Jacques Barzun and Theories of Race

Jacques Barzun is a prominent intellectual theorist of education, and he is certainly the most prominent theorist of education who celebrated his one-hundredth birthday several years ago. As someone who began his academic career in the mid-1920s, he has surely experienced many significant changes in intellectual dogma and fashion.

A perfect example of this comes in the heated subject of “race.” For example, one of Barzun’s earliest published books was entitled “Race: A Study in Modern Superstitution,”¬†with exactly the focus and subject matter which the title indicated. The Saturday Review described this work as presenting “the viewpoint of the extreme race leveller,” who believes that virtually all human characteristics are totally controlled by the environment. Barzun was ridiculed for claiming that height, skin color, and skull shape are completely controlled by diet, “leaving the impression that what we call race arises almost entirely from diet.” The reviewer points out that since blacks and whites in the American South have been largely eating the same foods for many generations, this seems a bit unlikely. Barzun’s book is criticized as being filled with intellectual “intolerance and self assertion.” Meanwhile, the book was lavishly praised in The New Masses, with the reviewer suggesting that the theories advanced in the book would be helpful in preventing Marxists from naively falling into scientific error by accepting common notions of race.

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