gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Textbooks and Tediousness

“Textbooks and Tediousness”, The Columbia Varsity, volume VIII [8], number 1 (October 1926), pages 11–12.

Eighteen-year-old Jacques joins the fray over Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy (Simon and Schuster, 1926).  Barzun states that John Dewey and others “piled encomiums” on Durant’s new work while Mortimer Adler “ripped open the idol and exposed its common viscera by the deft handling of technical philosophic phraseology in guise of clinical instruments.”  Barzun calls Adler’s piece in The Nation “incisive criticism” and a “brilliant denunciation”, but then sides with Durant:

“The truth of the matter is, that for once Professor Dewey was right and Mr. Adler wrong.  The latter was carried away by professional wrath at the idea that one should draw the veil from his goddess Philosophy and exhibit her to the vulgar gaze devoid of the protective raiment of technicality, remoteness from life, and incomprehensibility of expression.”  

The Columbia College senior soon displays what would become one of his hallmarks:  examination of a larger question illustrated by the present case:

“The problem raised … [is] whether a bold synthesis with imperfections of detail is not in effect superior to an inexpugnable collection of dishumanized facts; whether it would not be better to place in the hands of students the faulty masterpieces of biased thought rather than the irreproachable re-hashings of passive scholarship.”

Barzun inveighs against “specially prepared books containing only pre-digested and carefully strained ideas … thought to be relatively safe, provided the subject were dissociated from real values and actual problems.”  He alludes to the financial incentives that allow publishers and professors to “thrive on this exploitation of mediocre compilation”, before adding a concession:

“Seriously speaking, although it must be admitted that a fair proportion of these books are valuable as references, … the large majority of them are utterly worthless.  Especially in the field of languages is to be found the greatest waste of money, time, and energy.”  

In that young man’s view (and in that of many another student since) the same tendency, though less pronounced, applied to “the entire forests of pulpwood which we handle as histories, elements of economics, introduction to government, not to mention every Thomas, Richard, and Henry’s principles of psychology.”  

He returns to the value of Durant’s Story of Philosophy for the last two paragraphs, but not before discharging both barrels at textbooks and their makers:

“It is such books that make study an impossibility for the weak, a drudgery for the persistent and a mental torture for the intelligent.  The textbook author’s struggle with his sack of notes has left him without the power to write an English sentence; his love of minutiæ has made him write a volume of footnotes with a sprinkling of text; his fear of attack from scholarly competitors has made him eschew any informing thought of his own that might give life to the subject; Doctor’s Dissertations are racy morsels in comparison to his aridity.”  


Persons mentioned:  Will Durant, John Dewey, George A. Dorsey, Heywood Broun, Hendrik Van Loon, Mortimer J. Adler, Aristotle

Responses welcomed. Courtesy appreciated.

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