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Essay on Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

Intellectual Affairs

Jacques Barzun: Anti-Educationist?

October 31, 2012

Writing about the late Jacques Barzun for Inside Higher Ed is awkward. This is an online journal, while Barzun was product and exemplar of a very different cultural order. The index to his last book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000) has no entry for “Internet,” though a few terse sentences on the topic can be located by looking up “computers, internetted.” (I am not about to put a “sic” after something by Jacques Barzun, but that’s what it says.) That is really the least of it, though. The problem, rather, is that Jacques Barzun did not think very much of education, higher or otherwise.

In a generous mood he indicated that it was difficult -- all but impossible -- to say anything meaningful on the subject. On other occasions he explicitly questioned the value of education, and even treated it with contempt.

The point is admittedly difficult to square with the man’s career, which included service as dean of graduate faculties at Columbia University, as well as almost a decade as its provost. With the literary critic Lionel Trilling he had a hand in shaping the school’s undergraduate core curriculum, and taught legendary courses in it. So it might clarify things (if it doesn’t make them worse) to say that while dubious about education, he thought highly of teaching.

But the distinction was Barzun’s, and he insisted on it over the course of several decades. We may take it as a given that -- as someone whose feeling for European and American cultural history was both broad and exact -- he was not being light-minded or clever about it. A few quotations will illustrate what he had in mind. How applicable they remain to the scene he departed last week, at the age of 104, I will leave it to the reader to decide.

His first book on the matter was Teacher in America (1944) -- written and published after Barzun toured dozens of colleges and universities during a sabbatical year. It was also a response to the previous three years’ worth of fretful newspaper and magazine commentary on “the shortcomings of the schools.” With postwar life just barely visible on the horizon, the author and his audience shared an urgency of concern: Barzun notes that the book was composed in about five weeks, “as if under dictation.” Whether or not the feeling of inspiration continued during the Cold War and beyond, public anxiety over the state of American education did. Barzun returned to the topic in a few books and countless articles and lectures, which seems all the more noteworthy given the opening sentence of his first volume on the matter: “Education is indeed the dullest of subjects and I intend to say as little about it as I can.”

He used the word in three senses, two of them expressing profound discontent. “Education comes from deep within,” he writes in a rare instance of using it with approval; “it is a man’s own doing, or rather it happens to him – sometimes because of the teaching he has had, sometimes in spite of it.” It is in this sense that Henry Adams could write five hundred pages of an autobiography called The Education of Henry Adams while devoting, in Barzun’s estimate, about thirty pages to his schooling. The other two uses of the word refer to distinct things that nonetheless tend to blur together. One is an ideology: a cluster of beliefs, hopes, and worries. The other is education as a field of study.

In The House of Intellect (1959), he suggests, education is regarded in American culture as an almost mythological force, if not a magical cure-all. We need more education, better education, in up-to-date form -- and if we don't get it, we're bound to fall behind Soviet education. (The book appeared in the wake of Sputnik. The exact concern may change, but not the overall point -- see the current administration's intense campaign to return the United States to the top of international rankings of the most-educated populace.) “Education in the United States is a passion and a paradox,” he says. “Millions want it and commend it, and are busy about it, at the same time they are willing to degrade it by trying to get it free of charge and free of work. Education with us has managed to reconcile the contradictory extremes of being a duty and a diversion, and to elude intellectual control so completely that it can become an empty ritual without arousing protest.”

Barzun’s examples, at the end of the 1950s, include high school courses in dating and driver education. More generally, Barzun has in mind a tendency to regard almost any subject, experience, and medium as “educational” -- life as an “educational process” both endless and all-encompassing. Clearly he was identifying a real set of tendencies in U.S. culture. If we aren't worrying about curriculum, we're hoping that video games are inculcating valuable motor skills. As of 2000, as you may expect, Barzun was aware of claims for the educational potential of internetted computers, and not impressed.

“That a user had ‘the whole world of knowledge at his disposal,’ ” he writes, is “one of those absurdities like the belief that ultimately computers would think -- it will be time to say so when a computer makes an ironic answer. ‘The whole world of knowledge’ could be at one's disposal only if one already knew a great deal and wanted further information to turn into knowledge after gauging its value.”

But in that regard, the emergent digital culture impressed Barzun as less an influence on colleges and universities than a fulfillment of the tendencies within higher education at the end of the last millennium. To quote From Dawn to Decadence once again: “From photography to playing the trombone and from marriage counseling to hotel management, a multitude of respectable vocations had a program that led to a degree. On many a campus one might meet a student who disliked reading and had ‘gone visual,’ or be introduced to an assistant professor of family living.”

As for education in the sense of a discipline or a field of research, Barzun remarked in Teacher in America that doctorates in it “cover such a wide range of indefinite subject matter that they have been repeatedly and deservedly ridiculed.” His opinion did not improve over time. The remarkable thing, he goes on to say, is that “in the midst of the vacuum certain fine minds have been able to survive, to think, and to make their mark in a most useful fashion as trainers and inspirers of teachers. Whether they are happy in their invidious and Ovidian exile, I shall not undertake to say.”

Teaching, however -- or “instruction,” as Barzun also sometimes called it -- well, now that is another matter. It is the opposite of education in the senses that bother him. Education is vague and inflatable. Teaching is an encounter of a specific kind, among concrete individuals, to an established end. The teacher knows something in particular and the student does not. The process of transmitting it is delimited and one-way. It implies dependency and insufficiency on the part of the student, and does not shrink from acknowledging them. The authority to determine whether the student has absorbed the skills and concepts rests with the teacher. The goal is ultimately to make the teacher no longer necessary for the student. (By contrast, the notion of an “educational process” is murky, and open-ended to the point of being interminable.)

We never have enough good teachers, Barzun says. At the same time, there are more kinds of good teachers than we normally recognize. But the problem runs deeper than that. As he puts it in Teacher in America, the very title is suspect, even somewhat disreputable

“I notice that on their passports and elsewhere, many of my academic colleagues put down their occupation as Professor. Anything to raise the tone: a professor is to a teacher what a cesspool technician is to a plumber….. ‘What do you do?’ – ‘I profess and I educate.’ It is unspeakable and absurd.”

Ouch. A curmudgeon? The patron saint of the curmudgeons, even? No doubt, and one fighting what was, in the 1940s, probably already a lost cause. In academe, the fetishism of professionalization is by now so far advanced that expecting people to apply the same term to themselves as people working in primary and secondary schools is a hopeless wish. But a lecture from 1947 suggests how comprehensively Barzun understood teaching as a calling, and how inseparable from scholarship, and his closing remark is a point to end on:

“If the scholars with a knack for organizing materials will freely turn to writing textbooks; if those having the gift of accurate rhetoric will deliver the classroom lectures and radio broadcasts; if the generalizing minds will produce the broader syntheses; if the ready pens will enlighten the public with vivid restatements of important truth; if the bibliophiles and antiquaries will staff libraries and museums and facilitate, as they already do, every branch of study and research; and if the versatile will combine two or more of these activities at choice … [then] we shall be in a fair way to fulfill the destiny which every scholar takes as his privilege and his justification.”

 

 

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