U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012): RIP

Jacques Barzun passed away yesterday at the age of 104. Amazing. I’d be happy to make it to 80-85—though this election isn’t helping my health. I digress.

My writings on the history of the great books idea and Mortimer J. Adler have brought me into frequent contact with Barzun. Adler is mentioned in passing in the NYT obit, but they were long-time friends. They became closer during the 1970s and 1980s in relation to the Paideia Project. Here’s how Adler summarized their common interests (bolds mine): “While we have had our philosophical differences over the years, some of which still persist, they have always been overcome by the deep bonds of intellectual sympathy that unite us in our judgments about the sorry state of education and of culture in the United States, about the relation of the sciences to the humanities, and about one or another academic fad that gains attention and is in vogue for a short time.” [from Adler’s Philosopher at Large (1977), p. 67]

Apart from Adler, I’ve written on Barzun at USIH on three prior occasions. This most recent was in April of 2009 when I wrote a long, retrospective review essay and meditation on The House of Intellect (entire essay here). My opening paragraph was terrible, but I think there are points to recommend in the rest of the piece. Here’s an extended passage that reveals my thesis (buried, sadly, fourteen paragraphs down—and you’ll have to go to the long essay to get the notes):


Understanding Barzun’s criticisms, terminology, paradoxes, and proposed reconciliation with regard to his own times, we can now ask whether his criticisms resonate today. I think the answer is yes. Indeed, I find the relevance of his warnings shocking considering that House of Intellect was published 50 years ago. The development of the Culture Wars over the last thirty years has even made some his complaints more acute. Comparing Barzun’s themes, point by point, makes it seem as if he predicted our Culture Wars—even if we have added new twists.

Just as Barzun included higher education as an enemy of the intellect, it remains so—and has become somewhat worse today. Since 1959, with the results of general cultural changes and policy incentives, the U.S. ranks behind only Canada, Japan, and New Zealand for the percentage of its adults (ages 25-64) holding an associate’s degree or higher.[7] Statistically speaking, then, the U.S. is not a relative disparager of the mind. Yet I agree with Barzun that credentialism, job hunting, and status-striving still dominate the undergraduate mind. We appear to have fetished education at the expense of our collective intellectual life. Our system rewards point gathering rather than intellectual development. And now the adjunct system rewards instructors who please students rather than those teachers who challenge a student’s stock notions. Specialization still hampers the academy in that professors are primarily rewarded for research rather than teaching, and young instructors are better subject technicians (through no fault of their own) than classroom leaders who foster the intellect. 

The increased numbers of students who are thankfully able to take advantage of higher education has unfortunately created more pseudo-intellectualism than a substantial quantitative increase in ability to reason. While I believe that Jacoby wrongfully focused on political leadership, conservatism, and pedantic examples in Age of American Unreason, politics is nevertheless an area that feels positively unaffected by our more educated electorate.[8] Ideology, or what Barzun called “systems,” seems to rule elections no matter whether the winner is on the left or right. Our stock notions prevail. Barzun observed: 

With or without logic, ideas form systems, and systems absorb lives. A believer in a system, or as we say today, an ideology, supports it with all his gregarious instincts—he is no longer alone in his struggle against the world; with his sense of liberation from uncertainty—he has found answers to many perplexing questions; with his pride of learning—the ‘science’ he has mastered is difficult; with his moral conceit—the idea or cause he has adopted makes him superior to those who pursue only crass advantage. (p. 149-50) 

Sound familiar? Does this characterize someone you know—that crazy aunt, uncle, or old college friend who can’t stop sending you political conspiracy e-mails? Does it describe your own cultural or political enemies? Can we admit that it might even characterize us at some unflattering point our lives? 

…[And here was my conclusion] …

Returning firmly to House of Intellect, it is clear that Barzun was at the time no strong believer in democracy—or at least in the vitality of the life of the mind in a democracy. To me this contrasts sharply with the understanding I gained of him in another context. In the late 1970s and in the 1980s, Barzun became involved in something called the Paideia Project.”[14] That endeavor was headed by Mortimer J. Adler and focused on education reform with a great books component. Barzun was an enthusiastic participant in that very radical and democratic school reform program. A decided lack of cynicism about the prospects of students in a democracy was an essential part the Paideia Project. It contrasts sharply with Barzun’s pessimism about the education establishment’s ability to foster the intellect that we see in House of Intellect. People change. But I think his involvement with Paideia points to the importance Barzun put on combating anti-intellectualism and finding a proper role for the intellect in democratic culture.


 That’s a taste of my essay. Explore the rest at your peril. Whatever you think of Barzun’s life and other writings, I found The House of Intellect a compelling read in light of the Culture Wars that followed. – TL

One Thought on this Post

  1. Here’s what the NYT obit relayed about The House of Intellect:

    But his admirers were legion. In 1959, Daniel J. Boorstin wrote in The Times that Mr. Barzun’s book “The House of Intellect” was “the most important critique of American culture in many years.”

    In that book, Mr. Barzun argued that egalitarianism, which he celebrated in the political sphere, had no place in the university. He objected to educational “philanthropy,” which he defined as “the liberal doctrine of free and equal opportunity as applied to things of the mind.”

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