Classics Scholar Donald Kagan Discusses the Purpose of a Liberal Arts Education
School of Management students would do well to supplement their business education with lessons drawn from the humanities, according to Donald Kagan, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Classics and History.
“I see the two as complementary, not antagonistic,” Kagan told students at Yale SOM. “A professional school is largely pragmatic. It teaches you how to do certain things that are clear and practical. The humanities are about ‘What are the right goals? What are the right procedures?’—when ‘right’ is defined as adding to human value.”
Kagan, a leading American scholar of Greek history who was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2002, spoke at Yale SOM on April 8 as part of the Convening Yale lecture series. Convening Yale draws scholars from across the Yale campus to share their insights with SOM students.
Kagan discussed the purpose and character of higher education. A liberal arts education imbues students with a broader, more humane and nuanced perspective on their lives and work, he said: “You all are humans, and that involves asking what you should do, why you should do it, and where excellence lies.”
Kagan began by reading a speech that he originally delivered to Yale’s incoming freshman class in 1990. Drawing on lessons from ancient Greek history, the speech illustrated the challenges and advantages of embarking on a rigorous humanities education. And, Kagan pointed out, it is never too late to add elements of a liberal arts education—such as through literature or theater—to one’s life. “I don’t believe yet there is a penalty for reading Plato,” he said.
A true education, he said, is one that maintains a certain neutrality and balance, so students are exposed to diverse perspectives from across the political spectrum. That permits students to arrive at their own conclusions—a practice that, he said, he believes is endangered in higher education today.
“A liberal education, properly engaged in, makes you think about things you wouldn’t ordinarily,” he said, “and it gives you a much more complete sense of the reality of the human experience.”