Bill Katz: A special birthday

Occasional contributor Bill Katz holds down the fort at Urgent Agenda. Today Bill writes to pay tribute to Jacques Barzun:

Consider please the following argument, written in March, for Columbia University to re-admit ROTC, which it has now done:

The armed forces have drawn some of their most celebrated leaders from Columbia. Not one but four commanders in chief, including the incumbent, studied or worked there. Educating citizen-soldiers is necessary not only for the vigor of our armed forces, but for the vitality of our universities and our republic.

Pericles concluded his remarks in ancient Athens by reminding his people that in detailing the merits of their city-state (in contrast to the characteristics of neighboring Sparta) “we are contending for a higher prize than those who enjoy none of these privileges.” A citizenry’s willingness to serve in its defense makes a ‘government that does not copy our neighbors, but is an example to them.’ Most will choose not to answer the call—that is acceptable, the natural result of relying on an all-volunteer military. What is not acceptable is denying the army the opportunity to even make that call.

Now please consider the same writer’s remarks, written just a few months ago, on the changing use of the term “culture”:

Nor is the new term culture applied solely to large areas. Big corporations are said to have a culture and within them the casual talk is of the culture of the seventh floor not jibing with the culture of the fifth—A dose of managerial lubricant is needed to ease the grinding of the gears. Or again, physicians disagree about acupuncture, each group taking a different view of that procedure, so that reliance on it and reliance on drugs form opposed medical cultures. In short, the word has become a catchall for any group of things or persons that one wants to link together for the purpose of discussion.

Ah, that is writing. Vigorous. Youthful. Utterly clear. So let me reveal that it was written by a man who will be 104 on November 30th.

He is Jacques Barzun, one of the great university intellectuals of the 20th century, born five years before the Titanic went down, and still writing and speaking. Barzun is the only scholar I know who has his own fan club. The Jacques Barzun Fan Club can be found on Facebook here.

Its existence speaks to the affection in which Barzun is held.

He was a professor’s professor, a member of the Columbia faculty from 1932 to 1975, and ultimately provost of the university, its highest academic officer.

But more important, Barzun is a defender of the glorious things in Western civilization, which places him at odds with the trendies who have dominated too many of our universities since the 1960s. And so he has never hesitated to remark on the ways, familiar to readers of Power Line, in which the practices of modern universities have gone astray. On political correctness he wrote: “Political correctness does not legislate tolerance; it only organizes hatred.”

One can only imagine Professor Barzun’s reaction to the radical chant heard on college campuses in the 1960s and 70s – “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go!” It never went when Jacques Barzun was overseeing the shop at Columbia.

And Barzun has always understood that intellectual and artistic distinction can actually come from geographic regions beyond the narrow precincts of Manhattan’s West Side or the even more narrow bicycle paths of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the 1990s, Barzun caused shock, approaching medical emergency, in those who knew him when he announced he was leaving New York
to settle in his wife’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas.

For a New Yorker to leave is considered treasonable. For him to leave for…Texas…is considered blasphemy. Some drifters have suffered unspeakable punishments.

Nonsense, Barzun said: “As far as stimulus is concerned, that comes from other people’s minds. San Antonio is a very lively place intellectually and artistically. It is not what a good friend of mine suggested, ‘a kind of mining camp at the edge of the frontier.’ There are twelve colleges and universities here and I’ve lectured at several of them. I’ve kept up with
people, and meeting and talking with them is no different from meeting and talking with my friends and colleagues at Columbia, which I also still do.”

Refreshing, isn’t it?

To the pseudos of the east and west coasts, Mr. Barzun is now one of the “flyover people,” and, apparently, mighty proud of it.

I have been using Professor Barzun’s Simple and Direct, subtitled A Rhetoric for Writers, for years. It is an excellent guide to writing, and demonstrates that one can teach writing, and also write well, although the combination is rare.

Finally, Mr. Barzun is a fan of detective fiction. I would have loved to have heard a conversation between Jacques Barzun and Sherlock Holmes.

Happy birthday, Professor Barzun, and thank you for defending the best of our civilization. We look forward to your next essay.

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