“Teaching is not a lost art but the regard for it is a lost tradition. Hence tomorrow’s problem will not be to get teachers, but to recognize the good ones and not discourage them before they have done their stint.”
—Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America
Jacques Barzun has died. With his passing we lose another of the grand European-born intellectuals who made America their home. Barzun was born in 1907, one year after Hannah Arendt. He did not come to the United States persecuted for his religion. He came in 1920 to pursue a university education at Columbia. He graduated Columbia in 1927, received his Ph.D. in 1932 and taught at Columbia until his retirement in 1975. Along the way he became one of the nation’s preeminent scholars and public intellectuals.
Here is what Edward Rothstein writes today in the New York Times:
[Barzun] wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.
Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.
As an educator Mr. Barzun was an important critic of American universities, arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar” of miscellaneous studies.
But he was also a popularizer, believing that the achievements of the arts and scholarship should not be divorced from the wider American culture. Writing for a general audience, he said, was “a responsibility of scholars.”
Barzun’s work touched nearly every part of humanistic thought, from his work on Berlioz to his late epic on the decadence of Western culture. In “Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage,” he took up the critique of scientific culture initiated by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber. As did Hannah Arendt, Barzun worried deeply about the way scientific thinking was intruding upon the realm of human freedom and human creativity. His last book, From Dawn to Decadence, traces Western civilization from the renaissance to the present. It is at once sad in its mourning of lost greatness and optimistic about the impending regeneration. Barzun is a brilliant guide through the ages of the western mind.
Above all Barzun was a teacher. For all of us committed to the dual goals of enlivening and making accessible the world of ideas, the loss of Jacques Barzun is a day to recall the nobility of that enterprise.