Jacques Barzun, for nearly half a century, has been telling us what is wrong with our schools and what we might do to improve them. This he continues to do in his most recent book, Begin Here

Pointing out that American schools have long been bad and are getting worse; that from grade school through the university, they regularly graduate students incompetent in reading, writing, and counting; and that there are 60 million illiterate in America today, despite the enormous sums of money we spend on education, Barzun, in this collection of 15 essays and speeches, castigates the rotten teaching of basic subjects, the inadequate training of teachers, the overuse of multiple choice tests, the extravagant waste of money and time on “opulent sports programs” and other “ornaments,” and the notion that novelties and “innovations . . . gimmicks and gadgetry”—such as television—contribute toward any real improvement in learning.

Barzun also attacks, as he has for years, the worthlessness of much academic scholarship, especially in the humanities; the sloppy thinking, deplorable writing, and general ignorance of the majority of educationists and administrators who run the schools; the lamentably large numbers of highly expensive and academically unjustified nonacademics employed by the schools (deans, counselors, and coaches); and the academic trends of recent years (multiculturalism, feminism, deconstruction) that threaten what is left of the integrity of the American university.

As in his longer, more ambitious books on education—Teacher in America, The House of Intellect, The American University, and The Culture We Deserve—Barzun reminds us in Begin Here that American education has too long been dominated by people who have no business in it, by people who regard education not as the process of “cultivating intellect,” but rather as a means of adjusting students to society and of solving social problems. These people range from the old-fashioned educationists and vocationalists who have filled the schools with courses in Dating, Driver Safety, Self-Esteem, Intermediate Frisbee, and Resort Club Accounting, to more modern “anti-intellectual intellectuals”: those who, in the name of “educational diversity” and under the pretext of “liberating minorities,” declare the intellect a sham, deny that words have meaning, and dismiss reason itself as a mere tool used by the white middle class to “oppress.”

What is wrong with American schools, Barzun has said for years and repeats here, is that they long ago forgot their purpose. Rather than dedicating themselves to their main job of the “liquidation of ignorance,” rather than teaching students to master “the arts of reading, writing, and counting,” the schools are more interested in trying “to make ideal citizens, super tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace . . . flawless drivers of cars,” and “politically correct” advocates of the causes of various minority groups.

Making the schools once again schools, Barzun has long contended, could result in any number of happy consequences. Without increasing their budgets, for example, schools could substantially increase the pay of real teachers simply by getting rid of the hordes of psychological and psychiatric counselors, coaches, superfluous administrators, and pseudo-teachers of nonacademic courses. Such a move might attract sizably larger numbers of our best college graduates to teaching, thereby improving the quality of pedagogy and the prestige of the teaching profession. The solution to the problems of American education, as Barzun first wrote nearly a quarter century ago in The American University, is “simplicity and austerity.” Teachers need to stop “innovating” and to start teaching. Schools must cut, not add.

But before any practical changes, financial or otherwise, can take place the American educational system must rediscover its real purpose. This, Barzun believes, is nowhere more important than in the universities, notably in the undergraduate schools, for it is they that provide the model and set the tone for all others. The much-needed reform in American universities will not begin until the universities recapture what Cardinal Newman called “the idea of the university,” the concept that universities are institutions wherein students of superior intellect and with “a special talent for articulateness and the pursuit of ideas in books” master certain intellectual skills, read specified books (e.g., the ancient and modern classics), and take specified courses in the arts and sciences. Recapturing the idea of the university, says Barzun, means reaffirming the idea of the university as an intellectual community, a community based on commonly held values a community of individuals and special groups, of people widely diverse in background and disposition, who are nevertheless united by a common commitment to the pursuit of truth through the exercise of reason. It means emphasizing not our differences, not our “diversity,” but our “commonality.” (The word “university” derives from the Latin universum, and signifies the joining of many parts as one.) Because reason is its essence, because it cannot survive unless ruled by reason, the university, though it may be the most tolerant of institutions, cannot tolerate a refusal of its members to abide by reason, and the “anti-intellectual intellectuals,” insofar as they refuse to acknowledge and abide by reason, deny its existence.

In answer to the question, “What is to be done?” Barzun suggests that the universities might try applying common sense. Refuse to pay the deconstructionist English professors what you have promised them in their contracts and you will see how quickly they discover that words really do have meaning. Better still, administrators might decide that, if deconstruction is true, then “scholarly criticism is no longer possible” and their departments of English should be shut down.

But American universities are not likely to do or say such things largely because university administrators, those directly responsible for hiring the deconstructionists and other nihilists, have neither the wit nor the will to do or say them. It is the administrators, more than any other group in the university, who, through “shuffling and cowardice,” incompetence and sheer stupidity, have been responsible for turning over the university to its “loudest claimants”—that is, to the “anti-intellectual intellectuals.”

“The zest with which the American university is destroying itself,” Barzun writes, “is truly a remarkable sight,” and probably the only hope for saving it is the “hope that life on campus will get rapidly worse, so that shame and despair will awaken recollections of a decent past,” thereby leading “dedicated spirits” to reestablish the due forms and civil temper of a “company of scholars.”


[Begin Here, by Jacques Barzun (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 216 pp., $24.95]