If Mr. Barzun kept the political issues of the day at arm’s length, he nonetheless developed a reputation as a cultural conservative after the student protests at Columbia in the late 1960s. He later argued that the “peoples of the West” had “offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.”
But at the same time, he said, Western civilization had also cultivated the seeds of its undoing by envying what it renounced and succumbing to the lure of rebellion. Its virtues and failings, he argued, were in some respects identical: the freedom to rebel could turn into sweeping nihilism, resulting in decadence. He saw that happening….
… He believed that the mission of the university should have nothing to do with professional training or political advocacy. The university, he wrote, should not be a “public utility”; rather it should be a “city of the mind” devoted to the intellectual currents of Western civilization.
… Mr. Barzun argued that egalitarianism, which he celebrated in the political sphere, had no place in the university. He objected to educational “philanthropy,” which he defined as “the liberal doctrine of free and equal opportunity as applied to things of the mind.”
… He also objected to attempts to politicize the academy, whether in support of governmental policies or in opposition to them. In the 1968 student demonstrations at Columbia, for example, protesters took over administration buildings and held a dean hostage, objecting not only to the Vietnam War but also to the roles the university played in the defense establishment and in its own Upper Manhattan neighborhood. In his critique of the protests, Mr. Barzun accused the faculty of failing in its educational responsibilities and commitments to students. And the protesters, he wrote, were guilty of “student despotism.”