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May 6, 2013 1:39 PM   Subscribe

In his retirement speech, Donald Kagan, eminent historian of Ancient Greece, sounds the alarm about the decline of American democracy and Western Civilization. The Academy is fragmented, overrun by political correctness, and lacks focus. American society is plagued with similar problems, and Americans are no longer self-sufficient enough. Is his lament simply an echo of declinism?
posted by ChuckRamone (50 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would like to add for the record that Kagan is never quoted as using the phrase "political correctness" in that article, to his credit.
posted by thelonius at 1:48 PM on May 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


He seems to have left unaddressed a threat that I think is much greater than what he alleges is faculty group-think, and that's an increasing push to make a college education into a job-training program.
posted by rtha at 1:49 PM on May 6, 2013 [16 favorites]


A hundred years ago, most people worked the land for themselves. Today they work for a paycheck, usually in an office. "Fundamentally we are dependent on people who pay our salaries," says Mr. Kagan. "In the liberal era, in our lifetime, we have come more to expect it is the job of the government to provide for the needs that we can't provide. Everything is negotiable. Everything is subject to talk." Maybe that has weakened the American will.
On the bright side, he'll have a lot more time to catch re-reruns of 300 now that he's retired.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:54 PM on May 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


And, you know, the impending destruction of the academic profession spurred by decades of right-wing assaults on its funding under the cover of this kind of culture-war nonsense doesn't exactly help the cause of conservative intellectuals either. Once you've spent decades essentially waging economic and cultural war on university faculty, you don't also get to act surprised when they aren't queueing up to join your ideological ranks.
posted by RogerB at 1:55 PM on May 6, 2013 [15 favorites]


"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households." (Aristophanes, 423BC)

Yeah, he's not really saying a lot of new stuff. I do hope he enjoys his retirement though.
posted by The River Ivel at 1:55 PM on May 6, 2013 [16 favorites]


Kagan's been making this argument for decades now and was a leading light in the clan behind the Project for the New American Century that shoved hard for the invasion of Iraq. Like most of the neocons, he doesn't seem to have noticed he failed miserably, and it's not clear why anyone would think his insights into world politics have gotten sharper since then.
posted by mediareport at 1:55 PM on May 6, 2013 [20 favorites]


As for the job-training thing, when you expect people to come up with $58K/year to study, you should not be very surprised if they have a lot of concern about what happens to them economically once their 4 years of reading Plato and congratulating themselves for being connected to Western Civilization are concluded.
posted by thelonius at 1:58 PM on May 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


"Fundamentally we are dependent on people who pay our salaries," says Mr. Kagan. "In the liberal era, in our lifetime, we have come more to expect it is the job of the government to provide for the needs that we can't provide. Everything is negotiable. Everything is subject to talk."

Oh, for those salad days when there was no such thing as dependence, when government did nothing for the people, when the conditions of life were non-negotiable, and when we solved problems without talking about them.

What a fucking idiot.
posted by clockzero at 1:59 PM on May 6, 2013 [23 favorites]


Thucydides identified man's potential for folly and greatness. Mr. Kagan these days tends toward the darker view. He sees threats coming from Iran and in Asia, yet no leadership serious about taking them up. The public is too ignorant or irresponsible to care. "When you allow yourself to think of it, you don't know whether you are going to laugh or cry," he says.

That's so adorable - it's like he thinks he's people!
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:59 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Failing to understand the most elementary childish fact, which is: If you don't want trouble with somebody else, be sure he has something to be afraid of."

Brownsville, not Thucydides, taught him that. "Any kid who grows up in a relatively tough neighborhood gets quick early lessons in what the realities are," he says.


Maybe his neighborhood was a lot tougher than mine but that was definitely not one of my early lessons. I totally agree with what he said about NCAA sports though.
posted by bukvich at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Kagan is a cranky old neocon who spawned a bunch of cranky young neocons. While scholarship on Ancient Greece has benefited from Kagan's presence, the rest of the world has not. Good riddance.

"In the decades since, faculties have gained "extraordinary authority" over universities, "

This is so fucking hysterical.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


This is also a symptom of eurocentrism. In that he's calling for university programmes to be focused around 'our' culture. This is not just un-PC, it's also a very bad idea.

Look, the academy has not been kind to me. And one reason it's been unkind to me is that I study war and militaries, and intelligence, and other subjects which current academic fashion considers morally problematic. I'm also a straight, white male. On the face of it, I would have every reason to agree with the people (who I judge to be misguided cynics) who resent 'political correctness' in the classroom. But I'm also a student of history, and my history involves that of the whole human race, not just that cluster of people living on the European peninsula.

Eurocentrism has given us a distorted view of the world. It has taught us that Europeans were superior in the achievements of their civilization (wrong!). It has taught us that the imperialist project brought light and prosperity to the peoples of the world (wrong!). It has taught us that the Western nations cannot learn from other countries of the world, but rather that they should learn from us (oh so very wrong!).

Believing that we, in our modern interconnected world, can only productively learn from the history and culture of Europeans is like believing that the only one food is nutritious, or only one genre of music is fun to listen to. It is limiting, wrong-headed and ultimately self-destructive. Oh yes, and it's also had a history of being everybody-else-destructive too.

So no, I'm not going to say that the academy doesn't have problems, or that nothing should change, or that there are not huge blind-spots in the current system. But a lack of understanding of Western civilization? This is hardly the problem.
posted by Dreadnought at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2013 [14 favorites]


Is this what declinism has come to?
posted by uosuaq at 2:03 PM on May 6, 2013 [34 favorites]


Christ, what an asshole.
posted by edheil at 2:10 PM on May 6, 2013


Reminds me of Victor Davis Hanson, the neocon classics professor who was a loud, proud neocon.

Declinism is an absolutely fundamental part of the neocon worldview. The idea is that the US has become soft and vulnerable, because society is no longer strong, and also because we do not recognize our responsibility to use our military might towards the right ends: to both protect the US and to spread Western-style democracy at the end of a sword. It makes perfect sense that someone with a passion for the past glories of Western civilization and war would gravitate towards neoconservatism.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:12 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, Yale has his Ancient Greek History (in 24 segments) on youtube. I watched them all because I am a history ignoramus and it did me a lot of good. If you want to watch one or two of them, the ones on Sparta are amazing. You thought the "This is Sparta!" guy was out there but apparently they really were a piece of work.
posted by bukvich at 2:14 PM on May 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


From the article:

In 1990, as dean of Yale College, Mr. Kagan argued for the centrality of the study of Western civilization in an "infamous" (his phrase) address to incoming freshmen. A storm followed. He was called a racist—or as the campus daily more politely editorialized, a peddler of "European cultural arrogance."

So basically, cranky old man is still upset 20 years later about all those hippies and punks rejecting his cranky old man-ness back in the day. Plus ca change. We should probably also get off his lawn.

To be clear, I disagree with his premise and find laughable the idea that the study of "Western civilization" has been chased out of the academy, and if the rest flows from that, then we're done here.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 2:15 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh good lord, the comments. I hadn't realized how hard it is to be white.
posted by bibliowench at 2:21 PM on May 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


You'd think a scholar of Greek history might have learned a thing or two from the Invasion of Sicily before advocating a war of adventure based on a shaky pretext.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:22 PM on May 6, 2013 [18 favorites]


I find it odd that Matthew Kaminski, an old contributor to neoconservative Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard, wrote so glowingly about Kagan's supposed scholastic reputation, without pointing out that his reputation was badly sullied during the Bush administration.

Here's something else that Donald Kagan put his name to, warning about the threats to American democracy:

"Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests? Cuts in foreign affairs and defense spending . . . are making it increasingly difficult to sustain American influence around the world. . . we are jeopardizing the nation's ability to meet present threats and to deal with potentially greater challenges that lie ahead. . . We seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan Administration's success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges . . . we cannot safely avoid the responsibilities of global leadership or the costs that are associated with its exercise. America has a vital role in maintaining peace and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership."

Some of you might remember this document. After all, it's the one that was also signed to by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the rest of the neocons. Many of the same individuals -- including Kagan's son -- went on to sign this document, specifically recommending using whatever force is needed to remove Saddam Hussein from power, written in 1997.
posted by markkraft at 2:30 PM on May 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


On campus, he said, "I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness." ... He counseled schools to adopt "a common core of studies" in the history, literature and philosophy "of our culture."

This part is true. Parochialism and ignorance of history and of the great thinkers of the past is rampant, even among students educated at the best universities.

It's precisely because a traditional humanities core is not emphasized, and what has replaced it, if anything, are often "cool" sounding interdisciplinary courses that actually teach very little of substance.
posted by shivohum at 2:31 PM on May 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


This has not been my experience at all. And I see no evidence, at all, that interdisciplinary teaching doesn't have substance.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:33 PM on May 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


Eurocentrism has given us a distorted view of the world.

Is there any culture that doesn't see the world through the lens of their own history?

Anyway, I don't get why everyone is always so surprised when classicists adopt political ideas that would have been familiar to the civilisations they study.
posted by atrazine at 2:37 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


WhiteSkull, there were a number of Thucidydes scholars who advocated for the Iraq war that missed the Sicily parallel. I'd argue, though, that there error was not the shaky pretext. A shaky pretext is bad, put in pure strategic, realism terms, not a cardinal sin. Their grave error in common with the Sicilian invasion was hubris--believing that nothing could possibly go wrong, that it would be easy, and not planning for an adverse outcome. Of course, the thinking and process that begat and accepted the shaky pretext in both cases was symptomatic of the hubris that got us and the Athenians into trouble.
posted by oneironaut at 2:40 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


The fundamental problem with Athens is that they believed that they should police their entire world, but do so in a way that fundamentally exploited those they were policing / defending / repressing.

I find it discouraging that a supposed scholar would overlook the obvious parallels.
posted by markkraft at 2:46 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, Kagan. I listened to his entire course on Ancient Greek history (from iTunes U) while driving across the country a year ago. It's a great course. Interesting, charming, rambling - just the sort of thing you'd expect from an old professor at Yale. But seriously, the worst parts of the course were the moments when he would interject with some, "and that's why America has lost site of democracy" types of things. He might have some valid points, but ancient Greece isn't exactly the greatest society to look toward for perfect governance.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:50 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


That this guy was a classics professor at Yale shows what a whited sepulchre that department must have been.
posted by jamjam at 2:58 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


That this guy was a classics professor at Yale shows what a whited sepulchre that department must have been.

He's a great scholar of Ancient Greek history, which seems like a good reason to make him a classics professor at Yale. The fact that's pretty bonkers outside his specialty is both unsurprising and irrelevant to being a classics professor.

I wouldn't give him control of a modern university because that "Western Civilization or else!" line is pretty out of whack with the needs and desires of a modern American student body, but for the people who do* want that, getting it from Donald Kagan is a great choice.

*Plenty of people do want that (I did) and I see nothing wrong with providing it to them, but the "Dead White Males" version of history and humanities shouldn't be required out some sense that forcing everyone to read Plato is going to ensure the continuity of civilization or something.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 3:04 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


The cultural and hence political hegemony of the existing elites will continue as long as those outside of these elites continue to think that reading Plato is useless.
posted by No Robots at 3:18 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of Victor Davis Hanson, the neocon classics professor who was a loud, proud neocon.

Was just about to say that. Back in 10th grade, my AP World History professor assigned Hanson's Carnage and Culture as summer reading. At the time (I don't know about more recent printings) it had an extra chapter added on the end lauding the War on Terror as the triumphant return of 'proper Western strategic thinking' and predicting imminent and decisive victory in Afghanistan. This right after the chapter where he attributes our defeat in Vietnam to Jane Fonda and not bombing Laos and Cambodia enough.

I thought that it couldn't possibly have been assigned seriously and wrote a stinging review, only to find out that it was one of the prof's favorite books. Needless to say, that class was my only B in high school.

In short, fuck Victor Davis Hanson, Donald Kagan, and all their ilk.
posted by fifthrider at 3:22 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Of course, the thinking and process that begat and accepted the shaky pretext in both cases was symptomatic of the hubris that got us and the Athenians into trouble.

Yes, I think you are correct in that it was really a case of buying into their own lies. Of course, Iraq wasn't quite the disaster that Sicily was for Athens. It was more a case of victory achieved at an unacceptable cost and with potentially longer-term harm. I think there was another figure from Greek history who had a similar experience. Py- something...Pyron? Pyrros?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:31 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is it just me or is everything awful in our culture somehow related to Yale?
posted by The Whelk at 3:33 PM on May 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have no doubt that Kagan is knowledgeable about his subject... but if a widespread knowledge of history and humanities doesn't help one to draw the right conclusions, I have to wonder whether I was in some ways wrong about my own extensive education in humanities and Western civilization.

"The cultural and hence political hegemony of the existing elites will continue as long as those outside of these elites continue to think that reading Plato is useless."

Plato certainly helps with classical logic, but knowledge of classical logic does not prevent people from reaching clearly erroneous positions. (Thnk Kagan, Rand, etc.)

Most people would arguably be better off with a nice game of chess.
posted by markkraft at 3:34 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think there was another figure from Greek history who had a similar experience. Py- something...Pyron? Pyrros?

Actually, contrary to popular belief, Pyrros actually won a shitload of Olympic medals and things seemed to have worked out pretty great for him, plus at no point was he killed by an old lady throwing roof tiles at him. MYTH STATUS: BUSTED
posted by Copronymus at 3:39 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read quickly and was really worried that the Pyrrhus getting killed by a roof tile thing had legitimately been disproved, although in retrospect, I have no idea how that could have happened.

In any event, I love that story so there was a legitimate chance of me getting all Pyrrhus truther in here so I'm sure we're all glad that was avoided.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 3:49 PM on May 6, 2013


"In the decades since, faculties have gained "extraordinary authority" over universities, "

This is so fucking hysterical.


I was going to write a big "HOW IS KAGAN A FUCKHEAD; LET ME COUNT THE WAYS" comment and that was going to be item #1. But I decided I didn't need the agita.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:52 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


This part is true. Parochialism and ignorance of history and of the great thinkers of the past is rampant, even among students educated at the best universities.

It's precisely because a traditional humanities core is not emphasized, and what has replaced it, if anything, are often "cool" sounding interdisciplinary courses that actually teach very little of substance.


Interdisciplinary courses can be cool and useful, depending on how closely they are regulated. The Humanities suffer less from that than from the overwhelming drive to turn universities is into job- and technical-training venues. You don't need the Humanities to be a technician; it's awfully useful when you need to be a citizen, though.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:09 PM on May 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


It's not so much study of the Greeks these kinds of guys are defending, as it is the Victorian idea of the Greeks as certifiers of the "greatness" of our society.
posted by thelonius at 4:10 PM on May 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


The cultural and hence political hegemony of the existing elites will continue as long as those outside of these elites continue to think that reading Plato is useless.

the cultural and hence political hegemony of the existing elites in ancient greece thought socrates was useless, so they made him drink poison

by all means, read plato - but be aware that the cultural and hence political hegemony of the existing elites will not continue for, because -

a) nothing lasts forever

b) most of these elites think reading lao tzu is useless
posted by pyramid termite at 4:50 PM on May 6, 2013


And yet despite the decline of canonical Western teaching the world keeps getting to be a better and better place for most people. Perhaps it is all for the best.
posted by srboisvert at 5:16 PM on May 6, 2013


I think there was another figure from Greek history who had a similar experience. Py- something...Pyron? Pyrros?

Probably Pyrrhus, he of the Victory.

> Oh, for those salad days-

Salad days have more to do with Cleopatra's particular youth, when she was green in judgement and full of beans, than any kind of general golden age.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:33 PM on May 6, 2013


The war's not over; we still have a cultural elite.
posted by fraxil at 5:33 PM on May 6, 2013


it's awfully useful when you need to be a citizen, though

What does this mean exactly?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 5:41 PM on May 6, 2013


For those who want to pile on the graybeard, there's Mary Beard's essay 'Which Thucydides Can You Trust?' originally published in the NY Review of Books and reprinted in Confronting the Classics. (Scroll up- most of its available on preview.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:48 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Things aren't the way they used to be," complained old guy.
posted by goatdog at 6:08 PM on May 6, 2013


The Humanities suffer less from that than from the overwhelming drive to turn universities is into job- and technical-training venues.

Yeah, it's funny that the WSJ would rather blame the decline of the humanities on "political correctness" instead of on the must be profit driven mentality that tends to rule both students and trustees these days. Why is it surprising that no one cares about Kagan's paideia when half of his Yalies are going to work for the scientific-industrial complex after graduation and the other half are going to Wall Street?

Also, Kagan bitching about anyone's "weakness" is hilarious given his position as a prestigious, pampered academic at one of the most prestigious, pampered institutions in the wealthiest country on the planet. Dude isn't a Spartan, he's a Persian.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:04 PM on May 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


It must be a media blitz by the NeoCon turned Libertarian TePartiers. Saw a bunch of letters to the editor this weekend going on about the good ol' days. Back in the 40s and 50s.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 7:16 PM on May 6, 2013


From the Sept. 12, 2007 Yale Daily News:

Tuesday’s Sept. 11 memorial service took on a political edge when history and classics professor Donald Kagan accused Iraq war opponents of being unpatriotic... with a speech on patriotism that many saw as overly political... Kagan decried those who support withdrawing troops from Iraq in the near future... he said Americans have a “moral responsibility” to support the government.

“The war [in Iraq] is not lost,” Kagan said. “[Yet] opponents have rushed to declare America defeated.”

...“Few countries have been subjected to as much questioning … as our own,” Kagan said, “There should be a presupposition in favor of patriotism.” ... Americans who have questioned the United States’ involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unpatriotic, Kagan said, and are undermining the country’s efforts to win the wars...

In an interview, Kagan pointed out that the “Patriot Day” designation suggests that Congress wanted Sept. 11 to be a day to discuss patriotism, which he said is impossible to do without bringing in politics.

“To have joined in a kind of common regret for all the loss and pain connected with this thing is a fine thing to do,” Kagan said, “but it’s not terribly interesting compared to the other part of the story which is what about patriotism? Is it important? Is it legit? What do we mean by it?”


Unquestioning faith-based citizenship, apparently.
posted by markkraft at 7:49 PM on May 6, 2013


(Of course, it could be suggested that Kagan's own alarmist statements about the decline of American democracy during a time of war are distinctly unpatriotic, and that he should've opted for patriotism and national unity, rather than trying to undermine our nation and sow discord, just because it's more diverse and inclusive than he might wish it to be.)
posted by markkraft at 8:04 PM on May 6, 2013


Believing that we, in our modern interconnected world, can only productively learn from the history and culture of Europeans is like believing that the only one food is nutritious, or only one genre of music is fun to listen to. It is limiting, wrong-headed and ultimately self-destructive. Oh yes, and it's also had a history of being everybody-else-destructive too.

I mean, I suppose so? But we're no longer even learning about (our) European cultural heritage, MUCH LESS anyone else's. This, or at least the first part, seems to be his point. I don't know why we're derailing off into him being a neo-con.

I'd like for one single person to tell me that the educational system, not just of universities, has gone down the drain. Sure, I'd love to be culturally literate in all the cultures of the world. Heck, I'm reading "Dream of the Red Chamber," right now. But before we get there, why don't we try to get back to a point where we used to be at?
posted by SollosQ at 3:42 PM on May 7, 2013


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