The Forum

In Memoriam: Donald Kagan

October 7, 2021 by Michael B. Poliakoff

It was my great good fortune in 1972 to attend Donald Kagan’s storied undergraduate course on the history of ancient Greece. The term “curated” was not in vogue at the time, but Professor Kagan’s course was curated, drawing on vast knowledge but so well structured and so careful in what it included that it made centuries-long past come alive with meaning for students in the twentieth century. So began a lifelong friendship, for Donald Kagan was not only a teacher, but also a mentor for his students, and at almost all the crucial junctures of my professional life, I could call on him for thoughtful, cogent advice. 

Donald Kagan was born in Kuršėnai, Lithuania, in 1932. His father died soon after his birth, prompting his mother to emigrate to the United States with him and his younger sister. The family landed in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. He often credited growing up in Brownsville as shaping his views on humanity. And he shared a sense of wonder and gratitude for the nation that provided so much opportunity. 

In 1954, Dr. Kagan became the first member of his family to graduate college after earning a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College. He continued his education, receiving an M.A. in classics from Brown University in 1955 and a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University in 1958.

Soon after graduating, he embarked on what became an illustrious academic career, starting with positions at Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, and Cornell University. During his time at Cornell, student protesters occupied one of the campus buildings at gunpoint. The university caved to the protesters’ demands, and in response, Dr. Kagan, ever-committed to principle, left Cornell.

In 1969, he took a position at Yale University. His reputation as a distinguished and highly respected professor continued to grow, as did his international distinction as a scholar. His monumental, four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War remains a standard work for the professional historian, but his jargon-free, common-sense approach to history makes it a joy for the general reader as well. Dr. Kagan served twice as chair of the classics department and served as dean of Yale College from 1989 to 1992. A lifelong advocate of the role of athletics in education (who warmly encouraged me in my years on the Yale wrestling team), he himself served for a year as Yale’s acting director of athletics. For his scholarship, he was awarded the National Medal for the Humanities by President George W. Bush in 2002, and in 2005, he delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture.

If Donald Kagan’s reputation could only rest on his scholarship and teaching, he would hold a most distinguished place among the leaders of American intellectual life. But that would be to overlook his deep and courageous commitment to the ethics of the academy, especially the free exchange of ideas and his important writings on both domestic and international politics. It was Donald Kagan who confronted former Yale president Kingman Brewster about the university’s failure to protect free speech, and he played a pivotal role in preparing the way for the C. Vann Woodward Committee Report on Freedom of Expression at Yale.

Dr. Kagan won numerous teaching awards throughout his career, and in 2004, ACTA presented him with the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education in recognition of his dedication to promoting the study of the humanities, especially history, and to encouraging the free and open exchange of ideas. Former ACTA president Anne Neal said at the time, “Don Kagan’s long history of scholarship and dedication to teaching the core values and principles of Western Civilization makes him a natural choice for the Merrill Award. I can’t think of a more deserving recipient.”

We were all deeply touched when Dr. Kagan gave a tribute speech as his longtime friend Judge José Cabranes received the Merrill Award in 2019. Though advanced in years, he delivered a message that breathed his enduring commitment to the unwavering pursuit of truth.

ACTA mourns the passing of this staunch ally in our battle to promote academic excellence in higher education. He will be greatly missed.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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