“Public intellectual” is the nebulous title given to the knowledgeable individual who takes his or her expertise into the largest realm of discourse: the public. These individuals are the ones whose ideas are bandied about in the influential journals of the arts, politics, philosophy, and economics, and these people bounce onto the television screen, through the radio frequencies, and across the Internet every day. What separates the public intellectual from those who merely parse, proselytize, or prattle is the depth of his or her discourse, and his or her peer-acknowledged level of expertise in a particular field.
In his essay The Role of the Public Intellectual, physicist Alan Lightman writes,
Such a person must be careful—he must be aware of the limitations of his knowledge, he must acknowledge his personal prejudices because he is being asked to speak for a whole realm of thought, he must be aware of the huge possible consequences of what he says and writes and does. He has become, in a sense, public property because he represents something large to the public. He has become an idea himself, a human striving. He has enormous power to influence and change, and he must wield that power with respect.
Jacques Barzun was precisely such an individual. His career spanned more than eighty years, and his commentaries cut a broad swath through twentieth-century intellectual history. Although no scholar can perfectly grasp all of the processes of Western civilization, Barzun’s conjecture ventured from art to evolution. His writings reflect his intense commitment to the primary work, not the limited extrapolations that come down the line with specialization. Barzun was one of the early advocates of the “great book” pedagogy in the American university experience.
In his famous series of lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1973, Barzun noted that he came by his passions honestly, because “as a child in my father’s house I was surrounded by the young poets, painters, musicians, and sculptors who made Cubism, concrete poetry, atonality, and the rest.”
Born in 1907 in Paris, Barzun was a child in the midst of a cultural revolution, and his parents introduced him to the twentieth century by exposing him to its early cultural facilitators. Consequently, he notes, when the new schools arrived in art and opera, “the style . . . was from the start as natural and intelligible to me as any other man-made thing—the piano keyboard or the alphabet. . . . This accident of birth was formative, and possibly not the worst conceivable as a preparation for an intellectual career.”
A later essay of Barzun’s, “Exeunt the Humanities” (1989), extols the college education that is built upon the humanities but not upon the esoteric specialist in Jane Austen, for example, or the American Civil War. What Barzun advocated his entire life was a broad approach to the great experience of books and knowledge, a method of learning that he saw jeopardized in this age of specialization. Barzun notes:
A more real danger than the imagined elite is our present combination of specialist and half-baked humanist education. The danger is that we shall become a nation of pedants. I use the word literally and democratically to refer to the millions of people who are moved by a certain kind of passion in their pastimes as well as in their vocations.
The horror herein, according to Barzun, is also the intellectual world, the adult and college-educated America, which has no attachment to the works of civilization—because the teachers teach “modes of thought and feeling” but not the “subject matter,” which is the foundation of a humanistic, liberal education. Barzun added, “In some humanists, it is even a kind of flourish, a gesture of pride, to add that they care not if ten years out of college a graduate has forgotten everything he learned there.”
On the other side of that coin is the humanistic education that is successful when “a student really grasps what the humanities are and are for, [and] he cannot help remembering in detail the successive elements that he built up in a cultivated mind.” Barzun concludes this essay, noting:
The humanities, moreover, are a great vocabulary—terms, phrases, names, allusions, characters, events, maxims, repartees: thousands of embodied meanings with which it is possible to think and to judge the world. All these are facts, all this is knowledge to remember, accurately, intelligently.
Barzun’s family immigrated to America during World War I. Barzun began his career at Columbia University in the late 1920s and received his Ph.D. there in 1932. He published works on writing, music, art, history, and criticism, most notably Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941), Teacher in America (1945), The Culture We Deserve (1989), and From Dawn to Decadence (2000). Dr. Jacques Martin Barzun died in San Antonio, Texas, at the age of 104 on October 25, 2012.
—E. Warren Perry, Jr., Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Jacques Martin Barzun / Boris Chaliapin / Tempera, pencil and pastel on paper, 1956 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine
Lightman, Alan. The Role of The Public Intellectual.
Barzun, Jacques. “Exeunt the Humanities” from The Culture We Deserve. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.