The Legacy of Jacques Barzun
One of the last of the generation of critics that included Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, and Lionel Trilling, Jacque Barzun, who died yesterday at the age of 104, developed a historically informed critical approach that, without descending into polemic, didn’t shy from defining or diagnosing Western culture. For Barzun, “the historian can only show, not prove; persuade, not convince.” To do that required both sureness of judgment as well as respect for the unpredictability and vagaries of history.
Like only a few others—his longtime Columbia colleague Trilling, for example, or the late Philip Rieff—Barzun inspired respect both as a critic beyond the academy and as a scholar within it. Though he came to be viewed as a conservative, in that he defended a series of values that were superior to others, and (more important) could be distinguished from them, Barzun evaded neat description. He certainly avoided the vilification poured upon others, such as Allan Bloom, when offering his critiques of popular culture and modern education, which he criticized for credential inflation and failure to maintain its proper object, the removal of ignorance, in favor of networking and “life skills.”
For example, Barzun helped invent the area of study now known as cultural history, which has been derided (often rightly) by conservatives as a hotbed of leftist agitprop, poor scholarship, and political correctness. This was a world away from Barzun’s view, which stressed the importance for the historian to use cultural materials to identify the “makers of culture” from the mass of humanity, a focus that has now largely been reversed in contemporary academia.Continue reading at www.firstthings.com