Monday, December 23, 2013

Rita Discovers The House of Intellect


This is an abbreviated book review of historian Jacques Barzun's seminal 1959 critique of American culture, The House of Intellect*. However, I shall begin instead by citing one of my favorite movie scenes, from Lewis Gilbert's 1983 film, "Educating Rita," for it will help to amplify one of Barzun's many concerns.

Rita, a "lower class," ambitious hairdresser (presumably of playwright Willy Russell's Liverpool), feeling that she is suffocating in her station and wants a "better song to sing," enrolls in Britain's Open University to satisfy a hunger to broaden her mind and horizons. She is assigned a literature professor, Frank Bryant, who has lost his zest for life and for his subject, and is drinking himself down the drain. Rita is asked to answer in essay form the question of how best to stage Henrik Ibsen's play, Peer Gynt. She turns in a paper in which she says, simply, "Do it on the radio." (Watch the scene here, between minutes 5:55 and 8:44.)

Bryant mildly upbraids her for her unintentional "flip" brevity, which, while it conveys the right answer, doesn’t begin to explain why and so wouldn't be good enough for her to pass an exam. Rita replies that she wanted to "encapsulate" her answer in one line. But she repairs to a desk in Bryant's office to write out her explanation, which she initially didn't think needed elaboration or explication. Her rewrite reveals to Bryant that she has read up on Ibsen and is deadly earnest about her ambition. She writes:

In attempting to resolve the staging difficulties of a production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, I would present it on the radio, because, as Ibsen himself said, he wrote it as a play for voices, never intending it to go on in a theater. If they had had the radio in his day, that is where he would have done it.

This explanation pleases Bryant. He smiles and nods to Rita in acknowledgement.

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012), originally a French citizen, was a prolific historian and cultural critic who came to the U.S. in 1919 to join his father who was on a diplomatic mission and became a U.S. citizen in 1933. I discovered Barzun and his House of Intellect in an antiquarian bookshop in Palo Alto. What I enjoyed most about Barzun in that book and in his later works was the breadth of his knowledge and his way of approaching his subjects.

Barzun died in 2012 at the age of 104 years. He witnessed much of the 20th century and a preview of the 21st, which must have dismayed him. The London Telegraph began its October 26th, 2012 obituary of him:

The sheer scope of his knowledge was extraordinary. Barzun’s eye roamed over the full spectrum of Western music, art, literature and philosophy. A champion of the liberal arts tradition in higher education, he deplored what he called the “gangrene of specialism”.

Barzun’s intellectual ancestors were Gibbon, Burkhardt and Macaulay. The work of history, he declared, should include “the range and wildness of individuality, the pivotal force of trifles, the manifestations of greatness, the failure of unquestioned talent”.

The traditional purpose of the university — the teaching of the knowledge of the past — was, he insisted, increasingly under threat; and in a speech in the United States in 1963 he warned that “the best colleges today are being invaded, not to say dispossessed, by the advance agents of the professions, by men who want to seize upon the young recruit ... and train him in a 'tangible skill’.”

That was in 1963. So, our present political and cultural conundrum didn't begin with Bill Ayers and the Weathermen, or with two-year-old Barack Obama, or even with Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. Its roots go back as far as Barzun was willing to trace them, and he was a very good detective of ideas.

The New York Times' obituary of Barzun, of October 26th, however, was predictably catty, beginning with:

Jacques Barzun, the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence, died Thursday night in San Antonio, where he lived. He was 104.

One doesn't pay one's respects to a person one ostensibly admires by calling him a "gadfly." The balance of the obituary contains numerous subtle ribbings and cuts. Basically, what Barzun championed, the New York Times opposed and even contributed to its demise in the way of endorsing a "sweeping nihilism."

By the 1960s, he wrote in “The American University,” the university was being mistakenly expected to “provide a home for the arts, satisfy divergent tastes in architecture and social mores, cure cancer, recast the penal code and train equally for the professions and for a life of cultural contentment.”

But this is what the New York Times expects and has labored assiduously to bring about. The Times obituary carried, in between its lines, a faint whiff of relief that Barzun was gone.

I did not always agree with his diagnosis or prognosis of American culture or the state of civilization, but his was a method that was friendly to my own, one which attempted, not always successfully in my view, to formulate a comprehensive view of man and his civilization, to pinpoint the causes and consequences of ideas and problems. For example, he was absolutely opposed to pat, "Do it on the radio" answers to problems which today are not as innocently voiced as Rita's was. He admired intellect but also pointed out that too often intellectuals baited each other at the cost of perpetuating America's notorious anti-intellectualism and pragmatism.  Watching "Dancing with the Intellectuals" is less of a marginal American spectator sport than is European soccer or cricket or "reality" TV.

In The House of Intellect, Barzun's thesis is that "intellect" is often its own worst enemy. The influence of American philosopher William James, the super-pragmatist and "spiritualist," whom Barzun studied at Columbia University, leaches through on virtually every page like contaminated ground water, subjecting Barzun to the same phenomenon. In making a distinction between intelligence and intellect, he writes, in Chapter 1, "The Three Enemies of Intellect":

…[I]t is for lack of Intellect that we have such a hard time judging persons and ideas; it is absence of Intellect that makes us so frightened of criticism and so inept at conversation; it is disregard of Intellect that has brought our school system to its present ridiculous paralysis….(p. 4)

Intellectuals have been of little help, contends Barzun.

…[T]he intellectuals' chief cause of anguish are one another's works. (p. 2)

Intelligence, writes Barzun, can be adept at handling facts and observable phenomena, but too often at the expense of intellect, which, he asserts, is left out in the cold. If there is a dichotomy or even rivalry between intelligence and intellect, it is largely the intellect's fault. There is more of that species of vague discussion in that chapter. Worse, yet, is Barzun's collectivization of the intellect, or of the mind.

Intellect is community property and can be handed down….For intelligence wherever found is an individual and private possession; it dies with the owner unless he embodies it in more or less lasting form. Intellect is on the contrary a product of social effort and of acquirement. A man cannot help being intelligent, but he can easily help becoming intellectual. Intellect is an institution; it stands up as it were by itself, apart from the possessors of intelligence, even though they alone could rebuild it if it should be destroyed. (p. 5)

Barzun argues that another way that modern intellectuals become superfluous in their efforts to avoid becoming superfluous in the public eye is that most of them succumb to the temptation of substituting thought for cant or what are today called "buzzwords." "Buzzwords" are meant to allow non-intellectuals to adopt and advance an entire philosophical system by bypassing the digestive system of thought, of the chore or effort of chewing an idea to see whether or not it's consumable or has dire consequences if swallowed whole without mastication, and allow them to pose as intellectuals themselves, vehicles of profound and caring thought. Poverty, guns, health care, equality, and life style are instances of such buzzwords. In print or uttered through a megaphone, such words conjure up issues which have been debated and argued for centuries, but allow their auditors to pretend they know all there is to know about them without, as Frank Bryant informed Rita, ever having to pen a "considered essay." Instead, they pen illogical editorials or scrawl words on cardboard signs staple-gunned to sticks to carry during noisy demonstrations.

Barzun says this in many more words, in whole books. He was the enemy of what he called "specialism" or "professionalism," in which men became articulate experts in one field without needing or wanting to know anything about any other field of thought or science, without discovering linkages or animosities between the fields, about which they still feel they have the right to voice opinions. Thus we can observe the spectacle of scientists successfully exploring Mars with robots controlled from earth, but who also voted for Barack Obama, twice. The intelligence abundantly apparent in one field just does not or will not venture into another. Thus, concludes Barzun, these men lack intellect.

Speaking of Obama, Daniel Greenfield is the closest thing we have today to Jacques Barzun in the way of searching for and expressing a consistent, comprehensive world view. In his Sultan Knish column, "The Left is Too Smart to Fail," for example, he elaborates on Barzun's theme of how intellect has been banished from human communication and replaced with a bag of linguistic Trail Mix. I find I disagree with him far less frequently than I ever do with Barzun. In his latest column, like Barzun, he makes a vital distinction between genuine intelligence and "manufactured" or "fake" intelligence.

Intelligence to a modern liberal isn't depth, it's appearance. It isn't even an intellectual quality, but a spiritual quality. Compassionate people who care about others are always "smarter", no matter how stupid they might be, because they care about the world around them.

An insight into how we live matters more than useful knowledge. Skill is irrelevant unless it's a transformative progressive "changing the way we live" application.

Obama and his audience mistake their orgy of mutual flattery for intelligence and depth. Like a trendy restaurant whose patrons know that they have good taste because they patronize it, his supporters know that they are smart because they support a smart man and Obama knows he is smart because so many smart people support him.

The thought never rises within this bubble of manufactured intelligence that all of them might really be idiots who have convinced themselves that they are geniuses because they read the right books (or pretend to read them), watch the right movies and shows (or pretend to) and have the right values (or pretend to).

Barzun, while he could be profound and right (or wrong), rarely concretizes his observations in The House of Intellect, leaving one with an unsatisfied wish to agree (or disagree), but without the benefit of an example of what he means, which would have helped to send one in one direction or another. Greenfield, however, concretizes as a matter of course, which makes him, in terms of style, a much more effective intellectual than Barzun.

Which is not to say that Barzun was never influential. He was, but in the obverse meaning: his critiques and conclusions about American culture and its headlong plunge into statism and the welfare state were universally rejected – noted, but rejected – by the intellectual, cultural and political establishments. 

The prize chapter in The House of Intellect is the last one, "Objective Tests," which was appended to Barzun's "Summing Up." Having never attended college, I was astounded, at first, by Barzun's critique of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) administered to high school students contemplating a college career (p. 163). For Barzun, his complaint about the SA – at least, as it existed in 1959, when his book was published; one can only imagine what crimes the SAT commits today – is that its test questions were not "clear-cut" and did not encourage "clear-cut" answers, as well.   

 What of the questions in the two booklets (Scholastic Aptitude Test and Science)? I am officially informed that they were selected from actual tests, most of them being copied verbatim and the rest with small editorial changes. Such a process of successive filtering should have eliminated serious blemishes. That the surviving questions are not always clear-cut is implied by the following passage on page 18 of Scholastic Aptitude Test:

"As you read through the explanations of the verbal section, you may disagree with what we think to be the correct answer to one or two questions. You may think we are quibbling in making certain distinctions between answer choices. It is true that you will find some close distinctions and just as true that in making close distinctions reasonable people do disagree. Whether or not you disagree on a few questions is not terribly important, however, for the value of the test as a whole is that people who are likely to succeed in college agree in the main on most of the correct answers. It is this that gives the [Scholastic Aptitude Test] its predictive power.

"For this very reason, when you find it hard to make or recognize a distinction between answer choices, it is better not to spend much time on that question. It is the whole [Scholastic Aptitude Test] rather than any single question in it that make the test a good indicator of college ability." (p. 263)

Translation: If you disagree with "what we think to be the correct answer," don’t spend too much time on the question, that is, trying to figure out what we're getting at or even questioning the validity or the wording of the question itself. Just pen in what you think – or what you think we think – it should be without straining your brains. This test is, after all, a means of measuring how successfully you will absorb an unspoken "go with the flow" rule while in college. Its purpose is not to measure your intellect, scope of knowledge, or even your intelligence. Its purpose is to determine how well you can adapt to consensus.

The SAT, as Barzun describes it, aside from inculcating a warning to prospective college-goers that conformity in thought is the campus and classroom rule, is also biased against the truly independent thinker, the creator, the innovator who thinks "outside the box."  

The SAT and similar aptitude tests, writes Barzun,

…call for choices but not for reasons for choices. Difficulties that seem formidable to some people seem non-existent to others. Defective test questions tend to turn multiple choice tests into lotteries….(p. 266)

Or into a solemn, academic, second-guessing game show combination of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Beat the Clock," sans the slinky model, the orchestra, and audience noise.

Even if the tests were constructed with impeccable draftsmanship and were free from all ambiguities and errors, they would, in my opinion, still have serious defects as testing instruments, especially when applied to creative persons and to some of those people, who, despite impressive gifts, do not shine at parlor games. For multiple choice tests, by their very nature, tend to favor the pickers of choices over the doers, and the superficially brilliant over the creatively profound. And the use of these tests has a baleful influence on teachers and teaching. (p. 267)

And on students, as well. One must wonder how, for about two generations now, so many American students passed the SAT and went on to college, yet, upon graduation, had to be taught remedial English and mathematics at their employers' expense.

What was obvious to Rita wasn't obvious to her tutor. He taught her that every assertion needed evidence and proofs and a context that needed to be communicated with clarity and economy. Brevity, in Rita's case, was not necessarily a virtue. Not even a question of how best to stage Peer Gynt existed in a vacuum.

Frank Bryant was no Jacques Barzun, but Rita was fortunate to have him as a guide to help her find her "better song to sing," as well as find the courage to look for it. And America was fortunate that Barzun decided to remain here. Unfortunately, too many Americans now are tone deaf to the song he sang.

But, that won't stop me. Merry Christmas, one and all.

*The House of Intellect, by Jacques Barzun. 1959. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961.

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