Jacques Barzun, A Return Engagement

Maxine McClintock

For 32 years, Maxine McClintock has taught history to students in public and private high schools and college, most recently from 1990 to 2006 to juniors and seniors at the Trinity School in New York City. Currently, she is taking a year to write about teaching and teachers. Her Ph.D. (1986) was from Columbia University and her dissertation was on the sense of possibility in the work of the Austrian novelist, Robert Musil.

I first read Jacques Barzun’s Teacher in America thirty-three years ago. It inspired me to believe that teaching was an art through which the young could develop sympathy of mind, integrity, and respect for what is difficult. Barzun — witty, clear, and level-headed — discussed the working conditions I would encounter in the effort. Now, battle-tested, having lost my innocence about teaching, I picked up Teacher in America again and wondered whether it could still inspire teachers to practice their art.

Admittedly, I had my doubts. Over 60 years had past since Barzun wrote the book. Digital technologies, multiculturalism, equity, high stakes testing, vouchers, charter schools, curricular standards, and accountability dominate the educational vernacular. All along, professors of education had treated Teacher in America as a heretical text and had rarely recommended it in their courses. Despite all these changes, and the cold shoulder, Teacher in America has consistently had a public readership. Buoyed by memories of its inspiring effect on me, I began re-reading. I hoped the experience would not be like spotting your high school sweetheart at a reunion and feeling overcome with surprise and revulsion for the changes time had wrought.

In the Post-War Consensus

To re-read Teacher in America, I first considered its historical context. Barzun wrote the book in 1945 as the nation turned to rebuild a “democratic, capitalist consensus.” As a leading historian now describes it, “all Americans except the maladjusted and fanatics shared the same liberal values of individualism, respect for private property, and belief in equal opportunity. If problems remained, their solutions required technical adjustments, not structural change or aggressive political intervention.” The nation’s political, economic and intellectual elites desired consensus. To gain it, they enacted a tacit social contract: the elites would insure that America’s post war abundance was widely shared, while the populace would abandon the political activism rife in the Depression era. Consensus would cede authority to the elites, who would implement the good of the commonweal with the help of technocrats and bureaucrats.

Consensus thinking also influenced the schools and the instruction the baby boomers received. Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, vividly depicts consensus expectations about post-war schooling. Ernestine, a black, retired, school teacher articulates these expectations to the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman. “In my childhood, as in yours, it was recommended that each student who graduated from high school in New Jersey get at graduation two things: a diploma and a copy of the Constitution. Do you recall that? You had to take a year of American history and a semester of economics as, of course, you have to no longer: ‘have to‘ is just gone out of the curriculum.” Ernestine’s graduation copy of the Constitution represented consensus thinking in education, the common body of knowledge professional educators and the public expected every high school graduate to know. Ernestine, and her fellow graduates, assumed that possessing this knowledge would certify them as productive and upstanding citizens — persons who value individualism, respect private property, and believe in equal opportunity. Public support of this civic identity made the roles of school and teacher clear. Schools conserved the common knowledge needed to sustain consensus thinking; teachers disseminated and evaluated their students’ proficiency in learning it. Recalling their schooling, many baby boomers remember with nostalgia the influence consensus thinking had. They credit it with making public education work. Back then, it seemed that only the wealthy or malcontented would attend a school other than the local public one.

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