Begin Here (Jacques Barzun)

Barzun, Jacques.  Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

If Mortimer Adler is the greatest educationist of the 20th century, then Jacques Barzun comes close.

Main Idea: Forget education..Let us talk instead of Teaching and Learning (Barzun 3).

Teaching isn’t a complex series of problems, pace modern progressives and educationists; rather, it is a series of difficulties.  There isn’t a formula for “how to teach.” It is an art (5). In other words, a good teacher knows more about his subject than about a strategy.

What does Barzun mean that problems are solved, not difficulties?  Problems come and go with education.  Difficulties are deeper: it is difficult to get students to learn accurately, to develop virtue (14). For example, a problem for today is how to teach during Covid.  A difficulty, as Plato noted in Meno, is how one immaterial mind can contact another mind and get that mind to make the proleptic leap to knowledge.

While a common refrain is “get the parents involved,” Barzun gives an uncomfortable, yet frank reminder: the parents are already involved via the school board.  I know what they mean.  Get the parents to hold the students accountable.  I think they should to an extent, but as we are seeing with wokist curricula today, the minute the parents start pushing back, the United States State Dept labels them as terrorists via the Patriot Act and facial recognition software.

We can blame television for much of children’s short attention span, but Barzun goes deeper.  The average social studies textbook has the same format and works against the student at a deeper level. Your average social studies textbook has some shiny pictures on a page and some text.  The pictures are far more interesting and only the bored students ever flip through the text.

The following would get Barzun brought up on charges of hate crimes today.  He notes several major problems with teaching “multicultural classics.”  1) the linguistic barrier; mastering these stories requires familiarity at some level with Eastern languages. Your average teacher will have no such ability.  2) If Plato’s Republic is a dialogue on the difficulties of truth and government, many of these Eastern stories are creation stories or moral platitudes.  If teaching the Bible is illegal, then it’s hard to imagine why teaching Hindu theology is okay. 3) If modern teachers lack the capacity to teach something as straightforward as the Western classics, they won’t have a chance of teaching Hindu metaphysics.

Barzun exposes the fallacy that teaching other customs will increase tolerance.  It does no such thing. In Beirut Christians are killing Christians, and Muslims, Muslims.  They are already well-aware of each others’ customs (131).

Furthermore, the West isn’t provincial.  The West, not the East, penetrated the whole globe. It was Western scholars who gathered Arabian and Persian religious texts and preserved them from destruction at the hands of the Wahabbis.

I don’t want to belabor the need to teach Western classics.  Barzun has a chapter on it that is well worth your time. He notes that the average fifteen year old, much to the dismay of the educational expert, would be enthralled with Augustine’s Confessions. Indeed, simply introduce them to the chapter where Augustine comes to that “sizzling” place, Carthage.  Every teenager knows what Augustine means when he says “I was in love with love.” When he writes, “a cauldron of unholy loves was sizzling and crackling around me,” every teenager knows exactly what he is talking about.

The real value in Barzun’s works is that while he criticizes the silly theories abounding today in education, he doesn’t let the critics off so easily.  It’s even to make fun of modern pedagogical theories.  The problem is that such criticisms rarely go to the root.  Indeed, if they did then other ideas might have to be abandoned.  We all know that “publish or perish” is pointless.  Indeed, it has a negative value on knowledge.  No one questions, though, whether the young scholar actually has any knowledge to give us.  He almost certainly doesn’t–but you don’t say such things.  Even worse, few question whether a PhD = good teaching.  If it doesn’t, then why do most universities insist on hiring only PhDs?

Nota Bene:

* People demand excellence, but as soon as it happens they cry, “Elitism!”  Standing out is undemocratic (3).

* “The announced ‘introductory course’ did not introduce the subject but tried to make recruits for advanced work in the field” (10).

* The goal of secondary and higher education today: “instead of trying to develop native intelligence and give it good techniques in the basic arts of man, we professed to make ideal citizens, supertolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars” (13).

* “In the instant of acquiring knowledge, the mind is most vulnerable to distraction” (21).  

* “The students who handle multiple choices best are not the best, but the second-best” (37).

* “Nor should that cowardly evasion, teamwork in the classroom, be allowed. Arithmetic is a private affair in which the opinion of others is useless” (82).

* “Good pedagogy says: to show the connections is the best teaching, and connections imply something already present with which to link the new” (90).


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