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History's Higher Ground

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By George F. Will
Thursday, May 19, 2005

When Yale awarded President John F. Kennedy an honorary degree, he said he had the ideal combination -- a Yale degree and a Harvard education. Today he might rethink that, given the Harvard faculty's tantrum that caused President Lawrence Summers's cringing crawl away from his suggestion of possible gender differences of cognition. At least the phrase "Yale education" does not yet seem, as "Harvard education" does, oxymoronic.

And will not while Donald Kagan adorns Yale's campus, where he is a professor of history and classics. Last week, in Washington, he delivered the 34th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, "In Defense of History," which was agreeably subversive of several sides in today's culture wars.

"The world we live in," he said, "is a difficult place to try to make a case for the value of history." The essence of the historian's craft -- the search for truth by painstaking research unassisted by revelation or other recourse to supernatural explanations -- is embattled from two directions.

Some intellectuals today are know-nothings -- literally and proudly. They argue that objectivity is a chimera, that we cannot confidently know anything of truth or virtue. These postmodernists argue, Kagan says, that all studies, including history, are "literature" because all knowledge is guesswork colored by politics -- self-interest, ideology, power relationships, etc.

Those who most confidently dispute this idea derive their confidence from religious faith, arguing that only through religion can individuals, or societies, know and steadily adhere to valid standards of right and wrong. This translates into a religious litmus test in politics -- only devout individuals should be chosen to lead societies.

Historians, however, say to the post modernists that the defining characteristics of postmodernism -- skepticism and cynicism -- have long histories. And the historians' riposte to those who say that religion is the only foundation for knowledge or virtue is, Kagan says, to insist that in the study of history, knowledge, far from impossible, is cumulative.

Herodotus, whom Kagan calls the first true historian, said he wrote to preserve the memory of "great and marvelous deeds" and the reasons they were done. All writers of history have "the responsibility of preserving the great, important and instructive actions of human beings," says Kagan, which is why history is "the queen of the humanities," ranking above literature and even philosophy.

Philosophy, he says, is valuable for untangling sloppy thinking. But philosophy, like religion, leads to investigations of first principles and ultimate reality, and such investigations have produced profound disagreement. Hence the primacy of history as the study from which, especially today, we can take our moral bearings:

"Religion and the traditions based on it were once the chief sources for moral confidence and strength. Their influence has faded in the modern world, but the need for a sound base for moral judgments has not. If we cannot look simply to moral guidance firmly founded on religious precepts it is natural and reasonable to turn to history, the record of human experience, as a necessary supplement if not a substitute."

Kagan's idea is not novel. Nearly three centuries ago Lord Bolingbroke said that "history is philosophy teaching by examples." However, at this American moment of mutual incomprehension and even contempt between theists and their postmodernist despisers, it is "transgressive" -- to purloin a bit of the postmodernists' jargon -- for Kagan to insist that there is a firm middle, or perhaps higher, ground for moral confidence.

This ground, he says, is occupied by neither those who say that only theological reasoning leads to certainty nor those who say that no reasoning does. It is held by those who study and write history.

The late Daniel Boorstin, historian and librarian of Congress, said that "trying to plan for the future without knowing the past is like trying to plant cut flowers." His point was that knowledge of history is conducive to practicality. Kagan's point is that history, properly studied, is conducive to virtues, of which practicality is one.

Moderation is the virtue of which hubris is the opposite -- and often ruinous -- political vice. Historian David McCullough says the study of history is "an antidote to the hubris of the present -- the idea that everything we have and everything we do and everything we think is the ultimate, the best." Compare, for example, the heroic construction of the Panama Canal and the debacle of Boston's "Big Dig" 100 years later.

Near the Big Dig sits today's Harvard, another refutation of the theory of mankind's inevitable, steady ascent. From Yale, however, comes Kagan's temperate affirmation of the cumulative knowledge that comes from the study of history.

georgewill@washpost.com


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