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

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005) 948.

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.

Philip Roth, The Human Stain (New York: Vintage Books, 2001) 329.

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.

As consensus thinking became more pervasive it spawned dissenters. Initially dismissed as malcontents, individuals who rejected consensus represented a cross section of society. Some leaned towards the political left. Disaffected artists and intellectuals urged their fellow citizens to resist the cultural stupor consensus thinking engendered. Hyphenated Americans rejected its universal definition of citizenship for one which legitimated ethnic and racial differences. Others, particularly women, questioned its promotion of consumption as fulfilling the American dream. On the right, individuals sounded the alarm against its threat to Christian values . Ultimately, consensus thinking did not end partisan politics. Instead it became the seedbed for identity politics; that was its ultimate irony. Not surprisingly, consensus thinking’s collapse affected the schools. It polarized debate about the school’s responsibilities towards its diverse constituencies.

For instance, Laurence Veysey, “Plight of the University,” The New York Review of Books, March 4, 1982.

Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 140.

Jacques Barzun’s critics categorize Teacher in America as a defense of consensus thinking and Barzun as a cultural reactionary. They perceive the pedagogical principle Barzun advocates, teaching a common body of knowledge, as promoting homogeneity. This interpretation of Barzun and his work does not do justice to the complexities of the man or his work. Barzun is not interested in fashioning a society predicated on the misguided notion that one identity fits all. Rather, he argues, teaching a common body of knowledge prepares citizens to meet pluralism’s challenges. Barzun writes, “The need for a body of common knowledge and common reference does not disappear when a society is largely pluralistic, as ours has become. On the contrary, it grows more necessary, so that people of different origins and occupations may quickly find familiar ground and, as we say, speak a common language. It not only saves time and embarrassment, but it also ensures a kind of mutual confidence and good will. One is not addressing an alien, blank as a stone wall, but a responsive creature whose mind is filled with the same images, memories, and vocabulary as oneself. Since the Biblical source of those common elements can no longer be relied on, the other classics, the secular scriptures, remain the one means of creating a community of minds, a culture — indeed, a society in the original sense of the word, which is: a group of companions.”

Pedagogy, Subject Matter, and Hokum

Jacques Barzun, A Jacques Barzun Reader, ed. Michael Murray (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 323-358.

Critics who dismiss Teacher in America as a pedagogical anachronism have not read it as part of Barzun’s larger corpus. For example, music has always been one of his passions. In addition to an intellectual biography about the composer, Hector Berlioz, he has written: Pleasures of Music (1951/1960) Music in American Life (1956/1962) and Sidelights on Opera at Glimmerglass (2001) Music’s structure provides insight into Barzun’s steadfast support for instruction based on a common body of knowledge. Think theme and variation. For Barzun, common knowledge is like a musical theme; it elicits variations resulting in intricate and complex compositions.

Imagine a tenth grade class in European history using the theme and variation method to investigate the rule of law. Like a composer who uses notes to structure a theme, a teacher uses focusing questions for the same purpose. In our imaginary class the teacher asks the following: 1. Why is the rule of law important? 2. What is its definition? 3. Are there different interpretations of this definition in the western tradition? 4. If so, what interpretation continues to have the most influence on the United States? 5. What current examples demonstrate the United States upholding the rule of law or flaunting it? Adjusting these questions to investigate the same theme in other traditions creates variations and gives students a basis for comparison.

Barzun, Begin Here, 72-73.

Although Barzun’s critics would use the theme’s eurocentrism as another example of his reactionary proclivities, its western slant demonstrates sound pedagogy. One of the fundamental principles of effective pedagogy is using what the pupil knows to make connections with what he has to learn. Therefore, in the United States, an American or European history course makes sense as the starting point for investigating other cultures. Students learn habits of mind that make investigating other cultures intellectually meaningful not simply exercises in collecting exotic vignettes. When a student begins his cultural investigations exploring his own tradition, much does not have to be taught. Barzun writes, “He or she understands what houses look like, what being married means, and why people go to church or to an election booth. The very words for these and a thousand other things, as well as the motives and feelings linked with the actions or conditions they denote, do not need to be taught at all: they are the well-known facts of daily life.” Such cultural familiarity frees the teacher to thicken the content of her European or American history course. By incorporating resources which illuminate the contradictions, paradoxes, ambiguities, and vagaries of a familiar tradition, the teacher creates an intellectually rich and demanding course, and teaches respect for nuance and complexity.

To illustrate how thickening a course can spark respect for complexity let us return to our European history class. The class is discussing the focusing question — What does the rule of law mean? Having read excerpts from Hobbes Leviathan and Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, they are considering whether they agree with Hobbes’ interpretation, that the rule of law must be imposed by the most powerful, or Locke’s, that it is a series of agreements made among those who will live according to its rules. While analyzing these interpretations, a student has an epiphany. He realizes that within his own tradition, one he initially dismissed “as been there done that,” there are no simple answers to seemingly straightforward questions. Respect for the complexity of other cultures originates from this recognition.

Barzun, Teacher in America (New York: Anchor Books, 1954) 132-146.

If support for teaching a common body of knowledge is exhibit A for those who would label Barzun a cultural relic, then exhibit B is the sources he would use — the classics. Barzun’s critics would imagine him resurrecting dead, white, male authors supposedly buried by the culture wars. But Barzun defines the classics more broadly than his critics acknowledge; “they are books,” he writes, “that have thickness, adaptability, and public recognition.” Thickness in this context does not refer “to the width of the book on the shelf, but rather to the density of its discourse: much is going on in every line or paragraph: every sentence contains an idea; the whole work covers acres of thought and feeling.” Adaptability, according to Barzun, is the capacity classics have “to serve more than the original purpose.” Although Hobbes wrote Leviathan during the English Civil Wars, his description of the state of nature, humankind’s condition preceding the imposition of government, could be a commentary on today’s headlines. Public recognition is not determined by best seller lists. Rather it depends on a book’s capacity to “gather to itself enough votes to be openly, publicly called a classic.” Is the vote unanimous, usually not. Is there room for debate about what texts should be considered classics? Yes, and fundamental to that discussion is whether the work has the requisite thickness and adaptability.

When people hear the phrase, “reading the classics” they think of a college level Great Books course. Rarely do they imagine a high school curriculum including these works for two reasons. First, high schools rely on textbooks as their main print resource. Second, conventional wisdom considers the classics too difficult and/or boring for adolescents. To understand Barzun’s pedagogy we should ask, what does reading the classics mean on a high school level? The most obvious and least satisfying answer is let the English teachers do it. However, like writing, reading the classics is best taught when practiced across the curriculum. Students taking advanced foreign language classes would read selections from Don Quixote or Moliere’s plays in the original. History teachers would assign excerpts from the classics of social, political, or economic thought. And why not have math and science students read the words of the men and women whose theories, proofs, or formulas created the content of those disciplines?

Barzun, Begin Here, 136.

Some would ask, why bother? High school students have gotten by without reading the classics for generations. Moreover, textbooks, power point presentations, on line sources of information are better suited for an age which values knowledge’s immediacy and practicality — qualities not associated with reading the classics. Add to that deterrent the uphill battle of motivating a seventeen year old to read a difficult book or excerpt. The language found in a classic has little in common with today’s vernacular, its structure is complex, and its themes do not readily contribute to a modern adolescent’s understanding of the world he inhabits. But it is precisely because they are difficult and strange that the classics should be taught in high school. To enter the alternate universes these works create, the student exercises his capacity for sustained attention and generosity of imagination. These two habits of mind enable an individual to “live in a wider world.” Barzun describes this world as, “wider than the one that comes through the routine of our material lives and through the paper and the factual magazines wider than friends’ and neighbors’ plans and gossip.” Reading the classics is not a conspiracy hatched by a fraternity of dead, white males to eviscerate multiculturalism but a means to counter provincialism of mind and heart.

Ibid., 140.

Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (New York: Perennial Classics, 2002), 63.

For Hannah Arendt the capacity to think and the capacity to converse were reciprocally related. Thinking is possible, she says, among people who know how to talk back and forth with one another””that’s how one learns to think. Jeremy Waldron, “What Would Hannah Say?” New York Review of Books, March 15, 2007, 12.

So let’s recap. Barzun’s critics would argue that Teacher in America can be productively read as a historical document, exemplifying consensus thinking, but that it has little to offer teachers who face the current challenges of diversity and globalization. I, on other hand, would argue that Teacher in America has remained in print all these years because it makes a case for instructing learners in productive habits of mind. Furthermore, Barzun’s critics label him an enemy of diversity because he insists that instruction’s purpose is to pass on a common body of knowledge, much of it gleaned from reading the classics. To his detractors, his pedagogy and the content that sustains it prove Barzun’s preference for a homogeneous society. The instructional end Barzun supports, however, is community rather homogeneity. He wants to create “a community of minds, a culture — indeed, a society in the original sense of the word, which is a group of companions.” A community of minds arises as its members converse with one another. Conversation is its distinguishing feature and a person engaged in conversation “sifts opinion, that is, tries to develop tenable positions by alternate statements, objections, modifications, examples, arguments, distinctions, expressed with the aid of the rhetorical arts””irony, exaggeration, and the rest—properly muted to the size and privateness of the scene.” Interestingly, Barzun’s description of meaningful conversation also describes the ideal classroom discussion. In sum, does Teacher in America have anything credible to convey to a culture struggling with the issues of globalism and diversity? I answer with a resounding, yes.

Barzun, Teacher in America, 25.

Barzun’s diagnosis of educational nonsense contributes to Teacher in America’s timeliness. Hokum, as he calls it, is characterized by “words without meaning, verbal filler,” that can easily overtake discussions about teaching and learning. The antidote is scalpel sharp language. Barzun notes that the imprecise use of three pairs of terms fray the relation between American society and its schools: education/teaching, subject/attitude, educationist/teacher. The public and educational professionals use the words in each pair interchangeably. Consequently a Tower of Babel is erected where a house of intellect should stand.

Ibid., 12.

Consider the distinction between education and teaching. Teaching, as Barzun defines it is the means to an education. A teacher instructs a student in the skills and habits of mind laying the foundation for his education. Teaching provides the reserve of facts and concepts which sparks new interests — keeping the intellect supple and vigorous. Education, Barzun suggests is “a lifelong discipline of the individual by himself, encouraged by a reasonable opportunity to lead a good life.” When a pupil acquires the reserves of knowledge and skills that instruction provides, he acquires the intellectual resources to transform himself into an educated person. Although most individuals might assume that conflating education with teaching would result in only minor pedagogical damage, Barzun disagrees. Eroding the distinction between teaching and education unleashes hokum.

Barzun, Begin Here, p. 53.

“Any plan or proposal or critique which plainly disregards the known limits of schooling or teaching,” is nonsense, Barzun counsels. Often, good intentions spawn nonsense. For example, a school administrator typically wanted students prepared to meet twentieth-first century challenges. Towards this end, he asked each member of the school community to submit a list enumerating what a high school student needed to know. Respect for diversity topped the majority of lists. However laudable this goal was, trying to teach it would generate hokum in Barzun’s view. Respect for diversity is an attitude, not a subject, and therefore it cannot be taught by instruction. Instruction depends on a variety of discursive methods to communicate a subject to students. These methods are inadequate for instilling attitudes because the goal is to change behavior. Students do not learn an attitude by talking about it. They learn an attitude by observing it, having the opportunity to imitate it, and repeatedly practicing it until that attitude becomes a habitual response. At this school, teaching respect for diversity resulted in hiring a director of multicultural affairs, creating a multicultural affairs club, and presenting multicultural assemblies throughout the year. As for a change in attitude, students became increasingly cynical about diversity because they believed the school was “peddling political correctness.” As for behavior, students of color continued to eat lunch separated from their white counterparts.

The educational nonsense created by confusing education with teaching, and subject with attitude, subverts the teacher’s role, giving rise to the educationist. Before explaining how this happens, let’s clarify the difference between these two roles. The teacher, using her judgment, assesses what the learner already knows and can do. Her ability to make such an assessment is based on classroom experience and the capacity to think on her feet. Next, she begins to shape content by taking it apart and putting it together in a variety of ways. Her goal is to build connections between the content her pupil has mastered and the new content she wants to teach. An unintended but not surprising outcome of this process is change in a pupil’s attitude, a change we recognize as growth.

To illustrate how a teacher uses instruction to influence attitudes, imagine a ninth grade history class studying La Convivencia, a period in Spanish history (711-1492) when Christians, Muslims, and Jews demonstrated religious tolerance. First, the class analyzes the conditions which enabled religious diversity to thrive in medieval Spain. Next, students determine if the conditions they identified are applicable to other societies, including their own. Whether or not a pupil, in that history class, decides to value diversity is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that he has the knowledge to link an attitude to a concrete set of circumstances, enabling him to make judgments about that attitude’s merit.

The educationist, on the other hand, does not use instruction as grounds for thinking about attitudes. His preferred method for changing attitudes is derived from educational research. Immersed in journals and conferences, the educationist can escape the Lilliputian world of the classroom and bring the big picture to its inhabitants. That picture depicts school as the key agent for societal uplift. Moreover, educationists perceive anyone doubting the efficacy of that image as impeding progress.

Ibid., 96-97.

In its bigger role, the school contends with: kids and stress, latchkey kids, over-scheduled kids, violent kids, hungry kids, kids who are bullies, kids with eating disorders, kids dependent on drugs or alcohol, pregnant kids, kids in gangs, abused kids, alpha girls, and hyperactive boys. As an educationist sees it, if instruction gets sidetracked it is a small price to pay for attending to the needs of the whole child. Whole children, educationists argue, will mature into whole adults whose sturdy shoulders will support a better society. Although the educationist’s base of operations is outside the classroom, policies he promotes directly effect the relationship between teacher and learner. These policies, Barzun observes, are characterized by “abstraction instead of direct naming; exaggeration of goals and results; seeing the student not as an individual but as an example of some psychological generality; taking any indirect means in place of the straight one; and finally: mistaking words for facts, and intentions for hard work.”

How does the educationist gain influence in a school, relegating teachers and instruction to a subsidiary role? Whenever schools are charged with responsibilities for achieving social goals that the wider culture shirks, like cultivating respect for diversity, instilling sound eating habits, or minting safe drivers, authorities outside the classroom generate hokum. When this happens, schools divert resources, both material and human, from their main responsibility, which is developing habits of mind based on a common body of knowledge and skills. Veering from this responsibility creates opportunities for a school’s bureaucracy to metastasize. When instruction is not perceived as the primary justification for a school’s existence, the educationist’s agenda overshadows the teacher’s, resulting in hypocrisy.

Linda Darling-Hammond, “Evaluating No Child Left Behind”, The Nation (May 21, 2007): 19. In assessing the impact of the Bush Administration’s 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, Pedro Noguera argues that it has done little to address the real needs of poor children. He writes, “If we want to insure that all students have the opportunity to learn, we must insure that their basic needs are met. Expanding access to health care, preschool and affordable housing, and providing more generous parental leave policies should be included on the education reform agenda.” These are the goals only concerted social action, not the schools, can achieve.

Politicians, educational leaders, and the public are quick to condemn teachers for using quick fixes, like teaching to the test to meet instructional standards. They voice their disgust, while continuing to expand the array of non-instructional responsibilities foisted on teachers. The cacophony of criticism belies the lack of political will and cultural vision for making substantive educational reform. To cut through this Gordian knot of hypocrisy and free teachers to instruct full out, institutions other than schools must assume their responsibility for those non-instructional goals they foist upon denizens of the classroom.

Reviving a Lost Tradition

When I first read Teacher in America, I thought it should be required reading for anyone considering teaching as a career. I still do. Barzun’s analysis of pedagogy, subject matter, and educational nonsense has not lost its acuity or pungency. However, one theme he explores has faded from cultural memory — teaching as an art.

Barzun, Teacher in America, 16. Five years after Teacher in America was published Barzun’s colleague at Columbia, Gilbert Highet wrote a book entitled, The Art of Teaching (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), viii. Highet starts his book by explaining, “It is called The Art of Teaching because I believe that teaching is an art, not a science.”

Barzun, Begin Here, 43.

“Teaching is not a lost art but the regard for it is a lost tradition,” concludes the first chapter of Teacher in America. According to Barzun, scientism causes this cultural amnesia. This perversion of science, he argues, “suggested that the old ways of teaching, being pre-scientific, must be wrong. New and correct methods would be found by educational research and the findings of child psychology. Experiment and watch improvements accrue. You could then predict and guarantee results.” Under scientism’s aegis, educationists were developing systems promising to make sound instruction as reliable as gravity. Instead, their efforts generated hokum. In their zeal to recast effective teaching into a law of nature, educationists failed to recognize its source. Effective instruction springs from a teacher’s knowledge and experience, her ability to think on her feet and to use her judgment — qualities an artist uses to practice her art. Even as Barzun was finishing Teacher in America these qualities were being dismissed by educationists as too idiosyncratic, too unreliable, for supporting sound pedagogy. Instead, educationists promoted procedures derived from educational research as the means for improving instruction. Their campaign had two residual effects: first, it transformed the art of teaching into a smorgasbord of techniques. Second, it reduced a teacher’s sense of her own possibility. Instead of envisioning herself as a professional practicing the art of teaching, a teacher settled for a more pedestrian possibility. She envisioned herself as a competent technician dutifully following a set of procedures she had no part in developing.

One would think these changes would incite teachers to resist, but hardly a protest was heard. Barzun found their acquiescence was rooted in a cultural assumption; teachers equated truth with science. Like most modern individuals, they defined truth as knowledge gathered by persons using the scientific method substantiated by quantifiable data. In the field of education, these people were the educational researchers. So what grounds did teachers have to challenge the researchers’ assumptions about good practice, supposedly backed by the imprimatur of science? In fact, they had strong grounds for resisting scientism. Equating truth with science might prove adequate for understanding the natural world but when applied to human society it proves reductive. In this context, truth must be wedded to meaning, which derived from unexpected sources like metaphor, significant form, and narrative — the raw materials of the arts and humanities. In the small society which is the classroom, these sources make instruction meaningful. Regarding teaching as an art is essential to improving instruction. How to do it? The first step is to recognize the qualities which make teaching an art. Barzun discusses three: sympathy of mind, respect for what is difficult, and integrity.

Sympathy of Mind

Chances are if you have ever seen a teacher coming out of class, beaming, she has experienced sympathy of mind. It is analogous to being in the zone for an athlete, or being in the moment for a performing artist. All three conditions make quality contagious. The individual athlete, artist, or teacher, performing at the top of her game, radiates quality which is reciprocated by her team, her fellow artists, or her class. In the teacher’s case, attaining this beatific state depends on constructing an instructional bridge. The content students already know is located on one side, on the other, the content the class is trying to understand. As her students grapple with the unfamiliar, the teacher listens, observes, and responds. She simultaneously builds her bridge from analogies and metaphors crafted from their investigations and her command of the subject. The quick wit necessary to build an instructional bridge is similar to that demonstrated by an accomplished jazz musician — improvising rhythms and melodies as he performs.

Sympathy of mind, like a legendary jazz session can occur under surprising circumstances. Such was the case, when my class tangled with predestination. Predestination, in my opinion, wins the award as the topic most likely to be immediately dismissed as “stupid” by a class of high school sophomores. As one put it, “These Puritans must be nuts. If you’re already damned when you’re born and nothing you do will change it, then just party.” Needless to say, suggesting to this student that he has something in common with a puritan sensibility would strike him as ludicrous. Therein lays the challenge and the art. To meet it, I needed an analogy to bridge the distance between my student’s experience and a Puritan’s. As luck would have it, I was teaching the Reformation in December, the month when seniors were receiving letters from colleges accepting or rejecting their early decision applications. To build my bridge, I used the college admissions process to explain predestination. Throughout the country, I told my sophomores, seniors were working themselves into a frazzle trying to gain early acceptance to colleges where the number of openings is low and the competition fierce. They know the odds are stacked against them but they soldier on anyway. Why? Then I asked, is the conduct of a senior, applying early to Harvard, all that different from a Puritan, who has no way of knowing if he is damned or saved, but commits himself to doing God’s bidding and living according to His law? There was a shock of recognition. The mixture of anxiety and hope which spurred a Puritan to righteous action was not so stupid but surprisingly familiar. It was the same emotional mix which kept their older siblings and acquaintances working till the wee hours of the morning. Predestination making possible sympathy of mind; it is a bet I would never have made. However the joy of teaching often springs from incongruence and taking on what’s difficult.

Respecting Difficulty

This quotation is from William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology (1899), Ch. VII, in William James: Writings 1878-1899, ed. Gerald E. Myers (New York: The Library of America, 1992), 745. In the prologue of A Stroll With William James, Jacques Barzun wrote, “He (William James) is for me the most inclusive mind I can listen to, the most concrete and the least hampered by trifles. He is moreover entirely candid and full of gaiety, lovable through his words as he was in life to his friends. As if this were not enough, he helps me to understand what his contemporaries and mine were and are doing. I stroll with him again and again because he knows better than anyone else the material and spiritual country I am traveling through.” Jacques Barzun, A Stroll With William James (New York: Harper and Row, 1983) 4.

In Barzun’s pedagogy, respecting a student’s capacity to grow necessitates respecting difficulty. To say as much is to advocate instructional heresy. Educationists perceive difficulty as a condition to avoid, due to the alleged harm it perpetrates against a student’s self esteem. But avoiding difficulty is more harmful; it denies students opportunities to cultivate their best selves. William James, Barzun’s cultural hero, made this point when he urged teachers to resist soft pedagogy. “Soft pedagogies have taken the place of the old steep and rocky path to learning. But from this lukewarm air the bracing oxygen of effort is left out. The (student’s) fighting impulse must be appealed to. Make the pupil feel ashamed of being scared at fractions, of being “˜downed’ by the law of falling bodies; rouse his pugnacity and pride, and he will rush at the difficult places with a sort of inner wrath at himself that is one of his best moral faculties.” Soft pedagogy allows the student to become complacent about his own limits instead of impatient for the chance to break through them. He spends time and energy looking for excuses, avoiding difficulty, rather than taking it up as a personal challenge. Certainly there’s a difference between rising to a challenge and beating one’s head against a wall of impossibility. Sizing up the measure of difficulty each student can surmount is essential to the teacher’s art. Strengthening and broadening each student’s capacity to act effectively in the world is the authentic means of raising self respect. Respecting difficulty affords this lesson. It is also a source for building integrity.


Barzun, Begin Here, 199.

Long before a teacher practices the art of teaching on others, she practices it on herself. Over the course of her life, a teacher uses her art to craft the reflections, conclusions, and convictions that form a self. Barzun describes this creation as, “a solid entity that you can trust, because you have made it yourself and made it well. A well-made Self is not a haphazard collection of habits and prejudices, of notions and fancies; it is an ordered set of reflections, conclusions, and convictions.” Students, particularly adolescents, identify with this arduous effort because they are beginning to do the same. Most importantly, students respect the teacher committed to using what she knows, as the grounding for who she is, and how she acts. Integrity is the unity between thought, self, and action that the young seek.

Adolescents need to find adults who demonstrate integrity as much as they need sleep, and their need to find models of integrity is much more difficult to satisfy. If their search for adult exemplars comes up empty, the young can easily fall prey to nihilism, a terrifying state of mind where anything is possible. Many adults, in public life, take pride in their ability to compartmentalize; to separate who they are, from what they know, and the deeds they do. A young person, steeped in this ethos, will imagine that becoming an adult requires no more than using any means necessary to get what he wants and marshaling enough cunning to evade responsibility when his machinations turn sour.

A teacher embodying integrity counteracts compartmentalization of the self and the cynicism it breeds. During a school day, demonstrations of integrity can take place at any time and in a variety of settings, take for example, a Friday afternoon in the office of a high school history department. At the end of the work week, before any one of us could muster the energy to start the trek home, my colleagues and I would have our “end of week wrap-up.” The wrap-up started as an impromptu conversation giving us the opportunity to talk to one another as fellow historians. We would discuss the news of the day and how it relates to a variety of historical themes. In addition, we might critique current books, articles, movies, or museum exhibitions noting their historical worth or lack thereof. Over time, a coterie of students, and not necessarily the history stars, began to make the office their Friday afternoon hang-out. At first they simply sat on the floor and listened. In due course, one brave soul decided to give his opinion about a movie we were discussing; his example emboldened the others. After one of these Friday sessions, a student-participant came to talk to me. He just had an epiphany. As he described it, “All of you (the history department) really love this stuff. It’s not just a job for you. You live it. So teaching history is who you are.” The student had witnessed integrity in action. He observed adults engaging in meaningful activity which had no instrumental pay-off — neither fifteen minutes of fame, or membership in the Fortune 500. When integrity finds a haven within a school it breeds a sense of trust between teacher and learner.

Fostering the Art of Teaching

Barzun, Teacher in America, 44.

For all the pieties proclaimed about teaching, for all the bureaucracies swelling at education’s trough, little has been done to create the concrete circumstances which would affirm teaching as an art. Many of those circumstances, like fair compensation and effective teacher education, are discussed when educational issues become front page news or political candidates stake their claims as educational reformers. Safeguarding a teacher’s authority rarely gets the public spotlight, yet it is essential to reviving the art of teaching. Teachers who are confident in their authority Barzun argues, develop assurance and a sense of professional responsibility for their words and acts.

In a Barzunian school, departments would safeguard the authority of their members by maintaining an environment that supported the art of teaching. Ask a department head how this is done and he would reply, “It’s simple. Just hire the best people you can find and stay out of their way.” Well, not so simple. Staying out of his colleagues’ way or, putting it in a more positive context, respecting their authority, depends on establishing trust. Convinced that the art of teaching springs from a teacher’s experience, imagination and judgment, this department chair fosters trust. He demonstrates respect for colleagues’ authority and teaching as an art in three ways.

First, he works through the preposition with. When decisions have to be made about departmental policy, the chair actively seeks out other members’ ideas. His request is not a smoke screen for placating underlings, but an honest inquiry motivated by the belief that many heads working on a problem are better than one.

Second, he understands that perfecting the art of teaching entails risk taking and making mistakes. Often he will discuss his own classes. During informal chats, the chair will air the good, the bad, and the ugly. Listening to a department head recount an ill fated attempt to salvage a class convinces his peers that he appreciates the complexities and the imponderables inherent in the art of teaching. His reporting from the trenches reinforces the trust others have in him. Teaching a lesson that tanked, forgetting what you wanted to say, losing your cool, he recognizes, are part of the pedagogical landscape for teachers serious about perfecting their art. Rather than perceiving a bad class as a personal failure, it becomes an opportunity for the department to explore the countless variables that determine whether a lesson sinks or swims.

Third, the chair trusts teachers to set their daily priorities, thereby exercising control over their time. An old adage says, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” That sentiment seems aimed particularly at teachers. They are kept constantly busy replying to memos and fulfilling bureaucratic responsibilities having little to do with instruction, their subject, or their students. This frenzied activity arises to counteract the perception that slackers populate the teaching profession. That perception reduces the salient characteristics of teaching to summers off, a plethora of vacation days, and a work day that is over at 3:00 pm. A Barzunian chair would call all this hokum. Endless demands made on teachers’ time, energy, and good will threaten instructional quality. Like other workers, teachers have routine tasks, but for teachers the time spent grading papers, writing progress reports, filling out forms, or composing letters of recommendation is additional to instructing students in their classes. A teacher actually does two jobs, and to manage she should have the autonomy to decide the day’s priorities and when to do them. A good chair swiftly dispatches the busywork generated by various school offices, preventing it from cluttering teachers’ desks and days.

National Center on Education And the Economy, Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report Of The New Commission On The Skills Of The American Workforce, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 68. This report recommended implementing a “high performance management strategy” to improve the nation’s schools. This strategy is characterized by the following principles: “the firm (school) has to be very clear about its goals, communicate them to every member of the firm (over and over again), find ways to accurately measure progress towards those goals, push decisions as to how to achieve those goals as far down toward those responsible for making the product or rendering the service possible, change the role of middle management from micromanaging the decisions to monitoring and supporting the front line, and then, and only then, hold the empowered people on the front line accountable for the organization’s goals as gauged by the agreed measures.”

When school reformers set out to cure the ailing public school system, the corporate model is touted as the remedy. Advocates of this model pledge their fealty to safeguarding teachers’ authority, but the quality they really value is institutional accountability. Although the two are not necessarily incompatible, whenever accountability systematically trumps a teacher’s authority trust will break down. Consequently the art of teaching becomes an empty slogan and teachers become infantilized. When teachers believe they are incapable of making decisions having more than immediate and personal consequences, they become infantilized. Schools relying on chains of command and their concomitant bureaucracies to create policy, while denying their teachers decision making power, have this effect. Over time, working under these conditions will transform a teacher into a functionary, an adult who believes that following orders efficiently defines her capacity to act. In contrast, a professional practicing her art trusts her capacity to make judgments, many of which will critique the status quo and initiate change. Where all trust teaching as an art, the inherent merit of what a teacher proposes, not the restrictions imposed by procedural routines, limit the capacity to act.

Some might say that only elite institutions can implement Barzun’s vision of schools where teachers practice their art. That may be the case in a pedagogical environment where deficient resources corrupt conditions. But the egregious inequalities of 21st-century American education are not Barzun’s doing. He wrote no brief for the opulence of the few preempting the needs of the many. His pedagogical vision is a vision for all. A school where education is education, where teaching is teaching, where classes impart subject matter and students develop their attitudes by observing integrity in action, where teachers have authority in their work and can challenge their students with measured difficulty, will be a school of service to the commonweal.

Barzun, Teacher in America, 268-269.

When sympathy of mind, respect for difficulty, and integrity become palpable presences in the classroom, in other words, when teaching reaches the level of art, a teacher will find it possible to envision herself as a guardian of culture. In that role she will pass on skills and content which are each student’s cultural birthright. As a guardian of culture, she will further acquaint each with quality. “Quality,” as Barzun observed, “is what, apart from certain techniques, is common to art and to teaching; and it is indefinable. . . . its presence fills a human need as great as that for food and drink.” Why does regarding teaching as an art matter? If given the chance to practice her art, the teacher in America sustains civilized life — no small task.

3 Responses to Jacques Barzun, A Return Engagement

  1. Bill Goodman says:

    Teaching by example is not only the best way, it is the only way–GBS. And yet no teacher can guess what example he may be setting without checking the light that is on or off in her student’s eyes. E.M. Forster suggests “only connect.” John Holt led a 6th grade class for an entire inspired year based on shaping the students’ curiosity to one’s first day question, “Why does wool shrink?” The students perceived Holt’s joy in their curiosity.

  2. Your “Return Engagement” with Jacques is brilliant.

    And you are not the least distracted by gender questions. Barzun’s early experience of all male student bodies from his boyhood lycée to Columbia College suggested chapter titles like “The Human Boy” and “To a Young Man Who –” but the fundamentals of his pedagogy were also tested by teaching at Sarah Lawrence and Briarcliff Junior College before publishing Teacher in America. Your mastery of his essence gives me great pleasure.

    Your fellow faculty and students are fortunate to have your wisdom (and JB’s) at their disposal.

    Very respectfully,

    John Adams

  3. I have thought about you many times with great respect–and some regrets–over the years since we knew each other at MSM. Your very thoughtful piece on JB is splendid. It will be one of the best tributes to a more complicated thinker than most people will ever know. Congratulations.

    I’m very pleased to have found you again.

    And I wish you and Robert the very best.

    James Allen
    My own web site is worldlywisdombooks.com.

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