Octogenarian Donald Kagan is retiring after professing his knowledge of history to Yale University students for more than 40 years. National Review‘s Eliana Johnson details Kagan’s final lecture, in which he spells out some of the key problems of higher education in America today.
Kagan is greeted at the podium with the type of lingering applause that conveys the warmth and emotion of the audience, but his message is not particularly sentimental. The trendy, specialized, and scattershot courses that now constitute a liberal-arts education, he says, reinforce “a cultural void, an ignorance of the past,” and “a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness” among students, who float through their undergraduate years secure in the belief that “the whole world was born yesterday.”
According to Kagan, the nation’s elite universities are doing little to correct the problem. A liberal education now means that students pick up “enough of the subjects thought interesting in their circle and … make friends who may be advantageous to them in their lives.”
This poses a challenge for the American experiment, Kagan tells his audience, because a democracy must educate its citizens. He points to the champions of the liberal arts, from Cicero to Catiglione to Benjamin Franklin, who considered a liberal education an essential element of individual freedom.
Kagan calls for institutions of higher learning to create a common core of studies consisting of the literature, philosophy, and history of Western civilization. The students of today and tomorrow, he says, deserve the same opportunity as those of previous generations; they too must be “freed from the tyranny that comes from being born at a particular time in a particular place.”