Jacques Barzun 1907-2012

Barzun died a few days short of his 105th birthday.

Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.

He wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.

Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.

As an educator Mr. Barzun was an important critic of American universities, arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar” of miscellaneous studies.

A truly remarkable life as a teacher, scholar and administrator.

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5 Responses to Jacques Barzun 1907-2012

  1. JamesK says:

    arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar” of miscellaneous studies.

    I wonder what he had thought of developments since?

  2. Alice says:

    The bazaar of undisciplined studies is gone? What more could you ask for? These days universities overproduce vocational courses regularl to the extent wages fall in the overproduced vocational area before they move on to another area of business voational “need” where they overpoduce in that area, lowering wages in the latest “fad” of vocational need.

    Is this the cheap price of knowledge?

    This guy may have been right in the 60s but he isnt right any more.

    There is a balance somewhere between business vocational needs and what people want to learn that may produce entrepreneurial impulse.

    Unis now? Unis then? They have moved a full circle from one extreme to another and now they have gone too far to satisfy markets at the expense of human knowledge and advancement.

  3. Sinclair Davidson says:

    His last book has been warming my reading pile since Skepticlawyer recommended it, so no more procrastination …

  4. Poor Old Rafe says:

    I found has last big book too densely packed for comfort.

    Busy people might do better with smaller books on more discrete topics, like The House of Intellect, The Use And Abuse of Art, Teacher in America (about teaching at all levels, not just in America). and The American University depending on your interests.

    The American University (1968) was a clear warning of what would happen to our universities if we went down that road, which we did.

  5. Jim Rose says:

    see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9636970/Jacques-Barzun.html for that rare gift the Telegraph has for obituries.

    As a centenarian, Barzun rose at 6am and exercised for 40 minutes before starting his day’s reading. After cocktails and a light dinner, he retired to bed at 9.30pm. He rarely watched television.

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