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February 14, 2011
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Guest blogger A. Graham Down was acting director of the College Board's Advanced Placement Program and executive director and president of the Council for Basic Education.
I first met Jacques Barzun in 1960 at the Lawrenceville School. He was the featured speaker at the school’s 150th anniversary, making a presentation entitled “The Place and Price of Excellence.” He cut an impressive, if somewhat austere, figure. Regal, aristocratic, and articulate, Jacques Barzun made an immediate impression on me. The fineness of his mind, the extraordinary wealth and depth of his knowledge, and his insistence on the highest academic standards were all readily apparent. Later, in seeming apposition, I learned that he wrote mystery and detective novels under a pseudonym with a life-long friend, Wendell Taylor, the head of the school’s science department.
Flash forward to August 1974. Our paths crossed again in an entirely different context. Now, informally dressed and over a glass of beer on the back porch of his summer compound on Cape Cod, he interviewed me (in his capacity as a board member) for the position of executive director of the Council for Basic Education, a national organization which championed the liberal arts for all students at the pre-college level. The entente was immediate. He naturally and visibly epitomized the council’s ideals. Intolerant of intellectual mediocrity, he wanted to make sure that I was scholarly enough to maintain the high standards of an organization renowned for its candid commentaries on the health of American primary and secondary education.
We also shared a passion for the arts and the place of the arts as an integral part of the liberal arts. Jacques Barzun never for a moment doubted the academic nature of the arts properly taught. His delight in Romantic music, particularly that of Berlioz and Wagner, has provided the world with a veritable repository of insight and information about pre-World War I culture.
More important, I believe his fascination for the arts provided the cultural backdrop for much of the perspective of his later days. For instance, his best-known book, From Dawn to Decadence, is a brilliant synthesis of Western European cultural history. For Jacques Barzun, “decadence” meant, in the classical sense, falling off a cultural cliff—where the standards of the few give way to the less-exalted standards of the many.
Jacques Barzun—scholar, teacher, administrator, author, colleague and, above all, friend—has had few (if any) equals in contemporary society. He will always be remembered for his uncommon grace, his seriousness of purpose, and his elegant intellect.