that all too often goes unspoken for. Ultimately, it’s difficult to determine where the fight for a balance of intellectual ideas will go when its primary champion leaves the ring.

“When conservative students look for a spokesman, they look for Kagan,” Thompson asserts. In a faculty who, as the Yale Daily News reported on Nov. 26, 2012, gave 97 percent of its campaign donations to Barack Obama, Thompson feels that Kagan’s leadership has been vital. “He’s shouldered this responsibility in an amazing way. Yale needs more of that.”

However, Alec Torres ’13, a veteran of two of Kagan’s most popular seminars, “Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War” and “Spartan Hegemony,” remains hopeful that Kagan’s legacy will pave the way for a new, young voice that will reaffirm the principles he’s entrusted the Yale community to carry on.

“He always liked to tell the story of what an education should look like,” Torres remembers. “He would say, if a student can go to two professors in one day, and hear completely different sides on the same issue, then you’ve achieved a true education. That’s what we should we striving for.”

At the end of the fall semester in 2001, Jane Levin sat among more than 200 students in Sudler Hall. Many were without a seat, instead crowding shoulder-to-shoulder along the aisles. Some were forced to stand by the doors. Finally, in walked Kagan, and the bustling lecture hall fell silent. After he reached the podium, he turned and faced his audience, preparing to deliver the semester’s last lecture in his “Introduction to Ancient Greek History” course.

Levin, who was auditing the class, remembers the experience as “truly breathtaking.” For the past semester, she had listened to Kagan speak fluently on the entirety of Ancient Greece, the subject on which his life’s work centers. On this day, he would conclude the course with a discussion on Demosthenes, drawing a parallel among the Greek orator, Winston Churchill and, although left unspoken, himself.

Like Demosthenes, Churchill breathed defiance when there was no physical justification for his position. Kagan read from his speech warning of Germany’s potential invasion, which proclaimed that Britain and her empire would continue to fight at whatever cost. “If necessary, for years,” Kagan quoted. “If necessary, alone.”

He then set down his notes and looked out at the crowd. “Churchill’s bulldog determination would seem, in retrospect, a wrongheaded defiance,” he began. “But men like Churchill and Demosthenes know that those who love liberty must fight for it, even against odds, even when there is little support, even when victory seems impossible.”

Despite the passage of nearly 13 years, Levin remembers Kagan’s concluding words well. “In spite of the outcome,” he stated, “it seems to me that the stand of Athens and their Greek allies at Chaeronea may have been, in the words of Churchill, their finest hour. Thank you.”

Kagan then picked up his briefcase and walked out, the storm of applause echoing behind him.

(Photo: Sara Miller)