This Historian Should Pay More Attention to the Present

Yale historian Donald Kagan delivered the NEH’s Jefferson Lectures last night in Washington. Undertaking a rant against postmodern “theory” and seeking to reclaim the Enlightenment dream of objectivity, Kagan argued that history was the discipline best poised for this reclamation project. As the Chronicle reports:

‘Mr. Kagan also defended his view of history as “Queen of the Humanities, standing between and slightly above her noble handmaidens, the muses of literature and philosophy,” against the claims made by last year’s Jefferson lecturer, Helen Vendler, a poetry critic and professor at Harvard University.

Ms. Vendler’s 2004 lecture took the view that education in the humanities should focus on language, literature, and the arts, rather than on history and philosophy (The Chronicle, May 7, 2004). Mr. Kagan disagreed, noting that in the “modern world,” where the influence of “religion and the traditions based upon it” has faded, “the need for a sound base for moral judgments has not.”‘

The influence of religion and tradition has “faded” in the modern world? Is Kagan so lost in the archives looking for that elusive objectivity that he can’t find time to read today’s newspapers?! If this is the kind of astute analysis that her majesty History has to offer, then I think her reign is a blind one. While Kagan perhaps captures the spirit of Jefferson, it is just such blind commitment to Enlightenment dreams of secularism (which promised religion would wither away) that blocks any real progress on dealing with the wide impact of religion and traditon across the globe. Mr. Kagan would do well to pay a little more attention to the present.