Columbia Icon Jacques Barzun Dies After Extraordinary Life of Intellectual Leadership

October 26, 2012

The Columbia University community mourns the loss of Jacques Barzun, who died yesterday in San Antonio, Texas, at the age of 104. Whether he is considered as a scholar, teacher, author, academic role model, public intellectual or Columbia University administrator, Professor Barzun had precious few peers. “No person has represented our University’s greatness as a center of intellectual creativity better than Jacques Barzun,” said President Lee C. Bollinger. “He has shown what it means to bring the breadth of human knowledge to bear on understanding the human condition and improving it. His role in Columbia’s history is permanent.” “One of Columbia's most magisterial figures, Jacques Barzun made the case for the importance of deep engagement with the history and contemporary significance of the fundamental questions of civilization and society,” said Nicholas B. Dirks, executive vice president for the Arts and Sciences and dean of the faculty. “Through his life-long work as scholar, administrator, citizen, and most of all teacher, he will always remind us of the centrality of the University for the things we hold most dear.” Jacques Barzun graduated as a history major and class valedictorian from Columbia College in 1927 at age 19. As an undergraduate, he served as a drama critic of the Spectator, editor of the literary magazine Varsity, and president of the Philolexian Society. Immediately upon graduation, he was appointed an instructor in the history department and in 1932 earned his Ph.D. with a thesis on Montesquieu, the French enlightenment philosopher, in which he attacked the popular notion of “the French race.” He became a full professor in 1945, Seth Low Professor of History in 1960, and in 1967 was appointed University Professor. Among his many important administrative contributions to Columbia, he served as dean of Graduate Faculties and as provost of the University. He came to be so closely associated with Columbia that he redesigned the University’s academic robes. At age 92, Professor Barzun published From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, an encyclopedic work that ably refutes the notion of intellectual decline in old age. Professor Barzun was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush in 2003, and last year President Obama honored him with the National Humanities Medal. Of his many contributions to scholarship and teaching at Columbia, Professor Barzun is perhaps best remembered for his early role in the creation of what we know today as the Core Curriculum. He was an instructor in Contemporary Civilizations from the start of his career, and in 1932 was a driving force in the creation of the Colloquium on Important Books. He later helped establish Humanities A and taught the course regularly. “Jacques Barzun was an intellectual giant of the twentieth century,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History. “Few scholars have had the breadth and depth of his knowledge, which ranged from classical music to detective fiction to history to baseball. He lived long enough to see French soldiers march off to Verdun in World War I and American soldiers return home from the Iraq War. No one, including myself, who holds the Barzun chair, could dream of matching his erudition and productivity.”