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Jacques Barzun's "The House Of Intellect"

I finished reading The House Of Intellect by Jacques Barzun a few days ago. Although written in 1959, it's an amazingly timeless analysis of problems facing the intellectual community, or "house of intellect". (Leave it to Barzun to find a fresh alternative to the shopworn metaphor of "community".)

I found it to be a refreshing alternative to Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals And Society, which I'd read earlier this year. Whereas Sowell was completely pessimistic about the good that intellectuals can do, Barzun identifies the problems and limitations of intellect without throwing up his hands in despair or rendering a verdict of uselessness. In fact he has enough respect for intellect to actually capitalize the word throughout the book.

He gives roughly equal coverage to the problems intellectuals face from both within and without. His chapters on education are a good example of the former. They are a devastating critique of modern schools. He criticizes a misguided egalitarianism that waters down standards and undermines rules that facilitate rigorous inquiry.

A chapter entitled The Case Against Intellect demonstrates well how intellectuals can give there critics ammunition. Here,  he warns that ideas can easily turn into ideology which in turn can lead to a mindless tribalism. He cites  the popularity of Marxism in academic  circles as an example. He doesn't reach the easy conclusion that intellectuals are useless or dangerous...he only warns of risks of not understanding the limits of intellectual inquiry.

In the last chapter, he cites a short work of   James Anthony Froude*, in which he imagines himself on   judgement day  being told he he only had "miserable bits of paper which are all that he has to show from himself". Barzun takes seriously the question raised by this fable, but goes on to point out that "no sooner has one made this reflection than one sees that the power thus to estimate life depends on Intellect. Without language, books, and a long tradition of thought , neither Froude nor the reader would be concerned with the question."

This is a book worth reading for anyone concerned with the life of the mind. It is deep and rich enough to be worth owning,  even though it's out of print and would probably be a little harder to find than say, the latest Thomas Friedman tome.

*I'd never heard of him either.