A Great Teacher

Ralph de Toledano (1916–2007) might have wanted to contribute to The Jacques Barzun Centennial. As an aperitif to the Society of Columbia Graduates Great Teacher Award Dinner on Oct. 18, 2007 honoring Prof. Barzun, I am including here Mr. Toledano’s letter to Columbia College Today, May/June 2006:

Thank you for Tom Vinciguerra ’85’s fine tribute to Jacques Barzun ’27, his contributions to scholarship, and his academic and intellectual achievements.

I would have added only a greater recognition of his greatness as a teacher in a university that has across many decades been distinguished for its faculty. Of my years at Columbia, I can hold in esteem and look back with nostalgia at professors such as Raymond Weaver (Class of 1910) and Irwin Edman ’16. But what has lived most glowingly with me has been the impact of the honors course, Senior Colloquium, presided over by Barzun and Lionel Trilling ’25.

For Barzun, teaching itself was a discipline, unbuttoning the denotations and connotations of the literature, philosophy, and history of the great works that we discussed. As a teacher and an individual, Barzun carried with him an abiding wit (his books and articles are full of it), a love of the pun, an interest in writers as diverse as the 18th century’s Restif de la Bretonne and the 20th’s Raymond Chandler, a disdain for false scholarship, and a zest for the precise life of the mind. Teacher in my undergraduate days and since then friend, he was what generations of his students have acknowledged: in lumine tuo videbimus lumen.

Ralph de Toledano ’38
Washington, D.C.

In the 1990s Mr. Barzun wrote to his former student about Mr. Toledano’s The Apocrypha of Limbo: “I have read your poems, slowly, most of them twice, and am grateful that you sent them. The religious ones move me the most, but what delights me in all is the perfect ease with which your individual tongue speaks. You sound like yourself, there are no borrowed fluencies, you say what you mean — and it all sounds as if there were no other way to put the case. That is why these verses are poems.”

See also Toledano Remembers.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial