Colleagues remember Jacques Barzun, CC ’27 and Ph.D. ’32, as a modern-day Renaissance man who influenced how people think about topics that range from sports to scholarship.
“I think he’s going to be remembered as one of the great teachers in a particular generation and one of the great masters of Columbia faculties over the centuries,” said Henry Graff, professor emeritus of history. “There are few who belong in that category. Jacques will stand out as among the very best.”
Barzun, who was instrumental in the development of the Core Curriculum, died Thursday at his home in San Antonio. He was 104.
Graff met Barzun when they taught the required history course for masters and doctoral students at Columbia, and the two collaborated on their research and writing handbook “The Modern Researcher,” which has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide.
Barzun was a rigorous teacher and demanding of his students, but “they felt as if they were being cultivated,” Graff said. “He never showed off—he was a brilliant teacher.”
Roosevelt Montás, CC ’95, M.A. ’96, Ph.D. ’04, and director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum, said that Barzun’s influence would “last as long as the Core itself.”
“The sweep of Barzun’s mind, the breadth of his interests, and his insistence of cultivating a life of inner richness in the student have become part of the DNA of the Core,” Montás said in an email.
Barzun taught the first Colloquium on Important Books class in the 1930s, a class that would become Literature Humanities. Graff said that Barzun viewed it not as a course, but as “a college program in action.”
Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis said that, in many ways, Barzun’s educational approach could be summed up by a quote of his: “In teaching, you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work—it is invisible and remains so maybe for 20 years.”
“I think that it is his intellectual heft and breadth that will be remembered as well as the fact that into the 90th year of his life, he was still a productive scholar,” she said.
Yatrakis said that his influence in developing the Core Curriculum would remain his most “visible” influence, helping “students grapple with some of the most profound and enduring questions that define our human condition.”
Barzun started teaching in the Core as a graduate student in the 1930s and helped to establish the Core Preceptor position for eligible graduate students in 1962.
“The importance of graduate students teaching in the Core has two sides: they bring in energy, currency, and commitment that often surpasses that of the permanent faculty, and they gain training and a depth of perspective in liberal education that they take with them to their careers as professors,” Montás said. “I think that Barzun understood well both of these aspects.”
And with Barzun’s interests ranging from political history (he once identified, by eye, a misquote of Abraham Lincoln in one of Graff’s manuscripts) to baseball (he has a signed bat in the Baseball Hall of Fame), Montás said that he helped to develop the way that students and faculty approach Core classes.
“Barzun was a major influence on two key commitments of the Core: the commitment to the study of primary texts that have had enduring impact on how we understand the world, and the commitment to encouraging in our students not a professional commitment to scholarship, but a richness of mind that they can carry to whatever career they choose,” Montás said.