USIH Review Essay
Theorizing The Culture Wars: Jacques Barzun, Politics, And Fostering Intellectual Life In A Democracy

By Tim Lacy

Jacques Barzun predicted the Culture Wars. Well, maybe not. He was both a historian and a product of his times, not a prophet. But there is little doubt that the Culture Wars of his early years, the 1940s and 1950s, bear at least some resemblance to today's battles over books, religion, the arts, and education.

As such, passages in Barzun's 1959 book, The House of Intellect, both describe his times and explain something about the causes of political and cultural skirmishes of the last quarter of the twentieth century, as well as first decade of the current one. If we read his book with the last 40 or so years in mind, we see the outlines not only of an explanatory theory for the problems of mixing culture and politics, but maybe also some potential solutions. With Barzun in mind, this essay both thinks historically and philosophizes about the present. He will help me demonstrate the usefulness of U.S. intellectual history today.

House of Intellect begins by outlining three primary enemies of the intellect, at least as Barzun saw them in the late 1950s. They were Art, Science, and Philanthropy. These separate but inter-related combatants work against the intellect by: demanding exclusive allegiance (art), garnering intellectual prestige and fearing the so-called regressive effects of the humanities (science), as well as fostering a demeaned equality and psychology of help (philanthropy).[1] Barzun provides much more, of course. For instance, he dedicates an entire chapter (seven) to the insidious generosity of philanthropy.

Barzun defines the “intellect” as neither raw intelligence nor the accumulation of credentials. Rather it is a love for “order, logic, clarity, and speed of communication.” The intellect is characterized by a high degree of literacy (not mere reading skill) and a “feeling of mystery and awe” in learning.[2] His notion of the intellect is not about compromise, material interests, public service, or social peace. The intellect might inform things considered practical and pragmatic, but practice and pragmatism will only be hampered if the intellect alone leads the way. Intelligence, cunning, craftiness, and industriousness work well in a democracy, if ordered toward comprise, but not the intellect.

In the education establishment, including primary, secondary, and higher education as they existed in the 1950s, Barzun saw a home for all three enemies.[3] Education was a harbor and cause of: conformity, delinquency, ennui, credentialism, learning by doing, adjustment models, and general anti-intellectualism. While it is easy to quibble with the examples he cited, and the quantity of those examples, Barzun relays a powerful message: the house of the intellect was under siege. What’s amazing to me, looking at his book through the eyes of a historian of education, is that he tells his story without reference to something we know professionally today as a commonplace: namely, that McCarthyism chilled all levels of intellectual life in the 1950s. Ellen Schrecker has documented that phenomenon thoroughly.[4]

Apart from Barzun’s observations about anti and pseudo-intellectualism in higher education, particularly the really interesting ones in relation to graduate education in history at Columbia University, he takes the story away from education to make larger points about the consequences for America and democratic societies in general. This process begins in chapter six, titled “The Case Against Intellect,” and continues through the final four chapters. It is this latter part of the book that holds a number of applications for the Culture Wars today and our current political plight. Here’s where he grabbed me (extended quote, underlining and bolds mine):

The greatest danger to a democratic state is probably the contamination of its politics by Intellect.

It seems at first sight a paradox that political life should be better off without Intellect. The common supposition is that democratic government depends on ‘free trade in ideas’; that parties, which are the bulwark of that government, are formed around clusters of ideas called programs or platforms. The educated voter is expected to study issues, so that he may choose programs rather than men. And it is clear that if he continues to develop his political ideas he is but a step away from intellectualizing politics. Where in all this is the menace? It lies in the possibility that, for him and others, ideas will come to seem more important than public service and social peace. The scrimmage of politics is for the purpose of determining who shall transact the government’s business. If in the struggle the desire to accomplish one’s purpose turns into a desire to annihilate one’s opponent, the outcome is civil war. Historically, this desire to annihilate finds its support and justification in Intellect, in ideas, for ideas are clear-cut and divide. Material interests can be compromised, principles cannot. A man who sensibly will not fight his neighbor over depredations in his garden will fight him over being called a liar. The intangible idea is sharper, more potent than physical damage. Intellect, which makes distinctions, separates forever what is has distinguished. The parts cannot be rejoined, the wound is never healed. War comes because of man’s unconquerable mind. (p. 146) [5]

There’s more. Barzun continued:

The threat of ‘great ideas’ to the peaceful conduct of ordinary life is plain: compromise, bargains, tolerance, the salutary neglect of trivial acts---all these are at once ruled out. . . .Idealism springs from deep feelings, but feelings are worth nothing without the formulated idea that keeps them whole. . . .In any assembly, the simplest way to stop the transacting of business and split the ranks is to appeal to a principle: ‘This, gentleman, would mean nothing less than discrimination’ [and so on]. (p. 146-7)

In the next paragraphs Barzun, displaying knowledge from his primary field of study (modern European history), cites the French as the premier Western example of a people whose minds, or at least its intellectual class, interfered with its ability to govern itself. Barzun refers to Walter Bagehot’s “profound” commentary on that issue (p. 148). From those passages, a general line of thought proceeds as follows: When the intellect is too versatile and ready, the result is “too much cleverness and too many principles for action in common when time presses and interests diverge” (p. 149).

And what are Barzun’s conclusions for the United States? He reflected (bolds mine):

A people under representative government had therefore better avoid making a fetish of Intellect. In particular, a country as large as the United States, whose local interests are bound to differ widely, should avoid intellectualizing its politics. Rather, it should congratulate itself on maintaining two large parties which can both accommodate inner contradictions. To introduce strictness and rigor into the politics of adaptation, variety, and pluralism would be to give birth at once to a dozen groups of eternal enemies. The more firmly each group was ‘dedicated to an idea’ the less it could allow the others to live, the more each would fear for its life, and the more the life of the population would become a battle, of words first and then of arms. On the one great occasion when an idea and its concomitants aroused the American people, it cut a chasm between the North and the South which a million corpses did not suffice to fill. (p. 149).

How does all of this apply today? The United States is no “Republic of Intellectuals,” is it? Susan Jacoby sought to show otherwise in her 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason.[6] But, on the other hand, the same anti-intellectualism of the 1950s does not plague “the house of intellect” now, does it? Barzun saw that the “conduct of politics” in the U.S. was “regularly hampered” the absence of intellect (if not reason) in the 1950s. So is the problem, according to Barzun, the fetishing or the neglect of intellect?

Barzun concedes the contradictory appearance of his argument. What then, are the roles and boundaries of the intellect? How do we reconcile Barzun’s “blowing hot and cold” about the intellectual life? He begins his reconciliation by distinguishing between the public and private. In private, the intellect must always be nurtured, “far more than” it was in the 1950s. In public, however, “society should shun and discourage the intellect far more than it does” (p. 156). When the mind is improperly or merely half applied to society, it becomes dangerous and potentially catastrophic. This results in “intellectualism,” or systems.

Those who engage in these bad applications are called “heretics” by Barzun. Yet he also reminds the American reader that his/her state has a means of dealing properly with heretical ideas and their opponents: the Bill of Rights. That instrument allows for the “licensed scrimmage” of disturbances that will hopefully result in progress. The Bill of Rights protects heretics and allows recourse to the intellect in situations that might otherwise result in defense or assault with arms (157-58). The fostering of the private intellect, moreover, helps prevent the flowering of faulty schemes, systems, and ideologies. Barzun then concludes that “the first maxim of the self-aware Intellect” is as follows: “The sharp, irremediable divisions of intellectual discourse have no correspondence in the realities of political and social life” in a democracy (p. 160).

Understanding Barzun’s criticisms, terminology, paradoxes, and proposed reconciliation with regard to his own times, we can now ask whether his criticisms resonate today. I think the answer is yes. Indeed, I find the relevance of his warnings shocking considering that House of Intellect was published 50 years ago. The development of the Culture Wars over the last thirty years has even made some his complaints more acute. Comparing Barzun’s themes, point by point, makes it seem as if he predicted our Culture Wars---even if we have added new twists.

Just as Barzun included higher education as an enemy of the intellect, it remains so---and has become somewhat worse today. Since 1959, with the results of general cultural changes and policy incentives, the U.S. ranks behind only Canada, Japan, and New Zealand for the percentage of its adults (ages 25-64) holding an associate’s degree or higher.[7] Statistically speaking, then, the U.S. is not a relative disparager of the mind. Yet I agree with Barzun that credentialism, job hunting, and status-striving still dominate the undergraduate mind. We appear to have fetished education at the expense of our collective intellectual life. Our system rewards point gathering rather than intellectual development. And now the adjunct system rewards instructors who please students rather than those teachers who challenge a student’s stock notions. Specialization still hampers the academy in that professors are primarily rewarded for research rather than teaching, and young instructors are better subject technicians (through no fault of their own) than classroom leaders who foster the intellect.

The increased numbers of students who are thankfully able to take advantage of higher education has unfortunately created more pseudo-intellectualism than a substantial quantitative increase in ability to reason. While I believe that Jacoby wrongfully focused on political leadership, conservatism, and pedantic examples in Age of American Unreason, politics is nevertheless an area that feels positively unaffected by our more educated electorate.[8] Ideology, or what Barzun called “systems,” seems to rule elections no matter whether the winner is on the left or right. Our stock notions prevail. Barzun observed:

With or without logic, ideas form systems, and systems absorb lives. A believer in a system, or as we say today, an ideology, supports it with all his gregarious instincts---he is no longer alone in his struggle against the world; with his sense of liberation from uncertainty---he has found answers to many perplexing questions; with his pride of learning---the ‘science’ he has mastered is difficult; with his moral conceit---the idea or cause he has adopted makes him superior to those who pursue only crass advantage. (p. 149-50)

Sound familiar? Does this characterize someone you know---that crazy aunt, uncle, or old college friend who can’t stop sending you political conspiracy e-mails? Does it describe your own cultural or political enemies? Can we admit that it might even characterize us at some unflattering point our lives?

It is abundantly clear that in the past 20-30 years, the prominence of ideology over intellect in the electorate has fanned the flames of the Culture Wars. Historians of the 1970s, such as Bruce Schulman and Peter Carroll, have documented the beginnings of these struggles.[9] We are generally familiar with the list of battleground areas, but ideologues struggle over: sexual politics (e.g. abortion and “family values”), the environment (e.g. sustainability or global warming), scientism, the anti-tax/small government movement, identity politics (including race and gender, especially), education reform (through home schooling or of public schools), and various religious worldviews.

A metaphor and an extended analogy, both rooted in the 1970s, help underscore the associated problems. A third links the Culture Wars to current strains of historical study. The first is medical and the second related to the military. The last extends to sailing and emotions. All reveal something different about the insidiousness of the Culture Wars.

Ideology in politics can be viewed much like a sexually transmitted disease. We decry both the cause and effect, but can’t decide whether it’s a public or private problem, blame the victims, and claim moral superiority over those infected. Meanwhile, the carriers---both active and latent---remain untreated and (occasionally) stigmatized (when they're not being celebrated, oddly enough). The epidemic continues. And the Culture Wars act as a plague on the health of our democracy. When the infection is evident, moreover, we become like lepers to the rest of the world. As such, democracy is shunned.

Barzun’s own historical circumstances provide the source for another extended analogy. As he singled out Marxism as an ideological enemy of the intellect in the 1950s, we can view the Culture Wars as a systemic arms proliferation in the life of the mind.[10] Rather than deterring wars over culture or winning their particular battles, those who have made ideas, or immaterial means, their ends have actually escalated the conflict. The slavish, pseudo-intellectual devotion of a significant portion of our population to one or two ‘great ideas’ has created, in our new century, a kind of non-violent civil war between red and blue states. Indeed, Barzun himself cited the Civil War as a sad instance a single idea ruled all political engagement.[11] Education has made some blind to the differences between the world of ideas and the world of practicality or pragmatism: politics.

I fear our recent period will become, appropriately, the object of historians of emotion rather than of the intellectual life. Our passions for "the issues" and pseudo-intellectual systematic thinking have created a situation where gales, with apologies to historian Nicole Eustace (as well as Joseph Shippen, a prominent figure in her work), can "overpress" our ships of thought.[12] Overpressing was the phenomenon of a ship raising too much sail such that the wind paradoxically slowed the ship's progress by pressing down the bow. So rather than having our passions be a positive gale for our intellectual life, today's overpressing---or the over-utilization of ideas in politics---results in little forward movement. It is so bad that we've created neologisms, like "Godwin's Law" and the Rachel Maddow corollary, to describe our refusal to come to terms. Both are red herring fallacies, or fallacies of association, related to debate-stopping invocations of Adolf Hitler and socialism, respectively.

Metaphors aside, what is the way out of our predicament?

To be sure, the solution to our problems should not involve a diminishment of higher education. We won’t maximize the potential of our republic by lessening our citizens’ exposure to the marketplace of ideas. Rather, I believe that more stress needs to be placed on continual or strengthened education in politics and government. While another brick in the wall of general or core curricula might help (e.g. political history?), why not require some kind of annual or bi-annual mandatory public service of all undergraduates and secondary school students? Americorps may be the answer for some. Participants in that program gain an understanding of the practical needs of the polis through service projects. But other extracurricular, politically-oriented options are needed. Indeed, I see a two-pronged, curricular-extracurricular, approach as helping cover deficiencies in parental inculcation of the service spirit.

While service will not necessarily increase the numbers of Americans who love the life of the mind---order, logic, and clarity in thinking to Barzun, nor foster the highest kind of literacy desired, public service may at least compel students to see that politics should focus on the common good. It might help youth, who are quite susceptible to ideological movements, realize that elevating cultural skirmishes to the primary criteria for filling out one’s ballot is the wrong way to go.

As Barzun noted, ideas are all too often the enemy. We need fewer political “parties of ideas.” That is making things too clever by half. Both Democrats (e.g. Obamaites) and Republicans (e.g. Reaganites) have embraced this thinking at various times in recent years. Rather, both parties need to focus on being practical and solving problems. If our ballot options included more candidates from “parties of practicality,” then warring over where one stands on cultural issues will fade. Offering pragmatic answers is an active means of seeking peace in the polis. For “standing” is not action, and peace is not merely the absence of fighting.

But we won’t be able to recognize and embrace solution-oriented politics until the scales of ideology are removed from our eyes. Ideology is scrubbed by contact with, and knowledge of, many ideas, not just a few. The reliance on systems of thought is more likely to be lessened through a more thorough understanding that politics is about material compromise and solutions. This brings me to the next prong in my extracurricular-curricular strategy.

Our curricula may offer help in curing our Culture Wars epidemic. We can increase our contact with differing ideas by increasing the quality of education, especially at the secondary and higher education levels. How? While more steady contact with political science, political history, and government courses will help, we also must increase diversity in the curriculum. I don’t mean diversity by race, ethnicity, etc. Rather, I argue that the numbers of major courses and weak electives must be reduced, while core or general education curricula are expanded. That expansion should include a focus on courses addressing politics and government. Students must gain a more sound understanding of both political philosophy and the complications involved in applying “ideas,” whether today or in history. We can leave choices for the students while increasing the quality of courses and the number subjects are expanded.

With these suggestions, I am very much aware of exceeding my mandate as a trained historian. I have ranged beyond history and analysis, and into prescription---always dangerous ground for historians. Plus, it sounds elitist. Decrying anti-intellectualism is often a sign of elitism. But combating ideology and “systems,” which are forms of pseudo and anti-intellectualism, is the province of all civilians in a good society. It is our duty to be hopeful skeptics---or thinking heretics, in Barzun’s parlance. It beats being enthusiasts for what he termed “thought clichés,” or formulaic thinking.[13]

Returning firmly to House of Intellect, it is clear that Barzun was at the time no strong believer in democracy---or at least in the vitality of the life of the mind in a democracy. To me this contrasts sharply with the understanding I gained of him in another context. In the late 1970s and in the 1980s, Barzun became involved in something called the Paideia Project.”[14] That endeavor was headed by Mortimer J. Adler and focused on education reform with a great books component. Barzun was an enthusiastic participant in that very radical and democratic school reform program. A decided lack of cynicism about the prospects of students in a democracy was an essential part the Paideia Project. It contrasts sharply with Barzun’s pessimism about the education establishment’s ability to foster the intellect that we see in House of Intellect. People change. But I think his involvement with Paideia points to the importance Barzun put on combating anti-intellectualism and finding a proper role for the intellect in democratic culture.


*I thank Andrew Hartman and Ray Haberski for their comments on this piece.

[1] Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959; reprint, Harper Torchbooks, 1961), chapter one passim.

[2] Barzun, 5, 6, 8, 9.

[3] Ibid., chapters four and five passim.

[4] Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[5] “Man’s unconquerable mind” is a likely referencing Gilbert Highet’s 1954 book of the same name.

[6] New York: Pantheon, 2008.

[7] “Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education” (San Jose, CA: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2008): 6. Available online here: Accessed April 2, 2009.

[8] There were three USIH posts from February to May of 2008 on Jacoby’s book. Mike O’Connor’s reflections are most enlightening.

[9] Barzun, 149-50.

[10] Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001) and Peter N. Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened: America in the 1970s (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982; Reprint, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

[11] Barzun, 149-50.

[12] Nicole Eustace, Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), introduction passim.

[13] Barzun, 51.

[14] I outline this and what follows in the last chapter of my dissertation.