Monday, May 08, 2006

Jacques Barzun

Why have I never heard of this man until recently? How did I miss him?

Born in France in 1907, Jacques Barzun came to the United States for his education at the age of 13, and as far as I can tell, became a full-fledged American. He was fortunate enough to have had Mortimer Adler and Mark Van Doren as college instructors at Columbia, before they went to Chicago and instituted their Great Books program. He became a teacher himself for many years, and a prolific author. Most recently (2003, I think) he published a massive historical work called Dawn to Decadence.

I was "accidentally" introduced to him, because I picked up a 50-cent book entitled Teacher in America a few months ago. Here are a few of my favorite quotes and tid-bits from the book:

"You know by instinct that is is impossible to 'teach' democracy, or citizenship or a happy married life. I do not say that these virtues and benefits are not somehow connected with good teaching. They are, but they occur as by-products. They come, not from a course, but from a teacher; not from a curriculum, but from a human soul."

"Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition."

"Thinking means shuffling, relating, selecting the contents of one's mind so as to assimilate novelty, digest it, and create order. It is doing to a fact or an idea what we do to a beefsteak when we distribute its parts throughout our body."

"There should of course be no distinction whatsoever between reading and studying, and all serious reading should be done pencil in hand, with a book whose ownership allows of its being marked up."

"Literary taste, not to speak of talent or genius, cannot be fashioned out of whole cloth at school. It must make a beginning at the mother's knee and be nursed on the hearth."

"What do they know of science who only science know?"

"Like most living things, art can stand an enormous amount of manhandling or it would not survive a week."

"For I believe that a true relation to art is like the slow subtle growth called Education. It takes a lifetime of self-discipline and indefatigable passion to achieve."

"I pinned all my faith on this 'theoretical instruction' of American Youth in European tongues. I now know what it means. It means that boys and girls 'take' French or Spanish or German for three, four, or five years before entering college, only to discover there that they cannot read, speak, or understand it. The word for this type of instruction is not 'theoretical' but 'hypothetical.' Its principle is 'IF it were possible to learn a foreign language in the way I have been taught it, I should now know that language.' " (As an American who had to learn a foreign language, I find this very funny indeed.)

"The truth is that good reading does not come out of systems, just because each great book--if it really is great--establishes its own language, manner, and point of view. A great book is in effect a view of the universe, complete for the time being. You must get inside it to look out upon the old familiar world with the author's unfamiliar eyes."

"Acquire the taste for reading and you will keep on even if it means learning Braille."

"All great books are imperfect, having been written by fallible men, ignorant of dialectic; and all great books are perfect, having in them the quintessence of passionate thought."


After thoroughly enjoying the first two-thirds of so of this book, I got bogged down a bit. The latter part deals mostly with universities, and much of what was written about the university as it was and how to fix it in 1944 simply doesn't apply to the way things are, now, 60 years later. The system has veered so much further down the wrong path that Mr. Barzun described in 1944 that his suggestions are hopelessly outdated now. It would take a much, much stronger medicine than what he suggests to return the mainstream universities to anything resembling genuine liberal arts institutions.

I also find his views on education for women rather outdated, but this made me laugh out loud: "I have heard many pathetic resolves taken by girls about to be married that 'they would read ten books a year so as to keep up.' " Personally, I would find it nearly impossible to read only ten books in a year, and I furthermore am acquainted with many, many women who read at least as voraciously and widely as I do (and many more so!). So, I was slightly nettled by his epithet about "pathetic resolves." I know just as many non-reading and ill-informed men as I do women. And I suspect Mr. Barzun does, too!

I just have a few pages left to go in this book, but I am finding these last bits so outdated and sad that it is hard going to finish it. The proposals for how radio (not television, mind you, in 1944) might be used to bring culture and education to the general public are just too hopeless. Radio was the pre-cursor to television, and I would gladly do without the entertainment and educational advantages of television if it were possible to return to a time before this medium did so much harm to our culture. If only!

I shall be reading more of Jacques Barzun in the future, along with one or two other authors he has suggested. He'll be 99 years old in November of this year, and I hope to wish him a happy centennial in 2007. Our culture could use 10,000 more like him.


At 7:13 PM , Blogger Mama Squirrel said...

Do you know much about his book Simple and Direct? I had written it into a list of "check these out" books a long time ago (might have been something I noticed in a Common Reader catalogue), but never did anything about it.


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