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In Defense of History–Donald Kagan Has His Say

Some teachers appear to be larger than life, influencing successive generations of students with displays of erudition, inspiration, and a dash of drama. Professor Donald Kagan of Yale University is one of those teachers, and he delivered a lecture to the entire nation on May 12 as he presented the 2005 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.

Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Jefferson Lectures are the nation’s top prize in the humanities, and the list of previous lecturers makes this point clear. At the same time, like virtually everything said or done in Washington, the lectures carry a political dimension as well. Professor Kagan’s lecture, “In Defense of History,” was indeed a bold defense of history, delivered in the face of postmodern critics, deconstructionists, and cultural relativists.

Born in Lithuania in 1932, Kagan has taught at Yale since 1969. President George W. Bush presented him with a National Humanities Medal in 2002–a signal achievement for a man who was the first in his family to attend college.

Kagan is best known for his work on the Peloponnesian War and the history of classical civilizations. In his view, history is more than an interesting story or a battleground for competing ideologies–it is the ground from which we understand the present by understanding the past.

“Without history, we are the prisoners of the accident of where and when we were born,” Kagan has said. The study of history allows living persons to learn from those long dead and, by extension, to emulate their successes and avoid their failures.

This view of history is under assault in today’s academy–and particularly among the academic elites. For most of the last two decades, history departments have been hiring faculty members who, by and large, believe that no objective account of history exists, and thus that history is nothing more than a realm of competing ideologies and inconclusive debates.

In his Jefferson lecture, Kagan presented a bold defense of history–and the humanities–against the claims of the postmodernists.

“I come as a defender of the faith, of the humanities as they were understood ever since the invention of the concept many centuries ago,” Kagan announced. Without embarrassment, he cited the Renaissance humanist Pietro Paolo Vergerio, who argued that the humanities–the traditional liberal arts–represent “that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and mind which ennoble men and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only, for to a vulgar temper, gain and pleasure are the one existence, to a lofty nature, moral worth and fame.”

That quotation from Vergerio announced that Kagan is determined to defend a hierarchy of values as learned from the ancients and understood by the study of history. The liberal arts were intended to train the intellect, in order “to produce an intrinsic pleasure and satisfaction” that would also benefit the larger community. This education is intensely moral, Kagan understands, intended to train the educated individual to be eloquent and wise and “to know what is good and to practice virtue, both in private and public life.”

In contrast, some postmodern critics deny that history has any objective “meaning” and that anything known as virtue even exists. As Kagan stated, many modern teachers in the humanities are those “who deny the possibility of knowing anything with confidence, of the reality of such concepts as truth and virtue, who seek only gain and pleasure in the modern guise of political power and self-gratification as the ends of education.” Those are fighting words, and Kagan delivered a stinging rebuke to the modern enemies of history.

“Among them it is common to reject any notion of objectivity, of truths arrived at by evidence or reasoning external to whims or prejudices,” he asserted. He aimed particular criticism at those who claim that history must be “deconstructed” by literary criticism. These critics “assert that all studies are literature, all, therefore subject to the same indeterminacy as all language.”

In the course of his lecture, Kagan considered the contrast between the classic understanding of the artist found in Greek civilization and the modern concept which he traced to the Romantic movement of the modern age. “Ever since the beginning of the Romantic movement the dominant belief has been that a true poet or artist, whatever his genre, must be a rebel against the established order of society,” Kagan asserted. “Writers of the past who don’t fit the model seem always to be merely the victims of their place in corrupt societies or stooges of those who ruled them. The modern critic who discovers this is, of course, free from such influences.”

In other words, critics who assail the writers of the past as being ideologically blind and ignorant of their own oppression simply assume or assert that they are themselves liberated from such constraints and limitations. The modern concept of the artist as rebel produced literature “that is shaped merely by its author’s time and his place within the society, by his prejudices and purposes” and “is a poor and weak thing that deserve(s) the social scientific analysis and pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo that passed for literary criticism in our day.”

Kagan understands that we live in a time that is hostile to any claim for the value of history. The claim that history is important “has rested chiefly on its search for truths arrived at by painstaking research conducted with the greatest possible objectivity, explaining events by means of human reason.” This is precisely the understanding of history that is increasingly out of vogue in the modern academy.

Kagan is most at home with the ancients, conversing with Herodotus, Thucydides, and Livy. From the ancients, Kagan emerged with a coherent and ambitious understanding of the historian’s task. “These are the missions for the historian: to examine important events of the past with painstaking care and the greatest possible objectivity, to seek a reasoned explanation for them based on the fullest and fairest possible examination of the evidence in order to preserve their memory and to use them to establish such uniformities as may exist in human events, and then to apply the resulting understanding to improve the judgment and wisdom of people who must deal with similar problems in the future.”

The historian is more than a chronicler, Kagan insists. The historian’s singular task is to identify the truly important story–the events infused with meaning.

Herodotus, identified by Kagan as “the first true historian,” wrote of the war between the Greeks and the Persians “so that time may not blot out from among men the memory of the past, and that the fame of the great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners may not be lost, and especially the reason why they fought against each other.”

That approach is what makes history both interesting and important, but the very idea of great events, great individuals, and great deeds is looked upon with condescension in today’s academic environment. As Kagan explains, “The traditional great events and subjects: high politics, constitutions, diplomacy, war, great books and ideas, are not to be considered, except to show why they must be excluded as the product of dead white males engaged in the permanent process of oppressing good ordinary people of one kind or another. The purpose of the enterprise is not to seek the truth with the greatest objectivity one can muster but to raise the consciousness of the oppressed, to bring them the self-esteem they will need to overthrow the current version of this ancient establishment.”

Kagan looks to his fellow historians for rescue from this postmodern predicament. Even though university historians “have given far too much ground to such mindlessness promoted by contemporary political partisanship,” Kagan believes that the historians “are better situated than their colleagues in the other humanities to recover their senses.”

In a very real sense, Professor Kagan was calling his fellow professors in the humanities to acknowledge a moral dimension to the liberal arts, to establish virtue as an honorable goal, and to affirm truth as something that is both real and knowable. In other words, Kagan was proposing a platform for moral recovery now that religion has faded in influence. As he explains, “If we cannot look simply to moral guidance firmly founded on religious precepts it is natural and reasonable to turn to history, the record of human experience, as a necessary supplement if not a substitute. History, it seems to me, is the most useful key we have to open the mysteries of the human predicament.”

That statement reveals both the glory and the futility of Professor Kagan’s approach. His defense of history and historical knowledge is intellectually brilliant and courageous. Nevertheless, his confidence that history can “open the mysteries of the human predicament” is disastrously misplaced.

In the Christian analysis, history, taken with full intellectual respect, unquestionably illustrates the human predicament. Christians can agree with the claim that history reveals moral lessons through the rising and falling of empires and the crucibles of human conflict.

Nevertheless, the “mysteries of the human predicament” are understood only by revelation. The humanities have their place–and a recovery of sanity in the liberal arts would be a tremendous cultural achievement–but the deepest truths about humanity can come only from our Creator and can be understood only against the backdrop of eternity.

Professor Donald Kagan’s brave address is worthy of serious attention. Americans should be encouraged to know that the National Endowment for the Humanities provided the occasion for such an important presentation of substantial ideas. For Christians, this event should serve as another reminder of why we, of all people, must look to history with respect, humility, and seriousness.