gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

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Found: “The Advantages of Inconsistency”

The Ford Foundation invited Jacques Barzun to give an after-dinner talk to their Foundations Group in 1961.  Two years earlier Columbia’s provost and dean of faculties had warned in The House of Intellect that philanthropy was one of three unsuspected threats to Intellect, “the capitalized and communal form of live intelligence.” President Grayson Kirk had fielded complaints from university trustees who worried that their friends on the foundation boards might decline to fund Columbia projects. Regarding foundations Barzun had written, “It is an excess of goodwill, of fraternal love, of deep feeling for human life and its reflection in art, that is causing the neglect of mind.” When he addressed the Foundations Group some might have expected fence mending. Instead, Barzun gave advice, beginning with this analogy:

First page or a talk to the Ford Foundations Group, 28 September 1961. Jacques Barzun Papers, Box 142, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

First page of a talk to the Ford Foundations Group, 28 September 1961. Jacques Barzun Papers, Box 142, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

A pleasant meal: our success and ease in carrying food from plate to mouth due to expert control of the forearm, due in turn to opposite and simultaneous action of flexor and extensor muscles. We control the movement for extending one set while contracting the other.

Yet we live in a mental world where most people want action taken in one direction only – by the pull of one set of ideas. They try hard never to do the opposite of what they ‘believe in,’ be it positive or negative. And it is very true that in many realms consistency is a difficult and desirable goal. In the demonstrations of mathematics, science, and philosophy as well as in the production of plays or the erection of buildings, the happy result springs from unity achieved over diversity.

But note that in plays and buildings, the various artists and artisans introduce into their plans a good many contrasting elements, a series of subtle opposites to the main idea. This is required to avoid dullness and indifference in the beholder, and the reason seems to be that these creations must somehow correspond to life, and life proceeds like our muscles by oppositions.

The applicability of this notion to your work is not something I am competent to pursue in detail. I know that I do not know all the difficulties from inside.  I know they exist and I know how I feel when I hear some ‘outsider’ to my worries telling me ‘Why don’t you do this?’ I see at once that it’s impossible and I dismiss his suggestion. But I also notice, from time to time, that the suggestion works like a little seed in an ungrateful soil, like a nasty germ in a healthy organism, and I come down with the disease of seeing things differently and I recover by carrying out the suggestion – not as it was made by that ignoramus but in accordance with the facts which I know better than he.

“What I can see from outside is something which in foundation work strives for consistency too hard. The cause lies in 2 things – specialization and the sense of equity. Specialization is to some extent inevitable – no man and no organization can undertake everything. But there is a point where specialization becomes – what shall I say? – asceticism not of the flesh but of the imagination. Policy is then invoked like a legal precedent narrowly interpreted and this is supposed to give equity. There have been among foundations such policies for or against publishing, for or against building, for small grants, for large grants; against overhead always; for matching and not matching, for support at home or abroad, each consistently adhered to. It seems to me there would be immense advantages to deliberate inconsistency.

I think I appreciate the fact that policy protects, but I believe that if foundations properly assume their role of patrons, then they ought not to think of themselves as institutions in need of protection from the public.  They should know more than the public and act on it. It may strike you as a paradox, but a foundation ought to act as much as possible like a person – ondoyant & divers – a free person, of course, which means one who freely and consciously uses his money as an instrument of power guided by judgment.

Power these days is a bad word, which well-meaning people wish had no reality corresponding to it. But power exists nevertheless and is only another form of ability and money exerts power even when no thought of exercising power is in the user’s mind. There should be such a thought: Let us accept the possession of power and recognize that one of its virtues is precisely the scope it gives to judgment and independence. And just as independence does not mean arbitrariness, so judgment does not mean outward consistency. The best judgment often looks inconsistent, as I started out by saying. It is an old Greek tale that a traveler was given hospitality by some remote peasants, who noticed with horror that the man blew on his hands to keep them warm and again on his soup to make it cool. Being great readers of Euclid and lovers of consistency, the peasants killed their guest, because his inconsistency frightened them.  The poor victim, as we know, had a perfectly sensible idea. Life is not geometry. The living have to blow hot and cold, whether they like it or not; whether they are misjudged for it or not. The art of life is to do this with a mind, guided by a lively conscience.  With those guides one should not ask for guarantees. Life is a risk, and the people will talk whatever you do. Let them talk – as you have so graciously allowed me to do.

Did the little seed that he planted that evening grow into something fruitful? Or was the response to the applause line merely polite and his message quickly forgotten? Barzun could be disappointed by the lack of apparent action following even well received speeches. Still he prepared others to keep faith while waiting: “In the artistic or intellectual life,” he wrote in Teacher in America, “you cannot, most often, see the fruit of a day’s work. … It is invisible, and remains so, maybe, for twenty years.”

Five years later a Columbia Spectator headline read: “Columbia Begins $200-Million Drive With Ford Grants Totaling $35 Million: Largest Pledge Ever to a University Launches Central Fund Campaign”. Barzun modestly claimed no credit, saying that the Ford Foundation “had got wind of the changes at Columbia and decided, unsolicited, to award us one of the $25 million grants it was distributing in support of higher education in 1964–65.” Instead, Barzun blamed the Ford Foundation for causing him to postpone retirement as provost for another year and a half in order to administer the grants. Without having access to Ford Foundation files, I think that Barzun’s public efforts – Teacher in America, “Assets to Conceal” in God’s Country and Mine, his Time magazine profile, The House of Intellect, and even “The Advantages of Inconsistency” – contributed to turning the tide. JB also would be quick to mention the later work of his Columbia colleague Richard Hofstadter whose Anti-Intellectualism in American Life won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964.

The Ford Foundation money may have come in unrestricted funds, but the four-to-one matching requirement drove Columbia and Barzun hard. His extended tenure as provost required much additional travel, as he spoke to alumni groups from coast to coast and overseas. (These valuable talks are preserved in Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.) Ending his days as an administrator, Barzun’s promotion to University Professor coincided with publication of The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going. Adopting Shakespeare’s cadence, Barzun addresses fundraising in the chapter titled “Friends, Donors, Enemies”. The year was 1968 and mischief was afoot already on American campuses. Over four decades later Barzun’s intellect and wisdom remain at our disposal, but only on the shelf … instead of being engraved in our tablets and available online. No wonder Google “Scholar” knows so little of Barzun, and nothing at all of “The Advantages of Inconsistency”.
The quotations in my first paragraph come from The House of Intellect (pages 4 and 179). The concern expressed to Grayson Kirk by at least some Columbia trustees about Barzun’s 1959 bestseller (and National Book Award finalist) appears in Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind, Beil, 2011, pages 175–176. The penultimate paragraph’s quotation comes from Teacher in America (1945, page 301; 1980, page 425). The New York Public Library Book of Twentieth-Century Quotations includes more than a dozen Barzun passages; that collection’s version of the “invisible fruit” quotation works like Barium in the gastrointestinal tract, enabling an Internet scan for teacher websites that skim reference works instead of drinking deeply from Barzun’s original.) JB’s characterization of the Ford Foundation grants appears in “How Columbia Was Restructured, 1958–1965”, Appendix A to Michael Murray’s intellectual biography of Barzun,  page 291. The 91st Congress invited the author to testify on student uprisings; Barzun’s insights – national and global – can be found in Campus Unrest, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969, pages 765–781.

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