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Arthur Kaledin, professor emeritus of history and American studies, dies at 86

Scholar and noted expert in the life of French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville was an acclaimed MIT teacher.
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Arthur Kaledin, professor emeritus of history and American studies
Arthur Kaledin, professor emeritus of history and American studies
Photograph courtesy of MIT History.

Arthur D. Kaledin, professor emeritus of history and American studies, died on Saturday, Nov. 27, at the age of 86 at Massachusetts General Hospital, surrounded by family and close friends.

Kaledin graduated from Harvard University in 1952, and following several years in the U.S. Army — during which he sustained an injury that led him to walk with a cane thereafter — he returned to Harvard, where he received his PhD in 1964. Kaledin subsequently joined what was then called the Humanities Department at MIT, and went on to teach several generations of students at the Institute.

Reflecting on his former colleague, MIT Associate Provost and Ford International Professor of History Philip S. Khoury said, “Arthur was a splendid colleague and a dedicated teacher who thrived in the small seminar settings that MIT provides students for their humanities courses."

Of Kaledin’s "Tocqueville and His America: A Darker Horizon" (Yale University Press, 2011), a much-admired biography of French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, Professor Stanley Katz, a historian and legal scholar at Princeton University said, “Kaledin teases out the ambiguities and complexities of Tocqueville’s life with astonishing perspicuity, offering a subtle and complex analysis.” 

In his 2011 story about "Tocqueville and His America," MIT News writer Peter Dizikes recounts a conversation with Kaledin about his book: "'Tocqueville saw cultural and social tendencies that he thought would weaken American democracy,’ Kaledin said….[His] apprehensions, in Kaledin’s view, largely focused on the problems a democratic culture might pose for democratic politics. For instance, Kaledin says, Tocqueville thought ‘populism would gradually lead to an anti-intellectual culture and to mediocrity in political leadership.’ Tocqueville was also, Kaledin says, uneasy with the extent to which American culture 'heavily emphasized material values over all others.'"

Remembering Kaledin’s devotion to teaching, Professor Jeffrey Ravel, current head of the MIT History section, said, “Arthur was a fiercely principled teacher. In the classroom he challenged MIT undergraduates to think about the political and moral implications of the technologies they were creating. His contributions to the formation of the great engineers, scientists, scholars, and world citizens we educate at MIT will not easily be replicated.”

Scores of MIT graduates will remember Kaledin for his accessibility and warmth — among them the many students who, when they could not travel home for the holiday, were invited to join the Kaledin family for Thanksgiving, as well as students in Kaledin’s freshman seminars, who enjoyed his tradition of an annual class lunch at Mary Chung’s restaurant, where the proprietor invariably greeted Kaledin with “Good to see you again, Professor!”

Kaledin's early Army injury eventually led to his use of a wheelchair in later years, a fact that did nothing to dampen his love of life. He is survived by his former wife, Eugenia (Oster) Kaledin, of Lexington, Massachusetts; two sons, Nicholas, of New York City, and Jonathan, of Princeton, New Jersey; a daughter, Elizabeth, of New York City; and seven grandchildren.

Kaledin will long be remembered for his sustained contributions to MIT and to the humanities generally. Family and friends note that he will particularly be missed for his wit and wisdom, his huge heart, his conversation and wide-ranging interests, and how engaged and doting he was as a father and grandfather.

Private services are planned.

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