Summary: A discussion of the decline of the intellect and its causes.
It is fashionable in higher educational circles these days to decry the decline of intellectual life. Jacques Barzun, a patrician educator, professor of history and Dean at Columbia was doing that in 1959. What was striking to me was the continuity between what he wrote and our situation over sixty years later.
Barzun would define intellect as the basics of communication from the alphabet to the conventions of the clear articulation and argumentation of idea, disciplinary ideas and habits and more. He explains his idea of intellect as follows:
“That part of the world I call the House of the Intellect embraces at least three groups of subjects: the persons who consciously and methodically employ the mind; the forms and habits governing the activities in which the mind is so employed; and the conditions under which these people and activities exist. “
He goes on to explain the “house” metaphor:
“I would speak of the realm of the mind–limited and untamed–but I say the House of the Intellect, because it is an establishment, requiring appurtenances and prescribing conventions.”
He begins by contending that there are three enemies facing the intellect. When artistic sensibilities intrude into intellectual life, aesthetic sense obscures the discursive character of intellectual articulation. When the language of science intrudes, its precision and specificity intrudes into the unity of knowledge. Philanthropy as he uses it is opens education to a wide audience, regardless of fitness (which comes off as elitist, one of my problems with this part of his argument).
He describes the pseudo-intellectualism of public discourse and our polite, cultured conventions of conversation that prevent serious discussions of ideas (although some polite conventions and manners might be needed in our own day). He describes education as without instruction, observing the use of television for instruction (if only he knew) and instruction without authority. He is one of the earliest to recognize the conversion of education into business and college leadership into bureaucracies. And he points out how intellectual pedantry has influenced every discipline, and far beyond–even President Eisenhower declaims, “Marshal Zhukov and I operated together very closely” rather than saying “worked.”
Barzun makes an argument for power and pretension intruding into the work of the intellect. What is concerning is that he also sweeps up the broadening of American education into his critique. I was one of those who benefited by that “broadening,” or as he would call it, “philanthropy.” I would not naturally have enjoyed access to these opportunities, growing up in a lower middle, working class neighborhood. In another era, I might have been excluded from “the house of the Intellect.”
Nevertheless, Barzun poses some important questions. Today, it is the hegemony of STEM fields over those disciplines that classically taught clarity of thought and expression. He guts the jargon-laden discourse of many academic disciplines. He questions the academic fads that often substitute for the instruction that cultivates the intellect. He exposes the conventions of public and personal conversation that thwart intellectual life (I’d love to see what he would do with social media).
Barzun is an educator from another era, and while I cannot endorse some of his ideas, he also holds up a mirror to contemporary educational practice, asking, “why are we doing this?” He was a kind of educational prophet. If you can find a used copy of this online, and care about education, I think you will find this a thought-provoking read.