Professors that shaped my life died in 2021

In this year brimming with loss, the two most consequential teachers of my college years passed away. Historian Donald Kagan and urban planner Alexander Garvin were towering figures in their chosen fields and fixtures at Yale for decades.

Garvin and his bowties took the train up from his day jobs in New York City government under five mayors to teach Study of the City on Tuesday nights. In the wake of Watergate and amid mounting evidence of New York’s municipal dysfunction, Garvin’s class demonstrated a useful role for the public sector. I earned my first A in that class, writing a term paper comparing two NYU housing blocks south of Washington Square Park. Later I lived in that neighborhood, and then in Washington’s Capitol Park South, the first US urban renewal area, a fact I learned in Garvin’s class.

Thanks to Garvin, I also began a career in government. I don’t remember the circumstances but I must have reached out to him, and in June 1978, he gave me my first real job, surveying damage from New York’s summer of ‘77 blackout along Broadway in Bushwick, Brooklyn. As I learned in the Department of City Planning report that incorporated that fieldwork, every borough in New York has a street named Broadway that starts at the its waterfront.

Trying make government work for the people took me across the border into Queens, working with retailers on Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood, to the municipal markets that Fiorello LaGuardia launched to get pushcarts off city streets, to Queens Borough Hall, to Washington and to Tanzania as a US diplomat telling America’s story to the world.

I needed a job back in 1978 thanks in part to Donald Kagan. As a freshman, I got steered to Kagan’s introduction to ancient Greek history, a subject I knew nothing about. At the first lecture, in an auditorium with hundreds of students, it was a clear within minutes that I was in the presence of a truly gifted scholar and teacher. Kagan’s Origins of War course, about what ignited the Peleponnesian War, Second Punic War, World War I and World War II, and what kept the Cuban missile crisis from become a war, made history alive, contemporary and relevant.

Kagan inspired me to attempt multiple majors including classic civilization. I even went to summer school to try to learn ancient Greek.

When my triple major dream crumbled at the end of my junior year, I approached Kagan with a different idea. I asked for his approval to complete my senior paper over the summer and graduate early. Kagan, who thought more of my newspaper work than my scholarship, agreed to oversee my paper and arrange the administrative details, saving my family about $6,000 in tuition.

Like me, Kagan was a working class kid from New York who drank the Yale Kool-Aid. Kagan shuddered at the prospect of something ruining such a uniquely blessed place, the way the Athenians had destroyed their own. He didn’t want to see that happen to Yale, and he didn’t want to see it happen to America.

His attitudes could be a bit ancient. He left Cornell because he believed it knuckled under to student protest demands for a Black Studies curriculum. He opposed the option to allow undergraduates to take up to four to their required 36 courses as Pass/Fail, rather than for a grade, to stop the “unmanning of Yale students.” His turn as dean went sideways over a proposed new Western Civilization curriculum that was more well endowed than received.

Conservative to his core, Kagan believed in preserving the essential values of society and passing them down the generations. Garvin believed tearing something down could lead to building something better. Their teachings and their kindness have helped shape my life.

Former US diplomat and broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a columnist for ICE 365, a contributor to Forbes and Inside Asian Gaming, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.