A Reviewers Notebook: Teacher in America

Jacques Barzun’s Teacher in America, now reprinted by the Liberty Press, was first published in 1945. Though I was enormously interested in the subject (I had just finished a three- year stint teaching a class in Graduate School journalism at Dr. Barzun’s own Columbia University), I had no time to read it. I was trying to learn the ropes of a new job in Washington.

The book had come just three years too late to help me, which was a misfortune for some of the excellent students (Flora Lewis of the Times, Allen Otten of the Wall Street Journal, Milton Stewart of the new Inc. Magazine, Marguerite Higgins, the only truly great Vietnamese war correspondent, and Nona Balakian of the Sunday Times Book Review, to name just a few). I practiced on them, trying to reconcile the fact that I was teaching at a “methods” school, a “trade school,” with my rebellious feeling that what journalism students really needed were courses in history, government, literature and economics. The “who, what, where, when” necessities for constructing a lead could be mastered in days, as I had discovered long ago.

If I had read Barzun I would have felt less guilty about trying to get “substance” into the students. His book does not decry “method.” The modes of teaching—lecturing, keeping orderly movement going in discussion groups, one-on-one tutorial sessions, written and oral examinations—get a thorough going-over, reaching the eclectic conclusion that emphases in method should depend on the talents of the instructor. It is the perversions of common sense that annoyed Barzun in 1944-45. The Progressives with their “look-say” methods of teaching reading and writing were then riding high. And famous performers such as Phelps and Tinker at Yale and “Copey” at Harvard were being scoffed at as “showmen.”

It was a time when Bob Hutchins of Chicago University was complaining that nobody read any great books in college. This was not true of Barzun’s Columbia. John Erskine, the rediscoverer of Herman Melville and Moby Dick, had already started his course in General Honors Readings in the early twenties, using a prepared list of fifty-three great books from Homer to William James. The course had grown (Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler also taught it.) The idea spread to St. John’s College in Annapolis and to Hutchins’ Chicago, where it became rigidified, with all history and science related to sources in “the one hundred best books.”

Dr. Barzun thinks this was an “overreach”—“modern culture,” he says, “has become specialized and each specialty, even when broadly conceived, requires the direct study of its current output.” As a professional historian Barzun doesn’t think any six “great books,” even when they include Plutarch and Gibbon, can serve as the basis for a coherent idea of modern history. St. John’s did, in 1944, supplement the historic classics with readings in later political writers. But Barzun tried to give his students more than that.

The vogue for “testing” and the use of multiple choice examinations filled Barzun with distaste in 1944. The more subtle the student, the more likely he is to cavil at the arbitrariness behind yes-or-no question choices. You can’t spot Henry Ford as an ignoramus and historical bumbler because he couldn’t assess the difficulties of his “peace ship” expedition. He was an experimenter who, after all, made new industrial history by understanding the shortcomings of the old. He may not have known about the Jews or Wall Street banking. But history has many strands. I remember being made angry when the question, “Was Ford an historical ignoramus?” came up on my son’s test during his junior year in high school. I would have flunked the answer. Cynically, Johnny gave the one that was expected of him. His aim was to make college.

The Ph.D. Octopus

Dr. Barzun assailed the “Ph.D. Octopus” back in 1945. The ability to teach, he had observed, did not always coincide with the ability to do Ph.D. research. I had observed this at Yale where Bob French, in love with teaching his own Chaucer course, refused to waste time on what he regarded as Ph.D. nonsense. He didn’t want to turn over his exam readings to young instructors while he labored with a supererogatory thesis that would take him away from personal contact with his students. For a period he quit Yale to run a prep school. He eventually returned when Yale needed house-masters who did not necessarily have to have Ph.Ds.

In a new foreword Barzun finds a “great chasm” between the Forties, when teachers wanted to teach, and the present, when commissions and panels and special foundation work leading to big fees are distracting elements. The test of a good academic job is that it leaves one with fewer contacts with campus life. The colleges now recruit from the “waste land” of a “once proud and efficient public school system.” They must do their best with the “socially promoted” and the “functional illiterate.” The inflationary costs make everything contentious. But Barzun has not given up. “There is no help for it,” he says, “we must teach and we must learn.”

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