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Jacques Barzun and the decline of universities

By Rafe Champion - posted Thursday, 8 December 2011

One of the great scholars of the 20th century reached another milestone on 30 November with his 104th birthday. Born in France he moved to the US for his high school education and spent his academic career at Columbia University in New York where he was an outstanding scholar, a prolific writer and translator, and a highly respected university teacher and administrator.

His wide-ranging interests include the history of ideas, education, art, music, baseball and detective fiction. The common thread is the cultural history of modern times and it is likely that few people have engaged in a more thorough, invigorating and good humoured manner with the leading issues in the field.

"You may like to think of culture - I often do - as an enormous pumpkin, hard to penetrate, full of uncharted hollows and recesses for cultural critics to get lost in, and stuffed with seeds of uncertain contents and destiny."


His output is amazing, bearing in mind his teaching and administrative commitments, also two marriages and children. He wrote or translated over thirty books, edited a similar number and contributed countless chapters to others, plus journal articles, Introductions and Forewords for books by other authors.

A partial list of his books with other links is here.

After a series of books on the history of ideas he moved on to a series of works on education and intellectual life at large, starting with Teacher in America, first published in 1944. This is based on a nationwide tour to speak with teachers at all levels from preschool to the universities, taking the temperature of the education system from top to bottom. The result is a remarkable picture of the strengths and the major deficiencies in the education system, ranging from the notion that learning has to be fun, various misguided fads promoted in Teacher Training Schools and the soul-destroying drudgery of the PhD ordeal.

In the Preface to the 1983 reprint of the book Barzun recorded his horror at the changes that occurred since the first edition.

To those who follow the news about education, the present state of American schools and colleges must seem vastly different from that described in this book. Thirty-five years have passed, true; but the normal drift of things will not account for the great chasm. The once proud and efficient public-school system of the United States, especially its unique free high school for all-has turned into a wasteland where violence and vice share the time with ignorance and idleness, besides serving as battleground for vested interests, social, political, and economic.

Colleges and universities have become bureaucracies like business and government. To defend its life against its envious neighbors, City Hall, the state, and Washington, as well as against militant groups and individuals within, the academy obviously needs officials of the bureaucratic type; and their attitude inevitably spreads throughout the campus by contagion.

In The House of Intellect (1959) he explored the influences that distract people from clear, direct and critical thinking. He pointed out that intellectuals themselves have been the major agents in the erosion of the life of the mind along with the influence of distorted views of Science, and the unhelpful contribution of Business inspired by misplaced Philanthropy.


"The intellectual class has been captivated by Art, overawed by Science, and seduced by Philanthropy. The damage done by each has been that of heedless expansion combined with a reliance on the passage of time to restore order and decency".

He described some problems that result from the well-meaning efforts of foundations and corporations to ameliorate the human condition by funding university-based research and the international exchange of ideas. One is the impact on departmental budgets when foundations give short-term grants (with inadequate allowance for overheads), and the beneficiaries expect to be kept on in perpetuity. The other is the diversion of effort from serious long-term projects into preparing grant applications to attract funding for "exciting and relevant research" and preparing papers (similarly exciting and relevant, and identifying the need for further research), for international conferences. Barzun anticipated some sceptical comments by C Wright Mills who described conferences as junkets to permit professors to pursue their feuds and vendettas in exotic locations while younger players scramble for positions in the academic marketplace.

In Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1963), Barzun catalogued and criticised many conflicting and incoherent perceptions of science, some of them exerting a malicious influence on the humanities and many of them either trivialising or sensationalising the activities of scientists.

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About the Author

Rafe Champion brings the grafting qualities of the opening batsman and the cunning of the offspin bowler to the task of routing dogmatists, protectionists and other riff-raff who stand in the way of peace, freedom and plenty. He has a website and he blogs at Catallaxy and also at The History of Australian and New Zealand Thought. For more about Rafe visit here. All of his posts on Catallaxy for 2007 can be found at this link. Not all the links work and some need to be cut and pasted into the browser.

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