This
is an abbreviated book review of historian Jacques Barzun’s seminal 1959
critique of American culture, The
House of Intellect
*
. However, I shall begin instead by citing one of my
favorite movie scenes, from Lewis Gilbert’s 1983 film, “Educating Rita,”
for it will help to amplify one of Barzun’s many concerns.
Rita,
a “lower class,” ambitious hairdresser (presumably of playwright
Willy Russell’s Liverpool), feeling that she is suffocating in her station and
wants a “better song to sing,” enrolls in Britain’s Open University to
satisfy a hunger to broaden her mind and horizons. She is assigned a literature
professor, Frank Bryant, who has lost his zest for life and for his subject,
and is drinking himself down the drain. Rita is asked to answer in essay form
the question of how best to stage Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. She turns in a paper in which she says, simply, “Do
it on the radio.” (Watch the scene here, between minutes
5:55 and 8:44.)
Bryant
mildly upbraids her for her unintentional “flip” brevity, which,
while it conveys the right answer, doesn’t begin to explain why and so wouldn’t
be good enough for her to pass an exam. Rita replies that she wanted to
“encapsulate” her answer in one line. But she repairs to a desk in
Bryant’s office to write out her explanation, which she initially didn’t think needed
elaboration or explication. Her rewrite reveals to Bryant that she has read up
on Ibsen and is deadly earnest about her ambition. She writes:
In attempting to resolve the
staging difficulties of a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, I would present it on the radio, because, as Ibsen
himself said, he wrote it as a play for voices, never intending it to go on in
a theater. If they had had the radio in his day, that is where he would have
done it.
This
explanation pleases Bryant. He smiles and nods to Rita in acknowledgement.
Jacques
Barzun (1907-2012),
originally a French citizen, was a prolific historian and cultural critic who came
to the U.S. in 1919 to join his father who was on a diplomatic mission and
became a U.S. citizen in 1933. I discovered Barzun and his House of Intellect in an antiquarian bookshop in Palo Alto. What I
enjoyed most about Barzun in that book and in his later works was the breadth
of his knowledge and his way of approaching his subjects.
Barzun
died in 2012 at the age of 104 years. He witnessed much of the 20th
century and a preview of the 21st, which must have dismayed him. The
London Telegraph
began its October 26th, 2012 obituary of him:
The sheer scope of his knowledge
was extraordinary. Barzun’s eye roamed over the full spectrum of Western music,
art, literature and philosophy. A champion of the liberal arts tradition in
higher education, he deplored what he called the “gangrene of specialism”.
Barzun’s intellectual ancestors
were Gibbon, Burkhardt and Macaulay. The work of history, he declared, should
include “the range and wildness of individuality, the pivotal force of trifles,
the manifestations of greatness, the failure of unquestioned talent”.
The traditional purpose of the
university — the teaching of the knowledge of the past — was, he insisted,
increasingly under threat; and in a speech in the United States in 1963 he
warned that “the best colleges today are being invaded, not to say
dispossessed, by the advance agents of the professions, by men who want to
seize upon the young recruit … and train him in a ‘tangible skill’.”
That
was in 1963. So, our present political and cultural conundrum didn’t begin with
Bill Ayers and the Weathermen, or with two-year-old Barack Obama, or even with
Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. Its roots go back as far as Barzun was willing to
trace them, and he was a very good detective of ideas.
The
New
York Times’
obituary of Barzun, of October 26th, however, was
predictably catty, beginning with:
Jacques Barzun, the distinguished
historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the
modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding
toward decadence, died Thursday night in San Antonio, where he lived. He was
104.
One
doesn’t pay one’s respects to a person one ostensibly admires by calling him a
“gadfly.” The balance of the obituary contains numerous subtle
ribbings and cuts. Basically, what Barzun championed, the New York Times
opposed and even contributed to its demise in the way of endorsing a
“sweeping nihilism.”
By the 1960s, he wrote in “The
American University,” the university was being mistakenly expected to “provide
a home for the arts, satisfy divergent tastes in architecture and social mores,
cure cancer, recast the penal code and train equally for the professions and
for a life of cultural contentment.”
But
this is what the New York Times expects and has labored assiduously to bring
about. The Times obituary carried, in between its lines, a faint whiff of
relief that Barzun was gone.
I
did not always agree with his diagnosis or prognosis of American culture or the
state of civilization, but his was a method that was friendly to my own, one
which attempted, not always successfully in my view, to formulate a
comprehensive view of man and his civilization, to pinpoint the causes and
consequences of ideas and problems. For example, he was absolutely opposed to
pat, “Do it on the radio” answers to problems which today are not as
innocently voiced as Rita’s was. He admired intellect but also pointed out that
too often intellectuals baited each other at the cost of perpetuating America’s
notorious anti-intellectualism and pragmatism.  Watching “Dancing with the
Intellectuals” is less of a marginal American spectator sport than is
European soccer or cricket or “reality” TV.
In
The House of Intellect, Barzun’s
thesis is that “intellect” is often its own worst enemy. The
influence of American philosopher William James, the super-pragmatist and
“spiritualist,” whom Barzun studied at Columbia University, leaches
through on virtually every page like contaminated ground water, subjecting
Barzun to the same phenomenon. In making a distinction between intelligence and
intellect, he writes, in Chapter 1, “The Three Enemies of Intellect”:
…[I]t is for lack of Intellect
that we have such a hard time judging persons and ideas; it is absence of
Intellect that makes us so frightened of criticism and so inept at
conversation; it is disregard of Intellect that has brought our school system
to its present ridiculous paralysis….(p. 4)
Intellectuals
have been of little help, contends Barzun.
…[T]he intellectuals’ chief cause
of anguish are one another’s works. (p. 2)
Intelligence,
writes Barzun, can be adept at handling facts and observable phenomena, but too
often at the expense of intellect, which, he asserts, is left out in the cold.
If there is a dichotomy or even rivalry between intelligence and intellect, it
is largely the intellect’s fault. There is more of that species of vague
discussion in that chapter. Worse, yet, is Barzun’s collectivization of the
intellect, or of the mind.
Intellect is community property
and can be handed down….For intelligence wherever found is an individual and
private possession; it dies with the owner unless he embodies it in more or
less lasting form. Intellect is on the contrary a product of social effort and
of acquirement. A man cannot help being intelligent, but he can easily help
becoming intellectual. Intellect is an institution; it stands up as it were by
itself, apart from the possessors of intelligence, even though they alone could
rebuild it if it should be destroyed. (p. 5)
Barzun
argues that another way that modern intellectuals become superfluous in their
efforts to avoid becoming superfluous in the public eye is that most of them
succumb to the temptation of substituting thought for cant or what are today
called “buzzwords.” “Buzzwords” are meant to allow
non-intellectuals to adopt and advance an entire philosophical system by
bypassing the digestive system of thought, of the chore or effort of chewing an
idea to see whether or not it’s consumable or has dire consequences if
swallowed whole without mastication, and allow them to pose as intellectuals
themselves, vehicles of profound and caring thought. Poverty, guns, health care, equality, and life style
are instances of such buzzwords. In print or uttered through a megaphone, such
words conjure up issues which have been debated and argued for centuries, but
allow their auditors to pretend they know all there is to know about them
without, as Frank Bryant informed Rita, ever having to pen a “considered
essay.” Instead, they pen illogical editorials or scrawl words on
cardboard signs staple-gunned to sticks to carry during noisy demonstrations.
Barzun
says this in many more words, in whole books. He was the enemy of what he
called “specialism” or “professionalism,” in which men
became articulate experts in one field without needing or wanting to know
anything about any other field of thought or science, without discovering
linkages or animosities between the fields, about which they still feel they
have the right to voice opinions. Thus we can observe the spectacle of
scientists successfully exploring Mars with robots controlled from earth, but
who also voted for Barack Obama, twice. The intelligence abundantly apparent in
one field just does not or will not venture into another. Thus, concludes
Barzun, these men lack intellect.
Speaking
of Obama, Daniel Greenfield is the closest thing we have today to Jacques
Barzun in the way of searching for and expressing a consistent, comprehensive
world view. In his Sultan Knish column, “The
Left is Too Smart to Fail
,” for example, he elaborates on Barzun’s
theme of how intellect has been banished from human communication and replaced
with a bag of linguistic Trail Mix. I find I disagree with him far less
frequently than I ever do with Barzun. In his latest column, like Barzun, he
makes a vital distinction between genuine intelligence and
“manufactured” or “fake” intelligence.
Intelligence to a modern liberal
isn’t depth, it’s appearance. It isn’t even an intellectual quality, but a
spiritual quality. Compassionate people who care about others are always
“smarter”, no matter how stupid they might be, because they care
about the world around them.

An insight into how we live matters more than useful knowledge. Skill is
irrelevant unless it’s a transformative progressive “changing the way we
live” application.

Obama and his audience mistake their orgy of mutual flattery for intelligence
and depth. Like a trendy restaurant whose patrons know that they have good
taste because they patronize it, his supporters know that they are smart
because they support a smart man and Obama knows he is smart because so many
smart people support him.

The thought never rises within this bubble of manufactured intelligence that
all of them might really be idiots who have convinced themselves that they are
geniuses because they read the right books (or pretend to read them), watch the
right movies and shows (or pretend to) and have the right values (or pretend to).
Barzun,
while he could be profound and right (or wrong), rarely concretizes his
observations in The House of Intellect,
leaving one with an unsatisfied wish to agree (or disagree), but without the
benefit of an example of what he means, which would have helped to send one in
one direction or another. Greenfield, however, concretizes as a matter of
course, which makes him, in terms of style, a much more effective intellectual
than Barzun.
Which
is not to say that Barzun was never influential. He was, but in the obverse
meaning: his critiques and conclusions about American culture and its headlong plunge
into statism and the welfare state were universally rejected – noted, but
rejected – by the intellectual, cultural and political establishments. 
The
prize chapter in The House of Intellect
is the last one, “Objective Tests,” which was appended to Barzun’s
“Summing Up.” Having never attended college, I was astounded, at
first, by Barzun’s critique of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) administered
to high school students contemplating a college career (p. 163). For Barzun,
his complaint about the SA – at least, as it existed in 1959, when his book was
published; one can only imagine what crimes the SAT commits today – is that its
test questions were not “clear-cut” and did not encourage
“clear-cut” answers, as well.   
 What of the questions in the two booklets (Scholastic Aptitude Test and Science)? I am officially informed that
they were selected from actual tests, most of them being copied verbatim and
the rest with small editorial changes. Such a process of successive filtering
should have eliminated serious blemishes. That the surviving questions are not
always clear-cut is implied by the following passage on page 18 of Scholastic Aptitude Test:
“As you read through the
explanations of the verbal section, you may disagree with what we think to be
the correct answer to one or two questions. You may think we are quibbling in
making certain distinctions between answer choices. It is true that you will find
some close distinctions and just as true that in making close distinctions
reasonable people do disagree. Whether or not you disagree on a few questions
is not terribly important, however, for the value of the test as a whole is
that people who are likely to succeed in college agree in the main on most of
the correct answers. It is this that gives the [Scholastic Aptitude Test] its predictive power.
“For this very reason, when
you find it hard to make or recognize a distinction between answer choices, it
is better not to spend much time on that question. It is the whole [Scholastic Aptitude Test] rather than
any single question in it that make the test a good indicator of college
ability.” (p. 263)
Translation:
If you disagree with “what we think to be the correct answer,” don’t
spend too much time on the question, that is, trying to figure out what we’re
getting at or even questioning the validity or the wording of the question
itself. Just pen in what you think – or what you think we think – it should be without straining your brains. This test
is, after all, a means of measuring how successfully you will absorb an
unspoken “go with the flow” rule while in college. Its purpose is not
to measure your intellect, scope of knowledge, or even your intelligence. Its
purpose is to determine how well you can adapt to consensus.
The
SAT, as Barzun describes it, aside from inculcating a warning to prospective
college-goers that conformity in thought is the campus and classroom rule, is
also biased against the truly independent thinker, the creator, the innovator
who thinks “outside the box.”  
The
SAT and similar aptitude tests, writes Barzun,
…call for choices but not for
reasons for choices. Difficulties that seem formidable to some people seem
non-existent to others. Defective test questions tend to turn multiple choice
tests into lotteries….(p. 266)
Or
into a solemn, academic, second-guessing game show combination of “Wheel
of Fortune” and “Beat the Clock,” sans the slinky model, the orchestra, and audience noise.
Even if the tests were
constructed with impeccable draftsmanship and were free from all ambiguities
and errors, they would, in my opinion, still have serious defects as testing
instruments, especially when applied to creative persons and to some of those
people, who, despite impressive gifts, do not shine at parlor games. For
multiple choice tests, by their very nature, tend to favor the pickers of
choices over the doers, and the superficially brilliant over the creatively
profound. And the use of these tests has a baleful influence on teachers and
teaching. (p. 267)
And
on students, as well. One must wonder how, for about two generations now, so
many American students passed the SAT and went on to college, yet, upon
graduation, had to be taught remedial English and mathematics at their
employers’ expense.
What
was obvious to Rita wasn’t obvious to her tutor. He taught her that every
assertion needed evidence and proofs and a context that needed to be
communicated with clarity and economy. Brevity, in Rita’s case, was not
necessarily a virtue. Not even a question of how best to stage Peer Gynt existed in a vacuum.
Frank
Bryant was no Jacques Barzun, but Rita was fortunate to have him as a guide to help
her find her “better
song to sing
,” as well as find the courage to look for it. And America
was fortunate that Barzun decided to remain here. Unfortunately, too many Americans
now are tone deaf to the song he sang.
But,
that won’t stop me. Merry Christmas, one and all.
*The House of Intellect, by Jacques
Barzun. 1959. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961.