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 VOL. 23, NO. 13JANUARY 30, 1998 

Prof. Barzun’s Work Led Young Man to Columbia, and to a New Guiding Principle

Last month, The Washington Post invited prominent writers and journalists to recall how a book (or books) changed their lives. Charlie Peters, editor of The Washington Monthly, wrote the following:

  As the time approached for my discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, I was planning to attend one of the schools usually chosen by my hometown friends in Charleston, W. Va.—the state university or Virginia’s or Washington and Lee. But while I was home on leave in October 1945, a friend lent me Teacher in America by Jacques Barzun, a professor of history at Columbia.

  I was fascinated by the author’s description of Columbia College, where he taught. Unlike the giant university of which it is a part, the college had only 1,700 students, which meant an average class size of 20 or so. And the famous professors—the Mark Van Dorens and Lionel Trillings—actually taught instead of leaving most of the work to graduate students.

  Everyone was required to take a core curriculum that emphasized the great books. All of this sounded right to me so I chose Columbia. In the back of my mind there might have lurked the hope that in addition to getting a solid education I might meet a chorus girl from a Broadway show.

  As things worked out, I met just one chorus girl—she said she had a headache a half hour into our only date—but the classes at Columbia were everything I had hoped they would be. Not only were many of the professors brilliant, so were many of the students. They included Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Kraft, Jason Epstein and Norman Podhoretz. They, teacher and student alike, had a profound impact on my life.

  Trilling taught me to be skeptical of conventional liberalism while remaining loyal to its basic belief in freedom, fair play and generosity to the down and out. Ginsberg broadened that skepticism to include conventional wisdom of all kinds. His refusal to join the rest of our generation in the gray-flannel suit conformity of the ‘50s provided me with a lasting example of the need to say ‘no’ to respectability when what is respectable is also wrong.

  Something else Allen taught me was the importance of trying to strip away the barriers of pride and pretense that keep us from really talking to one another, to be willing to acknowledge instead of concealing one’s confusion and anxiety.

  This helped me face the bewilderment of my own late adolescence and helped prepare me for the course that was to have the most influence on my life.

  It was taught by Mark Van Doren and consisted on reading The Trial, The Castle, The Divine Comedy and Don Quixote. For me this was a journey from being lost to finding the guiding principle of my life: No matter how absurd and futile the effort might seem, I had to keep trying to tell the truth as I saw it.

  In one sense then, Don Quixote was the most important book for me. But it was the experience of Columbia that prepared me for it, and for that I am indebted to Teacher in America.