RIP Jacques Barzun 1907 – 2012

In 1913, at the age of five, young Jacques Barzun went with his father to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees to hear a new ballet by Igor Stravinsky called Le Sacre du Printemps. His father and mother, whose home was a salon for artists, poets, and musicians, encouraged his interest in the arts, whether by letting him sit on Guillaume Apollinaire’s lap when the poet visited, or by taking him to performances of music. His unusual and precocious upbringing also included emigration from France to the U. S., where he entered Columbia at the age of fifteen and graduated at the top of his class.

His interest in history started on the knee of his grandmother, who had been born in 1830 and had vivid stories to tell about the revolution of 1848. Barzun never gave up the idea, formed then, that history was a story. History became his field of academic expertise, though he also wrote about teaching, about detective fiction, about music and poetry, about art, and about baseball. (A quotation of his can be found on a wall of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.)

Barzun’s views were often controversial and sometimes provoked a hostile response in his readers. He was the only contemporary Marshall McLuhan denounced by name in The Gutenberg Galaxy; and a friend of mine, to whom I’d lent A Stroll with William James, couldn’t abide him, though he ended up being very interested in James. (His summary of that book was “Me Barzun. You James.”)

For my part, I find his writing wonderfully refreshing, particularly his writing on education. A year doesn’t go by when I don’t take down Teacher in America or Begin Here to exchange the hot air of Edspeak (which Barzun characterizes as “guff” and “flatulent Newspeak”) for his ungentle but salutary breezes. Another friend, a novelist and teacher, finds Begin Here an indispensable antidote to what he has to swallow at work.

But I have also read his works of history, including his justly famous work of enthusiastic devotion, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, with its 90-page bibliography comprising 1,500 sources gathered over fifteen or twenty years. I am grateful to that book because it put Berlioz’s whole compositions in the repertoire and made a fan of me, and I pardon his excess of devotion, for what my pardon is worth. Scholars and writers like Charles Rosen have noted it, and subsequent biographers and musicologists have corrected it; but he was the pioneer.

It is against Barzun’s biography that I note with dismay the downward trajectory of the arts and history in contemporary education: his life and writing are a demonstration, if one were needed, that art and history are vital to a sound education and civilization. Furthermore, his life and circumstances refute the “ideas” that lie behind value-added learning. Consider for example the absurd claim that one may lay responsibility for learning solely at the feet of a pupil’s teachers, which is what many value-added “metrics” do. With all due respect for little Jacques’s kindergarten teacher, assuming he had one, a five-year-old who talked about poetry with Apollinaire and attended Stravinsky’s ballets with his father has more to his education than a teacher can answer for. Also consider his position at the top of his class: with no “room for improvement” that can be captured on a multiple-choice test, little Jacques would have been a positive menace to his teachers’ value-added ratings if he had been in their classes a hundred years later than he was.



Value Added Doping: Teacher’s Little Class II Controlled Helper

Among my new 11th-grade students in English is one who cannot be still. I recently assigned some reading in class, and within a very short time he got up and started walking around the classroom, book in hand. When I looked at him with raised eyebrows, he said he read better when he could walk around. “Go ahead,” I said, “I like to pace too,” and then continued my teacherly pacing around the room. I have the same student in Theory of Knowledge, where during a class not long ago we took a walk in order to examine a nearby architectural curiosity, a kind of picture-gallery of ambient space inserted by the architect within the more traditionally functional remainder of the building. The students’ job was to try and explain why the architect had made the “gallery.” The wiggle-worm was wired with excitement at the chance to have a class in which he could stroll, peer, stand on tiptoes, look at the views. In both classes I have the students arrange their desks and chairs into work groups or a circle or back into rows at need. I think this student likes this part of the class better than the rest.

There are conditions of teaching that allow me to indulge my fidgety student’s need for motion. The classes are relatively small; I teach in a part of the world whose culture deeply respects education and teachers and therefore funds and otherwise supports both; the students have been successfully brought up with good work habits and generally disciplined personal habits; the students’ desks are fitted with casters & brakes, making rearrangement relatively simple and non-destructive to floors.

Many people recognize that these conditions are imperfectly available in the United States, but not everyone is thinking successfully about what their absence means for education. It is in this vacuum of understanding that we find an increasing reliance on the terrible expedient of medicating students in order to try and counteract the deficiency of their educational environment. As one doctor put it, “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.” Hence the dispensing of prescriptions comprising Class II controlled substances[1] to eleven-year-olds not to relieve an illness—for none has been diagnosed in many cases—but to improve their performance on schoolwork and tests.

It is chilling to think that administrators  and teachers could find themselves under pressure to work for the use of drugs on their students, not for medical reasons, but because they have a personal stake in the students’ test scores if the scores are tied to evaluations of a school and its teachers. Donald Campbell predicted that it would happen[2], and he appears to have been right. All a teacher has to do is describe the “right symptoms” on a referral survey, and in a few short weeks the student is doing better on tests, including the one that determines the teacher’s value-added rating. If doctors can think along these lines, why not teachers? The doctor quoted above thinks it is already happening.

[1] I believe one of them is called Addle All®.

[2] In Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort or corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”