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Barzun’s ‘The House of Intellect’


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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
• Are there natural rights? YES
• Is it morally permissible to eat meat? NO
• Is the unexamined life worth living? NO
• Is truth subjectivity? YES
• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
• Can art be created accidentally? NO
• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
• Is it always better to know the truth? YES

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I first read Barzun’s book ‘The House of Intellect’ in college, on the recommendation of a Politics professor of mine who was advising me on my academic future.  The House of Intellect has incredible foresight – written in 1959 but one would think it was written last year.

I still reference the book on some occasion when I teach.  One of my primary pet peeves with my students is their tendency to put ‘I feel’ in front of everything they say.  My response: ‘Don’t be such a wuss.  Assert what you think is the case, if you are wrong don’t worry, someone will tell you!’  I also still get annoyed at the nearly exclusive emphasis on teaching technique (‘engaging the students’) and a corresponding decline in attention paid to the actual content of courses.  I don’t know if I am a good teacher, but I know I teach great books.  If everyone did that, I think we’d be in better shape.

Here is a recent review of the old book.  The book is worth reading for those interested in education in America (and the anti-intellectualism it has helped foster).



  1. Huenemann says:

    I think you know I share a lot of Barzun’s concerns. I haven’t read the book, but I will. Still, just to argue the other side, I wonder if there is something to the idea of school serving a “socialization” function. It is good for kids to learn about sharing, and reading each others’ feelings, and having good self-esteem, and so on. I hasten to add: not to the point of not learning anything!


  2. Kleiner says:

    Yes. This socialization was probably done at home a few generations ago. While I wish more parents took responsibility for it now, it is probably necessary in a post-industrial workforce to have schools play a part in the socialization of students.


  3. Mike says:

    My response: ‘Don’t be such a wuss. Assert what you think is the case, if you are wrong don’t worry, someone will tell you!’

    My response: ‘but, the meek will inherit the earth!’

    Kidding aside, I agree with that basic point. Whenever you state something, “I think” or “I feel” is implied. And education these days has a lot of wuss to it. I heard somewhere that while the literacy rate in the US has gone up over time, the complex literacy rate (whatever that is) in the US has gone down. Incidentally, when I was an undergrad I switched from english to philosophy mostly because of wishy-washy/touchy-feely profs. I didn’t have that problem with the CS department. Vicki Allen in particular wields the staff (brilliant lady).

    I had a friend who got a paper back from Charlie once that said “D, Nice Try”. True story. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t just being lazy either, I think he really did try on that paper.

    I also appreciate it when a prof can look at a student’s attempt to actually learn vs. a student’s attempt to jump through the correct hoops to get the relevant piece of paper.


  4. Huenemann says:

    Geez, what an ass I am!


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