“In teaching,” wrote historian Jacques Barzun, “you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.”
Barzun, my compass, my inspiration, died in San Antonio last Thursday. He was 104.
French-born Jacques Martin Barzun—a founder of the cultural history movement, a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the author of dozens of books on subjects ranging from Darwin to English diction—had been first-year required reading at my California graduate school. Barzun’s The Modern Researcher (1957) was then “the historian’s bible.” With philosophical comment on commas and semicolons, quotation and documentation, The Modern Researcher is vital still.
It has taken me twenty years, at least, to appreciate that Barzun’s teaching has special meaning in the age of digitization. Blogging and tweeting demand simple, vivid writing. Barzun’s Simple and Direct (1975) remains an effective freshman primer on the pomposity of ponderous prose. “Trim the College” (2001) does the same for the bloat of worthless degrees:
What, then, are college youths to carry away from their studies as they are swallowed up by career, parenthood, or civic obligations? Much will be buried, but the innumerable portions of purport, reasoning, and significance will still be there for instant recognition and application to the uses of life. It is this “apperceptive mass” that makes college graduates educated instead of ignorant.
—From “Trim the College—A Utopia,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 22, 2001 [paywall]
“Everybody in the teaching profession ought to read Mr. Barzun, if only to be able to argue with him,” wrote a book reviewer in The New Yorker in 1945. Seven decades later, in the wake of Barzun’s passing, the fruit of his ideas is more visible than ever before.