In the Beginning . . .

Just short of seventy-five years ago, young Jacques Barzun gave his course in intellectual history for the first time. No more than six students had enrolled, mostly upper-classmen with various majors. For me, a sophomore quite unformed, the intellectual equipment and maturity of some of my classmates were impressive. One had British schooling in economics. Another was a liberal Catholic versed in political theory. A German Literature major professed a firm but to me suspect nationalist persuasion. One might expect from such a group the classroom atmosphere of a seminar or discussion group. That was not the case. Barzun, at the head of a small table, was a lecturer par excellence, however small his audience. With authority and quiet eloquence he unfolded a vast panoply of European thought and art over two centuries. From Leopardi to Thomas Hardy, from Mozart to Mosolov: one creative figure after another in dazzling array; so the journey ran. The reading list for the course was daunting, as rich in variety of concept and detail as the lectures themselves.

I remember no papers required of the students. A final exam was the sole written exercise. Deciding to prepare for it together, we students divided the huge reading list amongst ourselves, each contributing a brief précis of some portion of it. The exam, however, surprised us all. It consisted of a single challenging question, formulated roughly as follows: “Criticize the readings in the course, indicating what works you would omit, and what others you would include.” In this inventive bit of pedagogy, Barzun not only paid respect to his students, but also demonstrated, however radically, the idea of the teacher as learner.

For me, the course in its intellectual substance marked the beginning of Barzun’s role in shaping my vocation. His lectures demonstrated that my primary interests — music and politics — could be brought together through the discipline of history, with the autonomy of each element recognized. Yet the music I had in mind was not only a matter of scholarly understanding. I entertained a possible career in singing. In support of my enthusiasm for opera, Barzun joined me as a standee in the family circle of the old Metropolitan on 39th Street to witness the classic Wagner performances conducted by Gustav Mahler’s erstwhile disciple, Arthur Bodansky.

Among his lessons in teaching as such, Barzun’s engagement with the lives of his students was assuredly not the least. It was my good fortune to be its beneficiary — first in his pioneering course, then in the famous Colloquium with Lionel Trilling that became the center of my college education. But more: Long after my college years, Barzun’s powerful commitment to finding new coherences amid culture’s myriad elements and to employing them critically for the enrichment of individual and social life continued to serve me as the vitalizing characteristics of the effective intellectual. Thus a personal debt contracted in the beginning became transmuted into the sustaining mixture of independence, admiration, and gratitude that only friendship can impart.

Carl E. Schorske is Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Emeritus, at Princeton University. He is the author of German Social Democracy 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (1955), Fin-De-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (Pulitzer Prize, 1980), and Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism (1998). In 2004, Professor Schorske was awarded the Ludwig Wittgenstein Prize by the Austrian Research Foundation (ÖFG).

The Jacques Barzun Centennial