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.


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