‘Get Sober and Stay Sober’

The late Jacques Barzun was a hero of mine. I discovered two of his books, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, and Teacher in America, while in education school. He was a witty and firebrand salve to what I then saw as the well-intentioned silliness of much of the curriculum.  He argued for literacy, that reading was central to knowledge, and that complexity always trumped superficiality.

There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t find myself wondering if my actions would please the old man.

While I think his arguments would carry more weight with empirical evidence (a project that, while imperfect, is gaining steam), I have not really lost my love for Barzun.  Of course, having spent years in the field and earned a PhD performing social science research, I think he would say I’ve become brainwashed – or, as he liked to say, brain soiled.

His frequent writing on teaching and learning revealed many passions. Two that persist in my mind are his hatred of verbal inflation (“teaching” becomes “education,” for example), and his insistence that schooling be concerned with clear, achievable aims.

In his own words, as perfect as always:

“Teaching is the art of the possible… Give up utopianism, get sober and stay sober, and think of all the released time at your disposal, clear of committee meetings and the reading of reports.  Think of all the restored energy, free from wild or platitudinous guidelines.  The serious energy crisis of our day is that with so much human effort expended, the nation gets so little work done – in business, in government, in the schools.  We are busy bodies and low achievers.” (Jaques Barzun, Begin Here, p. 109)

(Image by Adrian Pike)