Barzun Setting Things Right

“I do not think there is any need to emphasize how much better it is to absorb the best models, and how hard it is at a later stage to eradicate the faults which have once become ingrained, because this puts a double burden on the teachers who take over, namely that of unteaching, which is a heavier task than teaching, and has to be given priority.” Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 2.3

Quintilian goes on to argue that the best teachers should teach beginning students. This sound belief is as counterintuitive in Roman times as in ours. Then as now, the issues were 1) egotism on behalf of teachers and 2) parsimoniousness on behalf of parents. Teachers of primary and secondary pupils often have cause to cling jealously to some perceived scrap of dignity, while parents often attach vicarious fantasies to their tuition dollars.

Classical schools, like all institutions of education, irt with (in weak moments, even embrace) utopian thinking. Teachers and administrators often need fellow travelers to secure us to mastheads, and Jacques Barzun is such a reliable shipmate. To these self-aware souls, I commend his trenchant and oracular survey, Teacher in America, first published in 1944. Weary teachers will find passages which refresh and invigorate like a granulated ice fortified beverage.

It could be misleading to select single quotes from the book (quotable as it is), as the topics Barzun illuminates range from the practical burdens of teachers at all levels to the role of history (properly taught) in developing true tolerance and humility. Teachers of math and science, who often feel their disciplines neglected in ‘classical education’ circles will find in Barzun an eloquent advocate.

He encourages all teachers to remember that their role in the education of a pupil is to supply the innocent with memory and precedent. The chapter entitled “The Human Boy” is worth a thousand jargon-laden classes on “child development.” Likewise his analysis of the increasingly superstitious demands upon and correspondingly messianic claims of institutions of learning is convincing evidence in itself of the value of historical sense. The G.I. Bill had just been passed in the summer in which Barzun published this volume, yet he had already grasped and found undesirable the trend towards treating wide-spread higher education as an economic and cultural panacea.

Quintilian’s wisdom and generous spirit infuse every page of Barzun’s writing. If Quintilian was right in saying that core knowledge is best taught by masters, teachers who desire to “absorb the best models” should begin by soaking up the writings and example of one of the great traditional thinkers of the past century.