Thursday, February 18, 2016

The very model of a scholar

Jacques Barzun was the embodiment of the scholarly ideal. He reflected and defended a vision of the humanities that was destroyed by politics, physics-envy, and industrial-scale production of PH.D.s.

From Dawn to Decadence, like most of his works, is that rarest of books. It is a book every thinking person should read yet reading it is unalloyed joy.

It is sweeping in its scope and ambition. His vast scholarship and wise judgment is on display on every page. He does not shy away from confident pronouncements which are often delivered as gentle aphorisms:

It is logical that this century's taste for aberrations, which it sees as a norm previously obscured by prejudice…

Black humor was one of the favorite spicings substituted for energy...

Love of what is fine should not make one finicky.
Barzun embodied that last piece of advice. An intellectual historian of the first rank, he also was a reader of detective stories and wrote about them with the same verve and knowledge he brought to works on Freud, education, and music.

To see what we’ve lost, here is Barzun on America, circa 1920:

The American school system was at the height of its dedication and efficiency. The grammar schools has assimilated millions of motley immigrants; the free public high school was a daring venture that was the envy of industrialized nations; its curriculum was liberal (in modern speech elitist)-- Latin, the English poets, American and English history, a modern foreign language, mathematics and science every year-- and no marshmallow subjects
And then the verdict on the damage done:

It was said earlier that the great 19C invention, the public school, had lost the power to make children literate. Methods useless for that purpose, absurd teacher training, the dislike of had work, the love of gadgetry, and the efforts to copy and to change the outer world ruined education throughout the West.

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