Dr. Barzun also served for three years as drama critic for the university’s daily newspaper, the Spectator, and wrote the book and lyrics for a campus musical variety show. To make a little spending money, he and several friends set up Ghosts Inc., in his words a “perfectly legal and honest tutoring mill” that handled virtually all subjects.
After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1927, graduating at the head of his class, he became a lecturer in history at Columbia. In 1929, he was appointed an instructor in the history department. He said his career was “launched” after he assisted historian Carlton J.H. Hayes in revising Hayes’s widely used two-volume textbook, “A Political and Social History of Modern Europe.”
Dr. Barzun received his doctorate in history from Columbia in 1932. Afterward, a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies enabled him to travel abroad and undertake research that led to a book, “Race: A Study in Modern Superstition” (1937).
The book was written at a time when notions of racial superiority were being put to murderous use in Nazi Germany. In subsequent work, Dr. Barzun explored dangerous perversions of Western thought in “Of Human Freedom” (1939), a defense of the democratic spirit and an attack on absolutism, and “Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage” (1941, revised in 1958), in which Dr. Barzun charged the three 19th-century “intellectual imperialists” with responsibility for the pseudoscientific, mechanistic system that gave rise to 20th-century communism and fascism.
In “Romanticism and the Modern Ego” (1943), Dr. Barzun engaged a topic that became a lifelong fascination. Members of the Romantic movement, he contended, were not sentimental escapists but idealistic individualists trying to build a better world in the post-Napoleonic era. He explored similar themes in his two-volume “Berlioz and the Romantic Century” (1950).
In essays and a series of books on American education, including “Teacher in America” (1945) and “The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going” (1968), Dr. Barzun presented education as having a mandate to impart “common knowledge and common reference.” He inveighed against “the gangrene of specialism” in college offerings that he thought would cause the “individual mind [to be] doomed to solitude and the individual heart to drying up.”