Jacques Barzun 1907-
French-born American historian, nonfiction writer, essayist, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Barzun's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 51.
A renowned cultural historian, educator, and critic, Barzun is the author of more than thirty books on wide-ranging subjects encompassing music, art, education, and European intellectual history and literature. Upholding traditional views about language and pedagogy throughout his life, Barzun has been recognized as an erudite and independent-minded critic of contemporary academic trends and the deterioration of shared cultural heritage in the United States. His critique of higher education in The American University (1968) remains a prescient analysis of slipping standards, overspecialization, and an imperiled tenure system. At age ninety-two, Barzun published From Dawn to Decadence (2000), a magisterial survey of Western cultural and intellectual history, which is regarded as the capstone of his distinguished career.
Born in Creteil, France, Barzun was the son of Anna-Rose and Henri Barzun, a respected author. It was with his parents that Barzun experienced the turbulent and exciting artistic world of early twentieth century Paris. Frequent visitors in the Barzun home included avant-garde artists such as Fernan Léger, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Cocteau, and the poets Ezra Pound and Guillaume Apollinaire. Barzun received his early education at the Lycee Janson de Suilly in Paris, and taught for the first time at the school when he was only nine years old. Because of the devastation throughout Europe following World War I, his father encouraged him to pursue his education in the United States. In 1920, Barzun arrived in New York City, where he would spend most of his life. Barzun settled at Columbia University, from which he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1927, a master of arts degree in 1928, and a doctorate in 1932—the same year he published his first book, The French Race (1932). He taught history at Columbia from 1929 to 1975, earning distinction as the Seth Low Professor of History and University Professor of History. Barzun also served as an administrator at Columbia, holding the positions of dean of graduate faculties from 1955 through 1958 and dean of faculties and provost from 1958 to 1967. With his colleagues at Columbia (including Lionel Trilling), Barzun reshaped and expanded the humanities curriculum. His strong belief in the efficacy of the traditional teacher-student relationship positively influenced several generations of students. Barzun joined the board of editors for Encyclopedia Britannica in 1962 and was a member of the board of directors for the Macmillan publishing house from 1965 until 1975. He then became a literary advisor at the Charles Scribner's Sons publishing company from 1975 to 1993. Barzun married Mariana Lowell in 1936; the couple had three children. Following Mariana's death in 1979, Barzun married Marguerite Davenport in 1980. Barzun has received many awards, including the prestigious French Legion of Honor and the Silver Medal of the Royal Society of Arts (1972). In honor of his high scholarly achievement, Barzun received the Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1987.
Though an eminent academician, Barzun has written the majority of his books not for other scholars, but for the educated public. His primary field of interest is nineteenth-century European culture, particularly Romanticism, a movement that he is credited with helping to resurrect from disrepute with Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943) and Classic, Romantic, and Modern (1961). Throughout his career Barzun has advocated open discourse in all areas of culture, contending that when theories are accepted unquestioningly, lively inquiry into history, science, art, music, and other areas becomes stifled. Barzun's most important early works that expound these ideals include Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941) and The House of Intellect (1959). His works published since the early 1980s—especially A Stroll with William James (1983), The Culture We Deserve (1989), Begin Here (1991), and most notably From Dawn to Decadence—continue to augment Barzun's astute cultural commentary. A Stroll with William James, which Barzun calls an “appreciation” rather than a biography, conveys his enthusiasm for James's originality and intellectual contributions to American thought. Moreover, the work establishes a strong argument for placing the philosopher near the top of the hierarchy of great American scholars. In Barzun's opinion, James—who coined the phrase “stream of consciousness,” extolled the virtues of pragmatism, and virtually invented the discipline of psychology—could only flourish in an atmosphere where even the most universally accepted ideas were open to lively dispute.
The Culture We Deserve, a collection of twelve essays originally published between 1972 and 1989, defines culture as the enduring contributions a society passes on to posterity, made possible through the free exercise of ideas within a disciplined atmosphere. Barzun uses the essays to debunk the ideas of the so-called “grand unifiers” of history, including Karl Marx. The Culture We Deserve maintains that art has been shackled by the willingness of critics, the public, and artists themselves to call everything “interesting,” whether or not it has artistic merit. The final chapter of The Culture We Deserve, titled “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” outlines areas of cultural decline that Barzun believes will result through the rejection of manners and ideas that have been part the Western world's heritage for five hundred years. Though he criticizes events, acts, and beliefs antithetical to his own stance of liberal humanism, Barzun's work is not a jeremiad against events in the present day. Rather, he views current cultural upheaval as the dawning of an age as momentous as the Renaissance.
An Essay on French Verse (1991)—addressed to readers of English poetry—explains the rules of French prosody and then, beginning with the eleventh-century epic La Chanson de Roland, demonstrates how each century brought changes in the forms of French poetry. Barzun has also written about music as an integral component of cultural history, notably in Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950), which combines two of his favorite topics—Romanticism and the nineteenth-century French composer Hector Berlioz. Begin Here builds on arguments made in Barzun's earlier The American University, in which he discusses the importance of reevaluating the tenure tradition and the damage that the “publish or perish” mentality has done not only to the university but also to scholarship as a whole. Barzun skewers the “new math” and “whole” language movements, insisting that they are responsible for turning out millions of functionally illiterate students in the United States. He also maintains that “education” (a term that he eschews) is not synonymous with teaching and learning; rather, it is an accrual of intellectual experiences over a lifetime.
From Dawn to Decadence, written nearly sixty years into his scholarly career, is a synthesis of Barzun's thoughts about the past five hundred years of Western civilization. Barzun uses the term “decadence” to refer to the dissolution of established thought and tradition occasioned by the full societal integration of ideas that were once new but have become stagnant. For example, he contends that the movement in the United States to “reinvent government” is a signal that representative political systems as we know them no longer meet the needs of the culture. From Dawn to Decadence dates the modern era from the Protestant Reformation and notes four great revolutions that have shaped the modern world—the religious, the monarchical, the liberal, and the social. At the end of the book, Barzun despairs that the Western canon will not be transmitted to future generations; in fact, he believes the transmission has already largely ceased. Barzun's deep concern over education—including the subjects taught and the process and purpose of teaching itself—extends back to his earliest work, including The Teacher in America (1945) and The Tyranny of Idealism in Education (1959). Barzun has also authored several works on such diverse subjects as Abraham Lincoln, crime detection, and rhetoric and research methods. The Modern Researcher (1957), which Barzun co-edited with Henry F. Graff, appeared in a fifth edition in 1992 and remains a respected introduction to the study of history.
Barzun's erudite prose has held a well-regarded place in American letters for more than sixty years, occasionally sparking controversy but always inspiring respect. Reviewers have greatly admired his skill at structuring rhetorical arguments—he makes a general statement and then supports it with copious and well-reasoned specifics so the concept under discussion can be seen clearly or implemented unambiguously. Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence was widely praised as the climax of his literary career. Although some critics object to his low opinion of twentieth-century Western culture after the First World War, most reviewers comment favorably on Barzun's insights and the illuminating anecdotes in the work. In this and other volumes such as A Stroll with William James, Barzun is credited with bringing his subjects to life in a rich tapestry of serious learning and reflection. Critics have posited that with his scholarly roots buried so deeply in the nineteenth century, Barzun's opinions are often old-fashioned or dated. However, other reviewers have applauded Barzun for dismissing the theoretical approaches of deconstruction, postmodernism, and narrow academic preoccupations with race, class, and gender, and instead favoring well-structured, detached narrative histories that speak to the larger public. Despite his conservative view of education and culture, Barzun is regarded by many as a judicious critic whose common sense and broad-mindedness enable him to argue forcefully in defense of classical curricula and higher standards—in The American University, The Culture We Deserve, and Begin Here, for example—without appearing shrill. An honored elder statesman of American letters, Barzun continues to garner esteem for his lifelong commitment to scholarship and learning.
The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and Their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution (nonfiction) 1932
Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (nonfiction) 1937
Of Human Freedom (nonfiction) 1939
Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (nonfiction) 1941
Romanticism and the Modern Ego (nonfiction) 1943
The Teacher in America [published in England as We Who Teach, 1946] (nonfiction) 1945
Berlioz and the Romantic Century [republished as Berlioz and His Century: An Introduction to the Age of Romanticism] (nonfiction) 1950
Pleasures of Music: A Reader's Choice of Great Writing About Music and Musicians from Cellini to Bernard Shaw [editor] (nonfiction) 1951
God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words (nonfiction) 1954
Music in American Life (nonfiction) 1956
The Energies of Art: Studies of Authors Classic and Modern (nonfiction) 1956
The Modern Researcher [with Henry F. Graff] (nonfiction) 1957
Lincoln, the Literary Genius (nonfiction) 1959
The House of Intellect (nonfiction) 1959
The Tyranny of Idealism in Education (nonfiction) 1959...
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SOURCE: “The Pragmatist,” in New Republic, May 9, 1983, pp. 32-4.
[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Rorty discusses contradictions in James's philosophical positions and Barzun's inability to reconcile such fundamental oppositions.]
Everybody who reads William James's letters falls in love with the man. He seems the companion nobody ever had: the one who never gets depressed or angry or bored, is always honest and open, always thinks you interesting. Somehow James, in his early thirties, managed to shuck off all his neuroses, all those fantasies that lead the rest of us to distort and manipulate other people for our own self-protection. After frightening bouts of melancholia during his twenties, accompanied by an inability to harness his own energies, suddenly he changes into Whitehead's “adorable genius”—fluent, focused, and indefatigable. Barzun once asked Whitehead what he had meant by that much-quoted phrase. Whitehead replied, “Greatness with simplicity; I mean by greatness the absence of smallness in any respect.” This sort of greatness brought its reward. James seems to have spent the rest of his life, as Barzun says, “among a perfect galaxy of long, unbroken friendships.” Even his marriage was happy; even his children liked him. His letter to his dying father is the one everyone wishes he or she had had, or will have, the charity and the...
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SOURCE: “Home-grown, Full-bodied Philosophy,” in Commonweal, October 7, 1983, pp. 541-2.
[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Kellogg concludes that Barzun's enthusiasm and erudition inspires renewed respect for James, though Barzun's “wide-ranging” digressions cause his book to lack focus.]
“American philosopher,” like “English wine,” is close to a contradiction in terms. Despite the label, one expects little more than a watered-down import. All the more reason, then, to cherish those few products, like the philosophical writings of William James, that are both home-grown and full-bodied. Unfortunately, James, who died in 1910, is still known largely for his pioneering work in psychology. His philosophical writings, despite their range, subtlety, and concreteness, are little read, even by academics.
This neglect is due in part to the unfortunate label with which he saddled his thought. “Pragmatism” seems to imply in the crudest sense that what works is good and true. As Professor Barzun puts it [in A Stroll with William James] “James and Pragmatism have been branded as typically American, a mind and a doctrine to be expected from a nation of hucksters.”
A deeper reason for the oversight, however, lies precisely in James's virtue of concreteness. He had an artist's love for the jumbled details of life and...
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SOURCE: “The Exceptional William James,” in New York Review of Books, November 10, 1983, pp. 3-4, 6.
[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Kazin discusses the development and distinctive qualities of James's philosophical thought.]
William James, dead these seventy-three years, is a living and much-cherished figure to Jacques Barzun, whose sparkling appreciation [in A Stroll with William James] honors his “mentor,” a man and thinker without a describable lapse who “knows better than anyone else the material and spiritual country I am traveling through.” Unlike all other philosophers Barzun likes to “read in,” James's
ideas, his words, his temperament speak to me with intimacy as well as force. Communication is direct; … he “does me good.” I find him visibly and testably right—right in intuition, range of considerations, sequence of reasons, and fully rounded power of expression. He is for me the most inclusive mind I can listen to, the most concrete and the least hampered by trifles.
Barzun does not have to say that his love and homage owe much to one overriding fact. William James is a figure impossible to imagine in contemporary America. With James as his herald and shield, Barzun makes a point of this whenever he comes anywhere near today's “half-educated” citizens, our...
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SOURCE: “Talk Talk,” in New Republic, February 16, 1987, pp. 28-33.
[In the following excerpt, Menand offers unfavorable assessment of A Word or Two Before You Go.]
Jacques Barzun, former dean, provost, and university professor at Columbia, is an authority often cited by [William] Safire when he wants to throw cold water on a usage but needs someone else to look like a pedant for doing it. For where Safire fiddles, Barzun burns. His brief pieces on language, [in A Word or Two Before You Go] written over many years and to meet a variety of occasions, attack, but with the prescriptive and proscriptive fervor missing from the “On Language” columns, the same kind of stock villains that Safire's do—psychiatrists, sociologists, advertising copywriters—along with a few real pigeons: Esperanto, Basic English, and the advocates of phonetic spelling. But Barzun reserves a special fury for the depredations of copy editors.
Barzun's diatribe against copy editors, drawn from a longer screed he published two years ago in the American Scholar, is a piece of work—though it does perform the useful service of exploding the assumption that punctiliousness about language is the token of a civil nature. Like many writers, Barzun has been frustrated at times by having to undo changes made in his copy by editors who missed an allusion, or who followed some rigid requirement of...
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SOURCE: “The Battle of the Books,” in Washington Post Book World, July 16, 1989, p. 5.
[In the following excerpt, Dirda discusses Barzun's disillusionment and contempt for contemporary culture in The Culture We Deserve.]
Books, like marriages, are rewarding in direct proportion to the passion we put into them. A critic like Roland Barthes could get more out of a half-baked Balzac novel than most of us will get out of a lifetime studying Madame Bovary. Better enthrallment to an adventure story than a bored skim through a masterpiece.
Still, for more than a hundred years humanists such as Matthew Arnold, Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk have called for a focused canon of works as a means of preserving or reestablishing a common culture. Each has spoken eloquently for the traditional, as do Jacques Barzun, Peter Shaw and Robert Proctor now, but all of them betray the desperation of men fighting for a lost cause.
Barzun's The Culture We Deserve is the most dispassionate of these three recent cultural critiques, though his tone betrays a magisterial sadness: He looks out on the world and sees only darkness. Fragmentation, the analytical method, overproduction, specialization and permissiveness have wrecked civilization.
His well-crafted essays—from various periodicals—elaborate these old-fashioned, rather familiar views....
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SOURCE: “Exeunt the Humanities?” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. xxxviii, xl-xli.
[In the following review, Fuller offers a positive assessment of Barzun's “provocative, challenging, and occasionally startling assertions” in The Culture We Deserve.]
“Right now … one can ask whether all over the world the idea of a university has not been battered beyond hope of recovery for a long time.”
Those blunt words were not written by an outsider hostile to universities, or by an ideological disrupter from within, but by a man of impeccable credentials for appraising what passes currently as higher education. Their author is Jacques Barzun who, in his long association with Columbia University, has worn the titles of Seth Low professor of history, dean of faculties, and provost. He is also an extraordinary fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge.
If you seek a model of the classically educated, broadly cultured man, in this time when there is a dearth of such attributes, you cannot find a better than Professor Barzun, though happily he is not without peers. He was born in France but has lived in the United States since he was thirteen years old. He is now over eighty. His writings have dealt with history, literature, language, music, art, and manners. Of his many books two of the finest are Teacher in America (1945) and The House of...
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SOURCE: “Culture in the Eighties,” in Salmagundi, No. 87, Spring, 1990, pp. 360-68.
[In the following positive review of The Culture We Deserve, Sisk examines the philosophical and aesthetic perspective that informs Barzun's critique of intellectual laxity, relativism, and reductionism in contemporary art and thought.]
I began my long acquaintance with the work of Jacques Barzun in the fall of 1945 at West Palm Beach, an idyllic change from a previous assignment in the jungles of British Guiana. In the public library I found Romanticism and the Modern Ego and Darwin, Marx, Wagner. They were exactly what I needed after a four year sabbatical in the Air Force, especially since I expected to return to the classroom and teach Romanticism. In both books I found reasons to update some of my opinions about the Romantics, my reading of Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt and T.S. Eliot not having prepared me to see the Romantics as humane pragmatists and having left me ill-equipped to argue against those who wanted to dismiss the Romantics as escapists or inspirers of fascism.
I discovered in time that one of the pedagogically most useful features of Romanticism and the Modern Ego was a seventeen-page section that gave a sampling of the term “romantic” in modern usage. Here was the semantic underbrush through which the author had to work his way if he wanted to...
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SOURCE: A review of The Culture We Deserve, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 64.
[In the following review of The Culture We Deserve, the critic characterizes Barzun's essays “breezy” but “refreshing.”]
Biting the hand that feeds one has become a favorite sport of several American scholars, who collect handsome royalty checks from the very mass marketing industry that they decry in their best sellers. Jacques Barzun, who engaged in the culture battles long before it became fashionable and lucrative, has joined the fray with his own collection of stimulating but ultimately frustrating essays. These pieces from the last decade offer his complaints regarding everything from scholarship (overspecialization and theorizing) to relativism (its abuse) to the humanities (poorly served by academia) to high art (its overabundance) to linguistics and rhetoric (their silly scientism). The parts are greater than the whole, as a compelling, overarching perspective on our current plight only peeks through on occasion. Nonetheless, two of Barzun's recurring themes are the most important: the self-consciousness of modern culture and its calculated self-hatred. Professionalization, overemphasis on method and theory, the cult of the expert, and parochialism have drained criticism of usable substance. Ultimately, he concludes in a compelling final chapter, Western...
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SOURCE: A review of The Culture We Deserve, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, Nos. 2-3, Fall-Winter, 1990, pp. 211-12.
[In the following review of The Culture We Deserve, Pinsker expresses sympathy for “Barzun's heartfelt, uncompromisingly idealist pronouncements,” though finds little evidence that Barzun's hopes will be realized.]
The dozen essays collected here [in The Culture We Deserve] explore the gap between claim and performance in contemporary culture: art and literature, education and scholarship, philosophy and history. Not surprisingly, Barzun has sobering things to say about our current state of cultural affairs. For Barzun, culture is not “any chunk of social reality you like or dislike” but, rather, what used to be called “cultivation—cultivation of the self.” And it is within that Arnoldian sense of “cultivation” that Barzun finds ample evidence for evasions of thought and for flights from common sense. Thus, “professional historians no longer write for the public but for one another”—and the same charges can be laid at the doorstep of literary critics and philosophers. The effect, of course, is that scholars tend to know more and more about less and less.
Nor is Barzun amused at the concern for “relevance”; and if there are moments when he makes common cause with the relevancy-blasting Allan Bloom, there are others...
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SOURCE: “The Plight of Pedagogy,” in Washington Post Book World, April 21, 1991, p. 3.
[In the following review, Yardley offers a positive assessment of Begin Here.]
It is difficult to imagine a more pungent, perceptive or eloquent commentary on contemporary American education than this collection of 15 pieces [Begin Here] by Jacques Barzun. Written over the past four decades, but mostly of fairly recent vintage, these essays and speeches all boil down to the book's opening words: “Forget EDUCATION. Education is a result, a slow growth, and hard to judge. Let us talk rather about Teaching and Learning, a joint activity that can be provided for, though as a nation we have lost the knack of it.” Or, as Barzun puts it many pages later:
“The error began with the replacement of the word pedagogy with the word education. Pedagogy is not a beautiful word, but it sticks to the point of teaching. It denotes the art of leading a child to knowledge, whereas education properly refers to a completed development, or the whole tendency of the mind toward it. A person is taught by a teacher but educates him- or herself, partly by will, partly by assimilating experience. The educator's egotistical urge to blur this distinction is at the root of our present predicament. Thinking that we can ‘give an education,’ we make wild claims and promises and forget to teach...
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SOURCE: A review of The Culture We Deserve, in The Humanist, Vol. 51, No. 6, November-December, 1991, pp. 46-7.
[In the following positive review of The Culture We Deserve, Shore clarifies and defends Barzun's pessimistic view of contemporary thought, education, and art.]
A superficial family resemblance exists among a number of the educational documents to appear during the 1980s, among them the U.S. government study A Nation at Risk, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Mortimer Adler's The Paideia Proposal, and E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy. Although each of these works differs significantly in emphasis, all share a mood of urgency—almost despair—toward the knowledge and skills students possess and argue for a rediscovery of some common body of knowledge which can serve as a unifying element for both formal education and society as a whole.
The Culture We Deserve seems at first glance to be a close cousin of these other critiques of American culture and education, but it is, in fact, something quite different from either a Spenglerian forecast of doom or an airtight proposal for sweeping reform. Barzun, a prominent figure in American education for many decades and an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University, offers here a collection of related cultural essays, some of which were written as long ago as 1972....
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SOURCE: “From Apollinaire's Knee,” in American Scholar, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 138, 140-41.
[In the following review, Fowlie offers a favorable evaluation of An Essay on French Verse.]
No one title would be adequate to describe the contents of this small book [An Essay on French Verse]. Its author first carefully explains the rules of French prosody, and then he explores the changes it underwent in each century. The ten-syllable line of La Chanson de Roland in the eleventh century was recast into the twelve-syllable line, the alexandrine, in the thirteenth century. These two major types of lines remain the favorites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Professor Barzun contrasts the classical alexandrine line with the iambic pentameter used by Shakespeare. The history of France and the political systems have affected the lives of the poets and influenced the development of French poetry from century to century. All of these topics—aesthetics, theory, history, biography, social change—are included in this “essay on French verse,” because the central preoccupation of the critic is language.
France grew into a nation from the ruins of the Roman civilization in Gaul, and at the same time a new language evolved. The language had a simple origin. With few exceptions French comes directly from Latin. The pre-Roman Celts left almost no traces in the...
(The entire section is 1590 words.)
SOURCE: “Art of the Difficult,” in American Scholar, Vol. 61, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 312-15.
[In the following review of Begin Here, Pritchard commends Barzun's pedagogic ideals and concurs with his negative critique of contemporary American education, though notes that Barzun's recommendations contain “an element of Old Codgerism.”]
It is almost half a century since Jacques Barzun published his wise and witty Teacher in America (1945). I was, briefly, a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia University when the book was republished eight years later (as one of the first paperback titles in Doubleday-Anchor's memorable venture), and although I had read some of what William James and John Dewey had to say about teaching, Mr. Barzun's book was the first I encountered that took on the subject in a wholly contemporary, wholly pertinent way. From time to time I sat in on Jacques Barzun's course in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European history, where he lectured with elegance to an attentive audience. My assumption at the time was that small classrooms filled with discussion were preferable to large lecture rooms, but Barzun, along with John Herman Randall of the philosophy department, gave lectures that—though quite different in manner—were equally filled with informative judgments and mischievous critical wit. By contrast, Lionel Trilling seemed unhappy lecturing to...
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SOURCE: “Perennial Difficulties,” in Education Digest, Vol. 58, No. 2, November, 1992, pp. 39-40.
[In the following review, Barlow offers a positive assessment of Begin Here.]
I have just spent a few very enjoyable weeks in the company of a remarkable mind; I have been reading Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. This is a collection of 15 essays written over a number of years and published in this collection this year by The University of Chicago Press. I have been reading little sections to my car pool, to my departmental colleagues, and to my wife.
I admit freely that one reason I enjoyed Barzun's book so much is that he and I share some of the same prejudices. For example, machine-scored tests.
Barzun says, “I think its use harmful to teaching and learning, both. I know all the arguments in favor of these so-called objective tests. They are easy to grade. Uniformity and unmistakable answers secure fairness. With such tests one can compare performance over time and space and gauge the results of programs and devices.” His chief complaint against machine-scored tests is that they test “nothing but recognition knowledge.”
“The worst feature of this game of choosing the ready-made instead of producing the fresh idea,” he says, “is that it breaks up the unity of what has been learned...
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SOURCE: “Jacques Barzun's American University,” in Society, Vol. 30, No. 4, May-June, 1993, pp. 71-82.
[In the following essay, London reconsiders the decline of contemporary university education a quarter century after the publication of Barzun's The American University.]
Jacques Barzun's work The American University, published in 1968, still stands as one of the most lucid, informative statements on the subject of the university ever written. With keen insights, he describes the university and its quintessential features, demarcating the ancestral, perhaps more congenial, university from the one that emerged in his day as teacher and administrator in the 1960s. Presciently he walks the reader through the mine fields of sixties “reform,” ever hopeful for the future of an institution to which he has devoted his professional life. But despite his admirable vision and power of analysis, even Barzun did not fully foresee then the extremes that emerged from the noisy radicalism of the 1960s. Even he could not imagine the corrosive influence of an all-embracing orthodoxy on campus.
Nevertheless, The American University is still essential reading for anybody who wishes to understand the essence of Barzun's role and the nuances of university life. The book is a primer on the atavistic yearning of youthful rabble rousers. He displays a wisdom in these pages that can guide...
(The entire section is 8604 words.)
SOURCE: “PW Talks with Jacques Barzun,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 4, April 3, 2000, p. 69.
[In the following interview, Barzun discusses his notion of “culture” and “decadence” and the general thesis of From Dawn to Decadence.]
[Golo:] Your book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life is so wide-ranging, it covers everything from the literary to the culinary. How do you define “Culture”?
[Barzun:] Cultural history cannot be defined, because it really has no limits. “Culture” can be seen as high culture, the arts—generally. But anthropologists have changed all that. … When they went to see primitive peoples, they covered absolutely everything those peoples were doing—from how they cooked to how they worshiped.
In the book, you say that the Bible used to be the common culture of the West, but no longer is. Do we have a common culture today?
It used to be that colleges and universities provided for a certain group of people—not the whole country, but a good many—a common culture. But now that has been attacked. Now everyone has his own little specialty and enjoys it more than exploring outside it and grasping other things. So we really have no common intellectual background. I notice in the press, for example, that many familiar allusions to the Greek gods are...
(The entire section is 573 words.)
SOURCE: “Venturing Provocative Judgments,” in New Leader, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 2, May-June, 2000, pp. 42-3.
[In the following review, Meyer offers a positive assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]
My spontaneous response upon learning of Jacques Barzun's hefty new work was delight and surprise that he is still with us and still scribbling. Born in France in 1907, formerly a professor of history and provost at Columbia University, author of Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950) and other important books, Barzun is seemingly the sole survivor of that once celebrated constellation on Morningside Heights: Lionel Trilling and Meyer Schapiro, Richard Hofstadter and Margaret Mead, C. Wright Mills and Ivan Morris, among others. At 92, on the evidence of this bravura performance, Barzun remembers more than most of us have learned.
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life might at quick glance appear to be that soporific thing, a professorial “survey,” an eye-glazing assemblage of names and dates plastered in place with platitudes. But wait. Barzun wakes us up with the first of his 30-odd sketches of the West's geniuses and troublemakers. About Martin Luther, he begins: “When the miner's son from Saxony, Luther, Lhuder, Lutter, or Lotharius as he was variously known, posted his 95 propositions on the door of All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg on October...
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SOURCE: “The Writing Life: A Talk Between Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Jacques Barzun,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 21, 2000, pp. 3-4.
[In the following interview, Barzun comments on his definition of “decadence,” as elaborated in From Dawn to Decadence, and his view of current religious, geopolitical, literary, and historical trends that characterize the “boredom” and fragmentation of cultural decline.]
[The following introduction was written by Mark LaFlaur.]
It is difficult now to imagine an age when a weekly newsmagazine would print a cover story on “America and the Intellectual,” illustrated with 13 commissioned photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt. The magazine was Time, the date was June 11, 1956, and the cover illustration was of a handsome, dignified man of 48 looking toward a lighted lamp of learning, the kind seen on college rings. Although more famous men (alas, they were all men) discussed in the article could have been shown on the cover (J. Robert Oppenheimer, for instance, or Frank Lloyd Wright), it was Jacques Barzun of Columbia University whom the editors chose to lead the piece, subtitled “The Reconciliation.” Education editor Bruce Barton Jr. found in Barzun an affectionate (though not uncritical) relationship between a thinker and his adopted country—indeed, one of Barzun's best-selling books, published in 1954, was titled...
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SOURCE: “What It All Means: Why Jacques Barzun Is America's Greatest Teacher,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 21, 2000, pp. 1-3.
[In the following review of From Dawn to Decadence, McNeill praises Barzun's treatment of Western cultural history from the Reformation to the First World War, but opposes Barzun's disdain for twentieth-century culture and his bleak view of the future.]
“The bulk of the book … is a delight because it presents a strong character full of surprises. He is learned but practical, unmistakably of his time … conservative but unconventional. His genius is in common sense … unusual judgments made by clear-eyed observation and couched in lapidary words.” Jacques Barzun, distinguished historian, critic and academic administrator, uses these words to characterize Boswell's “Life of Johnson.” They also constitute an apt appraisal of Barzun's own, and truly amazing, new book [From Dawn to Decadence].
Like Samuel Johnson, Barzun is impressively learned, conservative and unconventional in many of his judgments, writes with an acute sense of the fuzzy and changeable meanings of words and treats his reader to innumerable lapidary bon mots. On top of that, he offers an admirably coherent and comprehensive portrait of the cultural achievements—“art and thought, manners, morals and religion”—of what we once confidently called...
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SOURCE: “Decline and Fall?” in New York Review of Books, June 29, 2000, pp. 55-8.
[In the following review of From Dawn to Decadence, Shattuck finds flaws in Barzun's historical periodization and takes issue with his underestimation of developments in twentieth-century art and history.]
“All is true.” In the original edition of Le père Goriot, Balzac left this terse epigraph in English. It is the subtitle or alternate title of Henry VIII, an unfinished play uncertainly attributed to Shakespeare. The epigraph acknowledges Balzac's profound admiration of the Bard. At the same time, it affirms the cumulative and competitive veracity of Balzac's immense fictional universe. But I believe that these three childishly simple words also imply a dilemma.
Artists and writers constantly confront the teeming plenitude of the natural world that surrounds us on all sides, temporal and spatial. Both the novelist and the historian, if they lower their guard for an instant, can feel overwhelmed, obliterated, not so much by nothingness and emptiness as by the superfluity of existing things and creatures and events. A flood of sensations and of material reality can destroy our hold on life and self. “All is true” can be better interpreted as a cry of desperation than as the purr of serene contemplation. Can we hold our ground in the face of the...
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SOURCE: “Look Back in Wonder,” in Washington Post Book World, July 2, 2000, p. 8.
[In the following review, Mallaby offers a positive assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]
At 92, Jacques Barzun has earned the right to be eccentric. He serves up a book [From Dawn to Decadence] 800 pages long but proudly saves space by writing “16C” instead of “sixteenth century.” He has spent most of his working life in New York, that center of hard-selling self-promotion; but he begins his opus by stating grimly, “I do not expect the reader to be steadily grateful.” His focus on Western civilization is almost gratuitously dismissive of other cultures; at one point he labels Buddhism and Islam “cults,” to be bracketed along with yoga and transcendental meditation. As he says himself, “I have not consulted current prejudices. My own are enough to keep me busy.”
And yet grateful is precisely how this reader felt after taking Barzun's guided tour through the past half-millennium. Barzun is conversational, wise and rich in entertaining detail; he restores color to faded memories of history and paints in the mural where bits were missing. Yes, there is prejudice; but it is too frankly stated to be insidious and too intelligent to be dull. Over a life of research begun in the 1920s, Barzun has been marinating his idiosyncratic sense of history. The result is deliciously exotic....
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SOURCE: “A Turning Point for Moral Decay?” in Insight on the News, Vol. 16, No. 25, July 3, 2000, p. 48.
[In the following review, Fields offers a positive assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]
When a book criticizing our current culture runs to more than 800 pages, with 798 footnotes, and would break bones if you dropped it on your foot, it's more than a little surprising to find it on the New York Times best-seller list.
In fact, the popularity of such a book may be enough to refute its central thesis—that the last century began a steep and irrevocable decline in what we've honored as Western cultural life for the past 500 years.
From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, by Jacques Barzun, nevertheless touches a nerve in the culture wars that could just be one of those “tipping points” to turn things around. Mr. Barzun, 92 years old with a strong sense of history, is so erudite and witty about intellectual life for the past 500 years that you almost believe he lived in each of the centuries he writes about.
In this high-tech teletubby age of short attention spans, the printed word as written by Mr. Barzun revives a love and respect for literature and philosophy that defies the contemporary Philistines of deconstruction. On reading the book, I was reminded of a scene in the science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, by...
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SOURCE: “A Rich and Tangled Web,” in World and I, Vol. 15, No. 11, November, 2000, p. 235.
[In the following review, Gress offers a positive evaluation of From Dawn to Decadence.]
Seven decades of life, reading, learning, and experience has gone into From Dawn to Decadence, an impressively energetic, exhilarating, and spirited work of a wise man and great scholar, Jacques Barzun. Seven adult decades, that is; Barzun is in his nineties and presents this latest and largest of his works as the fruit of a lifetime. And it is no monument to crusty pedantry or grab bag of unconnected anecdotes. It is a vigorous chronicle full of strong and convincing themes, an account of how the West was made and how it is now unmaking itself.
The modern West was shaped, Barzun argues, by four revolutions and the ideas, themes, and aspirations that inspired them. They are the religious, monarchical, liberal, and social revolutions. Barzun defines revolution precisely, as the “the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea.” Each of the four took classic form in one or more Western countries; thus, the religious revolution in Germany in the 1520s, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church; the monarchical revolution in the 1660s in France, when Louis XIV and his minister Colbert centralized power and ritualized kingship; the liberal revolution in France in 1789; and...
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SOURCE: “The End of History?” in First Things, No. 107, November, 2000, pp. 43-4.
[In the following review, Reilly offers a favorable assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]
From Dawn to Decadence is one of those wonderful books that cannot be categorized. Some reviewers have compared it to The Education of Henry Adams, the great intellectual autobiography that seemed to sum up the last fin-de-siècle. The comparison does no injustice to either work. Jacques Barzun was born in 1907, and so has lived through a not insignificant slice of the period he covers, but even he did not know Descartes personally. And yet in some ways From Dawn to Decadence reads less like a history than it does like a personal memoir of the last half-millennium, with people and topics selected chiefly because the author is interested in them. The effect is delightful, though sometimes a little disorienting. Perhaps the one thing you can say for sure about From Dawn to Decadence is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you are ever likely to get for why Western culture is ending.
Jacques Barzun really needs no introduction. Anyone interested in William James, the great Romantic composers, the role of race in historical writing, or a dozen other subjects has already encountered him somewhere. (A book he coauthored with Henry Graff, The Modern Researcher, sticks in my...
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Allen, Gay Wilson. “An American Philosopher.” Washington Post Book World (29 May 1983): 6.
In this review of A Stroll with William James, Allen discusses James's philosophical approach and pathbreaking contribution to psychology.
Birnbaum, Milton. “Teaching and Learning Revisited.” Modern Age 35, No. 1 (September 1992): 73.
A review of Begin Here.
Casement, William. “Traditionalism Well Spoken.” College Teaching 39, No. 4 (Fall 1991): 161-2.
A review of Begin Here.
Everdell, William R. “Idea Man.” New York Times Book Review (21 May 2000): 11.
A review of From Dawn to Decadence.
Gates, David. “A Real-Life Renaissance Man.” Newsweek (22 May 2000): 76.
Provides an overview of Barzun's career and thought, as well as a discussion of From Dawn to Decadence.
Gross, John. “So Much Greatness Worth Remembering.” Wall Street Journal (18 May 2000): A24.
A review of From Dawn to Decadence.
Hart, Jeffrey. “Barzun's Summa.” National Review (22 May 2000): 56.
A review of From Dawn to Decadence.
Kimball, Roger. “Closing Time: Jacques Barzun on Western...
(The entire section is 348 words.)