Is democracy done for? 5

The classicist Donald Kagan has given his last lecture at Yale, leaving it now in the hands of the pirates of education – the Left.

These are extracts from an article titled “Democracy May Have Had Its Day” by Matthew Kaminski in the Wall Street Journal:

Universities, he proposed, are failing students and hurting American democracy. …

On campus, he said, “I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness.”

Rare are “faculty with atypical views,” he charged. “Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our Western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values.” He counseled schools to adopt “a common core of studies” in the history, literature and philosophy “of our culture.” By “our” he means Western.

This might once have been called incitement. 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.”

Oh for some European cultural arrogance!

Not so now. Mr. Kagan received a long standing ovation from students and alumni in the packed auditorium. Heading into retirement, he has been feted as a beloved and popular teacher and Yale icon. The PC wars of the 1990s feel dated. Maybe, as one undergrad told me after the lecture, “the pendulum has started to swing back” toward traditional values in education.

Has it? Is political correctness outdated? Or becoming outdated? Isn’t that too good to be true?

It is.

Mr. Kagan offers another explanation [to the author of the article, in an interview]….

Actually, he’s Dr. Kagan. Or Professor Kagan (since we don’t do as the Germans do and string the titles together to make “Professor Dr.”). But for all we know Donald Kagan prefers the Mr.

“You can’t have a fight,” he says … “because you don’t have two sides. The other side won.”

He means across academia, but that is also true in his case. Mr. Kagan resigned the deanship in April 1992, lobbing a parting bomb at the faculty that bucked his administration. His plans to create a special Western Civilization course at Yale — funded with a $20 million gift from philanthropist and Yale alum Lee Bass, who was inspired by the 1990 lecture — blew up three years later amid a political backlash. “I still cry when I think about it,” says Mr. Kagan.

As he looks at his Yale colleagues today, he says, “you can’t find members of the faculty who have different opinions.” I point at him. “Not anymore!” he says and laughs. …

Democracy, wrote Mr. Kagan in “Pericles of Athens” (1991), is “one of the rarest, most delicate and fragile flowers in the jungle of human experience.” It relies on “free, autonomous and self-reliant” citizens and “extraordinary leadership” to flourish, even survive. These kinds of citizens aren’t born—they need to be educated. …

“Meaningful freedom means that you have choices to make,” Mr. Kagan says. “At the university, there must be intellectual variety. If you don’t have that, it’s not only that you are deprived of knowing some of the things you might know. It’s that you are deprived of testing the things that you do know or do think you know or believe in, so that your knowledge is superficial.”

As dean, Mr. Kagan championed hard sciences, rigorous hiring standards for faculty, and the protection of free speech. Those who see liberal education in crisis return to those ideas. “Crisis suggests it might recover,” Mr. Kagan shoots back. “Maybe it’s had its day. Democracy may have had its day. Concerns about the decline of liberty in our whole polity is what threatens all of the aspects of it, including democracy.”

Taking a grim view of the Periclean era in Athens, Plato and Aristotle believed that democracy inevitably led to tyranny. The Founding Fathers took on their criticism and strove to balance liberty with equality under the law. Mr. Kagan, who grew up a Truman Democrat, says that when he was young the U.S. needed to redress an imbalance by emphasizing equality. The elite universities after the war opened to minorities and women, not to mention Brooklyn College grads like himself—then “it was all about merit,” he says.

The 1960s brought a shift and marked his own political awakening. Teaching at Cornell, Mr. Kagan watched armed black students occupy a university building in 1969. The administration caved to their demands without asking them to give up their rifles and bandoliers. He joined Allan Bloom and other colleagues in protest. In the fall of that year, he moved to Yale. Bloom ended up at the University of Chicago and in 1987 published “The Closing of the American Mind,” his best-selling attack on the shortcomings of higher education.

In the decades since, faculties have gained “extraordinary authority” over universities, Mr. Kagan says. The changes in the universities were mirrored in the society at large. “The tendency in this century and in the previous century at least has been toward equality of result and every other kind of equality that could be claimed without much regard for liberty,” he says. “Right now the menace is certainly to liberty.”

Yes, and it is impossible to have equality of result and liberty at the same time. In other words, it is impossible to have socialism and liberty. One or the other is the choice.

His lifelong passion is Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War — the epic clash between those former allies, militaristic Sparta and democratic Athens … As Thucydides wrote, people go to war out of “honor, fear and interest.” War, he also said, “is a violent teacher.” Another enduring lesson from him, says Mr. Kagan, is “that you can expect people, whatever they may be, to seek to maximize their power” — then a slight pause — “unless they’re Europeans and have checked their brains at the door, so mortified are they, understandably, by what happened to them in the 20th century. They can’t be taken seriously.”

We would say “morbid” rather than “mortified” because of what they did to themselves in the 20th century. It’s a long slow suicide, but few Europeans heard in the public arena seem to realize it.

These days the burden of seriousness among free states falls on America, a fickle and unusual power. The Romans had no qualms about quashing their enemies, big or small. While the U.S. won two global conflicts and imposed and protected the current global order, the recent record shows failed or inconclusive engagements in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Some would argue that free societies are too soft to fight brutal wars too long. Mr. Kagan offers culture and political leadership as an explanation. “We’re a certain kind of culture which makes it hard for us to behave rationally when the rational thing is to be tough,” he says. “We can do it when we’re scared to death and there seem to be no alternatives. When it’s time to nail down something, we very often sneak away.”

Some would argue that free societies are too soft to fight brutal wars too long. Mr. Kagan offers culture and political leadership as an explanation. “We’re a certain kind of culture which makes it hard for us to behave rationally when the rational thing is to be tough,” he says. “We can do it when we’re scared to death and there seem to be no alternatives. When it’s time to nail down something, we very often sneak away.”

The protection and distance offered by two oceans gives America the idea — or delusionof being able to stay out of the world’s problems. 

Libertarians, please note.

Mr. Kagan also wonders about possible “geocultural” shifts at play. 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.

Also don’t forget, says Mr. Kagan, “unsubtle Christianity” and its strong strain of pacifism. “Who else has a religion filled with the notion ‘turn the other cheek’?” he asks. … “If you’re gonna turn the other cheek, go home. Give up the ball.”

In 2000, Mr. Kagan and his younger son, Frederick, a military historian and analyst, published “While America Sleeps.” The book argued for the reversal of the Clinton Cold War peace dividend to meet unforeseen but inevitable threats to come. The timing was uncanny. A year later, 9/11 forced the Pentagon to rearm.

With the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the U.S. is slashing defense again. “We do it every time,” Mr. Kagan says. “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.” …

His 1995 book, “On the Origins of War,” made a moral and strategic case to exert as much effort and money to safeguard peace as to win a war.

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.

The Kagan thesis is bleak but not fatalistic. The fight to shape free citizens in schools, through the media and in the public square goes on. “There is no hope for anything if you don’t have a population that buys into a strong and free society,” he says. “That can only be taught. It doesn’t come in nature.”

So does Donald Kagan have hope that “the pendulum is swinging back”? Towards variety of ideas and traditional standards in higher education? Towards liberty and an understanding of the value of liberty? Towards strong democracy?

If so, we wish we could share that hope, but see nothing to encourage it. He has switched off his light at Yale. Is there another?

  • liz

    That it is considered “racist”, and “European cultural arrogance” to argue in favor of the study of Western civilization is a pathetic example of democracy being bullied out of existence by idiots who “fail to understand the most elementary, childish facts”.
    And is it any surprise that the decline of our success in imposing and protecting “the current global order” has run parallel to the rise of socialism in our society?
    Pat Condell made a point that “we are the first generation of Europeans who have never had to defend their freedom, and as a consequence, we now take freedom so much for granted it has become a root assumption about reality, so that even when we can see it being taken away from us, we simply don’t believe it.” We don’t realize what a “rare and fragile flower” it is, and how easily it can, and is, being destroyed.

  • Jillian Becker

    Kate Deeney writes this must-be-read contribution on our Facebook page (we quote in full):

    It’s so bad at the universities, people have no idea. An uber liberal friend of mine who teaches at a major university went through an experience that demonstrates the strategy being used by the radicals to completely control the system. She had a student agitator in her class, who constantly disrupted and accused the teacher of being insensitive to gender awareness. Yes, go figure that one out, but she constantly and consistently challenged every word that was said. The teacher bent over backwards to accommodate this student’s viewpoint, even flattering her and agreeing that the student had a far greater awareness, etc etc. The student began a campaign against the teacher on this ridiculously dubious complaint, even instigating a facebook attack against the teacher. The red haired Irish woman was subjected to no end of insults, accusations, called “a Jew” [that is now, as all too often before, an insult in itself! – JB], and thoroughly vilified.

    Throughout all of this, the school administration would not back up the teacher, so she hired a lawyer, at which point the administration “mediated” the situation. The outcome was that the student was given an A in the class, and the teacher was forced out of her job.

    I am sure that this is the type of scenario that pushed Obama through the university system. These professional agitators are supported by the school admins and professors in pushing their idiotic political agendas, each one more ridiculous and radical than the next. Obama’s job in college was to agitate and promote the causes of the left, and clearly he was supported in getting his grades without even so much as attending classes. Any professor who objects or fails to tow the line will be given a similar lesson to that of my friend. This is why our universities and colleges aren’t worth the space they take up.

    • Frank

      And at public universities it’s your tax dollars that foot most of the bill.

  • secularsquare

    I am not sure what to make of the impact, or lack of impact, of our higher education on students. Many students, probably self taught out of a love for Western Civilization, are able to fight their way out of the belly of the beast. Many others are excreted out of the collectivist colon emitting the same foul stench as their teachers. I imagine most, however, cannot even recall much of what happened as they earned their three semester credit hours of Western Civ on the way to their general business degree.

  • Frank

    Unfortunately I have to agree with Mr. Kagan – the other side has already won.