Friday, March 4, 2011

Education-related excerpts from Jacques Barzun, "From Dawn to Decadence"

(Note: I am posting additional excerpts, less related to education, from From Dawn to Decadence on my general-interest blog; you can find these here if you are interested.)

In a post I wrote a couple of years ago on Wide Awake Minds, I noted that "some books are an education in themselves" because of the breadth of topics they discuss and the seriousness of their insights about the world and about human life.  Historian Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present unquestionably meets that standard.

Barzun is one of the most erudite writers I have ever read. This New Yorker article describes Barzun's routine as he approached his 100th birthday in 2007, and comments on the range of his interests and knowledge:

"(Barzun's) idea of celebrating his centenary is to put the finishing touches on his thirty-eighth book (not counting translations). Among his areas of expertise are French and German literature, music, education, ghost stories, detective fiction, language, and etymology."

Here are a few excerpts from what I've read so far:


Anything that can be said about the good letters implies the book, the printed book. To be sure, new ideas and discoveries did spread among the clerisy before its advent, but diffusion of manuscripts is chancy and slow. Copying by hand is the mother of error, and circulation is limited by cost. ...Speed in the propagation of ideas generates a heightened excitement. ...To the modern lover of books, the product of the press is an object that arouses deep feelings, and looking Durer's charcoal drawing of hands holding a book, one likes to think the artist felt the same attachment. The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.

...The first generation of international publishers did not merely make and sell books; they were scholars and patrons who translated the classics, nurtured their authors, and wrote original works. Their continual redesigning of letter forms gave rise to the new art of typography.

...People were now reading silently and alone. ...Books, books everywhere, like home computers today. ...Print brought a greater exactness to the scholarly exchange of ideas - all copies are alike; a page reference can kill an argument by confounding one's opponent out of his own words. A price is paid for this convenience: the book has weakened the memory, individual and collective, and divided the House of Intellect into many small flats, the multiplying specialties. In the flood of material within even one field, the scholar is overwhelmed. The time is gone when the classical scholar could be sure that he had 'covered the literature' of his subject, the sources being finite in number.

What the world-wide Web did to the demotic character is hard to define. It made still more general the nerveless mode of existence - sitting and staring - and thus further isolated the individual. It enlarged the realm of abstraction; to command the virtual reduces the taste for the concrete. At the same time, the contents of the Internet were the same old items in multiplied confusion. That a user had 'the whole world of knowledge at his disposal' was one of those absurdities like the belief that ultimately computers would think - it will be time to say so when a computer makes an ironic answer. 'The whole world of knowledge' could be at one's disposal only if one already knew a great deal and wanted further information to turn into knowledge after gauging its value.
It was said earlier that the great (19th century) invention, the public school, had lost the power to make children literate. Methods useless for that purpose, absurd teacher training, the dislike of hard work, the love of gadgetry, and the efforts to copy and to change the outer world ruined education throughout the West.
The course offering of the large colleges and universities...had ceased to be a curriculum, of which the dictionary definition is: "a fixed series of courses required for graduation." Qualified judges called the catalogue listings a smorgasbord and not a balanced meal. And large parts of it were hardly nourishing. The number of subjects had kept increasing, in the belief that any human occupation, interest, hobby, or predicament could furnish the substance of an academic course.
(Rabelais) made public dissections of human bodies when it was still a dangerous innovation; he became a specialist in the new disease, syphilis, and in hysteria; he taught at Lyon, then the cultural center of France, as professor of medicine and astrology, and published both almanacs and scientific papers. He also invented devices for the treatment of hernia and fractured bones.

In addition, he mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and read widely in history, geography, and general literature. Competent in jurisprudence, he was an attendant of the powerful family of du Bellay in political and other capacities. He was, in short, one of the most learned men of his time and he happened besides to be a literary genius. In his ardor about social and moral issues, he set forth one of the broadest world views of the Modern Era.
Ethical opinion in our day, while still recognizing (Montaigne's) genius and originality, has been disconcerted to find a skeptic with strong convictions and a radical with conservative leanings. It has failed to grasp the nature of the double mind - the ability to see both sides of the mountain at once. Thinkers of this type are few.... They are not to be written off as undecided or vacillating. Their minds are simply multilinear and perspectivist: when Montaigne was playing with his cat, he wondered whether the cat was not perhaps playing with him.

Teenagers' cultural contribution is more varied and better recorded, and the thought it brings to mind is the marked difference between earlier times and our own in the feeling about age. When the 19th century novelist George Sand at 28 declared herself too old to marry (by custom she had been an old maid since 25) or when Richard II, 14 years old, alone in a large field, faced Wat Tyler's massed rebels and pacified them with a speech, attitudes were taken for granted that are hard for us to imagine. Nearly to the beginning of the (20th) century, society accorded teenagers roles of social responsibility. ...Cultural expectations were based on early mortality and spurred the young to live up to them. Melanchthon wrote an acceptable play when not quite 14 and Pascal's essay on conic sections, written at the age of 15, won the praise of Leibniz and other mathematicians. Halley - later famous for his comet - was a serious astronomer at age 10.
A once popular book that used the phrase Renaissance man as a title offered Machiavelli, Castiglione, Aretino, and Savonarola as representatives. They are not the best that might be chosen, but they suggest the interdisciplinary mind, a cultural type more wondered at today than truly appreciated. In a genuine instance, the murmur 'jack-of-all-trades' is likely to be heard.

Actually, the true Renaissance man should not be defined by genius, which is rare, or even by the numerous performing talents of an Alberti. It is best defined by variety of interests and their cultivation as a proficient amateur.
Seconding (the Renaissance's) movement of ideas was the astonishing amount of traveling done, despite hardships and hazards. The switchabout of scholars between universities, the tide of artists to the liveliest spot and of gentlemen and ladies to the capital cities - none of this organized - was incessant. It went with a polyglot frame of mind; the nation-state had not yet concentrated heart-and-mind on one country and one language.
It is a noteworthy feature of 20th century culture that for the first time in over a thousand years its educated class is not expected to be at least bilingual.
Leisure is a state of mind, and one that the modes of society must favor and approve. When common routines and public approval foster only Work, leisure becomes the exception, an escape to be contrived over and over. It is then an individual privilege, not a custom, and it breeds the specialized recreations and addictions of our time.

Jacques Barzun
--From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present