If there’s one thing I’m constantly learning it’s that an education is earned alone with the help of mentors…but mostly alone. All educational centers I have ever had the privilege of attending value independence which I suppose is the nicest way I can come around to say that after four years in college and a semester in grad school, I still often ask myself why I didn’t just do what I wanted to begin — i.e. just dedicate hours’ worth of my time to the library and do a RayBrad. I could have done it but the fear of having no papers to show come the time for employment made me chicken out. Plus, my mother’s wrath would have been my enemy till death do us part. So, I took the road often pranced upon and discovered, yet again, that to be educated (in the liberal tradition that I always dreamed of) meant succumbing to the inner autodidact.
To succeed in this, one must have mentors. They may be dead or alive often immortalized in pages worth of text left unread in libraries. Regardless of age or stature, these mentors are key in progressing toward enlightenment.
Here is one such man who is mentor to many people. There are a number of those like him who deserve my endless gratitude but on this occasion, I happen to be reading his book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. In doing so I had become curious about this person who knows so much and has a deep insight into these interesting times. When I first encountered him, I was taking a Western Civ Lit class which remains to be the only class I loved fervently in college because it was the one class that dealt with what i wanted to learn. I’m not a frustrated Lit major, fyi. It’s more, I wish I took Interdisciplinary Studies so I could have molded my own education to include Literature, History and Political Science. But anyway, in that class our teacher, who could be described as a pessimist, heartily encouraged us to read Barzun. At the time, my romantic sensibilities and wide-eyed idealism could not be altered to fit this seemingly unhealthy dose of negativity. So, despite my love for the class and the readings, I kept some distance between me and Mr. Barzun.
Now, though, the tables have changed and as I re-learn things in order to teach them better, I’ve discovered that Jacques Barzun has patiently waited for me to come around. After all these years of shunning him and his seemingly negative ideas, I’m finally listening and his ideas are the things that help me dream at night and remember in the morning. His writings are of the bygone eras, years so far away from us that even as our forged identities are so deeply rooted in them, we would likely exist unaware. And that is the problem: that all we do is exist but not live. Perhaps this could be an extension of his idea of our descent upon decadence. Hmmm.
But while that thought came to mind later on, I just wanted to extend my gratitude to him now because he is still among us. It completely blew my mind when I found out recently that he was still alive! By the end of this month, Jacques Martin Barzun, lover of arts and letters and teacher to all of us who love Western Civ will be 103!
103. He has critics and is otherwise loved by those who enjoy reading dead people but honestly, if anyone lived this long and survived to tell the tale, I would listen. For my own good and everyone else’s.
So, Monsieur Barzun, merci beaucoup. Je vous remercie pour votre dévouement envers les arts et à mon éducation.