End of an Era
By R.R. Reno
Wednesday, March 11, 2009, 12:01 AM
Fifty years. It seems like a long time. But if you pick up Jacques Barzun’s searching analysis of modern education, The House of Intellect, the half century melts away. Published in 1959, this piquant critique of post-War American attitudes toward the life of the mind remains contemporary.
Barzun gives his readers lots of smart social commentary. He points out the way in which our egalitarian ethos encourages an “amiable stupidity.” The best man for a committee is someone who is cheerful, optimistic, and incapable of disturbing others with critical thoughts. The trend continues. These days the single most important qualification for academic administration is the ability to project an “empowering” and “inclusive” style of leadership.
He foresees the soft relativism of our day, noticing the way in which people take all the edges off conversations. Well-socialized people begin their sentences with “I feel,” or “I may be wrong but,” or “I’m only thinking aloud.” “The lexicon of pussyfooting,” he observes, “is familiar.” Things have only gotten worse.
The educational establishment attracts a great deal of Barzun’s icy criticism. Anyone who thinks multicultural education is a recent perversion should read his chapters on education. He states a plain fact that remains true: Those who formulate the ideologies for primary and secondary education in America are almost universally anti-intellectual. They think of schools primarily as institutions devoted to socializing rather than teaching. The young need to be “prepared for real life,” encouraged to become creative, inclusive, and empathetic. When attention turns to academic topics, emphasis falls on technique (“engaging the students”) rather than content.
Barzun also makes some pointed observations about the university. He has nothing good to say about the role of graduate teaching assistants as educational surrogates. But there is no solution to this ongoing problem. After all, what is the strange goal sought by the most accomplished academics? Like clergy of old, the professorial superheroes scramble for sinecures. “The highest prize of the teaching profession is: no teaching. For the first time in history, apparently, scholars want no disciples.”
His observations about grant applications are as true today as they were in 1959. He sees the way in which everybody champions everybody in glowing letters of recommendation (more “amiable stupidity”). Foundation executives show their true colors. In their own mind, they are providing the “venture capital of social change,” a cliche that sounds like it was minted yesterday. Therefore, “applicants hampered by sober ideas must impart to them an apocalyptic glow.” As a friend of mine once advised me: “Before writing a grant application, have a couple of drinks, and then write a proposal with the following basic message: This project will redeem the world, and I’m the only one who can do it. Revise in the morning.”
The particular criticisms are astute (and entertaining), but the lasting value of The House of Intellect rests in a deeper diagnosis. As a historian of culture, Barzun was the opposite of a Marxist. Instead of thinking that our mental attitudes reflect changes in social and economic conditions, Barzun recognized that shifts in our often sensibilities midwife important social changes.
Barzun saw that the intellectual scene in the 1950s was filled with misgivings and anxious worries. The very people who inherited new and prominent roles—vastly expanded university faculties, foundation-funded scholars, academic experts consulted by business and government—had become more and more pessimistic about the benefits of disciplined reflection. He observed a consensus: Our inherited disciplines of thought and sentiment are opposed to the immediacy and fullness of life.
Barzun’s interpretation of a popular book of art photography from the late 1950s, The Family of Man, suggests the depth of the turn against Western culture. He sees an implicit principle guiding the selection of photographs:
Whatever is formed and constituted (the work seems to say) whatever is adult, whatever exerts power, whatever is characteristically Western, whatever is unique or has a name, or embodies complexity of thought, is of less interest and worth than what is native, common, and sensual; what is weak and confused; what is unhappy, anonymous, and elemental.
The reading is prescient. Norman O. Brown, Norman Mailer, and the Summer of Love were just around the corner. Measured, cool reflection was on its way out; committed, hot activism was on its way in. The complexity of ideas and arguments were giving way to urgent feelings and primal desires.
As a cultural historian, Barzun knew that this shift in sentiment would be decisive for the West. It signaled the triumph of the Bohemian ideal, and the end of what John Lukacs has called the Bourgeois Era.
In a Europe shattered by religious division, divine truths no longer shaped life directly, and the central bourgeois imperative was to find and reanimate the sacred order. It was not enough to comply. The Bourgeois imperative was to find and articulate truths strong enough to compel an inner and spiritual obedience. Christian books and ideas played a very important role, but as the modern era unfolded, each generation placed old notions of sacred order into an increasingly wider range of reading, conversation, and considered judgment. According to Barzun, this Bourgeois project of discernment built the modern House of Intellect, one he saw being abandoned (and vandalized) in his own day.
Rereading The House of Intellect has helped me understand our times more clearly. Certain images recur: abdication, desire for release, and exhausted impotence. The adult world of achieved self-discipline abdicates to an adolescent world of spontaneity and desire. Among those charged with responsibility for cultural standards, Barzun sees a strong desire for “a release from responsibility.” People “idealize youth” and “hope that youth will bring to the conduct of life an energy that manners have sapped in their elders.” The really smart and ambitious intellectuals read the signs of the times and strike poses accordingly: “Nowadays it is assumed that all attacks on culture are equal in virtue, and that attacking society, because it is society, is the one aim and test of genius.”
Because these words were written in the late 1950s, they help us see that the 1960s was not the result of a youth movement. It is best understood as an abdication of the elders, a renunciation of responsibility by the adults. The Bourgeois Era ended because its intellectual project crumbled. The guardians of Western culture determined that they were custodians of inhumanity. Barzun pictures for us the forward-thinking man of the late 1950s, wearing a suit, going to the tastefully decorated offices of the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations. “He may be a minor foundation official living rather comfortably off some dead tycoon, but he talks like Baudelaire.”
This imaged foundation official circa 1957 tells the tale. The children and grandchildren of the old Bourgeois elite decided to throw their lot with the Bohemian project. We are to live as we wish, and the primary intellectual project these days is to beat down whatever remains of the old Bourgeois forms of sacred order. Repressive! Patriarchal! Logocentric!
Barzun is not happy about the change. By his reckoning, the modern bourgeois form of intellectual self-discipline and honesty “is a broom with which to clear the mind of cant.” This tradition of reflection helps us avoid “trumpery art,” “ideological drugs, “facile enthusiasms,” and a simple-minded worship of science. Intellect encourages what Barzun calls “fineness” and “virtuosity.” One does not just have opinions or commitments. One has a fabric of considered views that are woven from the threads of inherited traditions. They are nuanced, tenuous, and shaded with all manner of uncertainty, but even so, for the Bourgeois intellectual, considered views have the serious weight of truth, a weight that gives shape to one’s sense of self.
And the Bohemian project? It retails itself as the royal road to self-discovery through the alchemy of self-expression. It promises a more “real,” more authentic, and more individual existence. As Barzun suggests, the claims are hollow. The emerging Bohemian Era will be anti-intellectual: characterized by an externalized and collective sense of purpose (politics über alles) and an undifferentiated, amorphous inner life (the empire of desire).
Barzun was right to view the future with foreboding. Our Bohemian Era is and will be crude and thoughtless. All you need to do is go to P.S. 1, the contemporary gallery run by the Museum of Modern Art in Long Island City. It is full of flat, ideological gestures and great gushers of the id. But Barzun was also naïve. The Bourgeois Era ended because so many came to feel it as a lifeless, artificial posture. “Fineness” and “virtuosity”? They seem awfully thin and precious. And what, exactly, do they serve? Without the commanding voice of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Western culture lost is ability to claim our loyalty. A soul-shaping demand shorn of divine sanction can easily come to be seen as an inhumane invasion.
R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University and features editor at First Things.