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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

One of the most influential historians, educators and thinkers of the 20th century has died. Jacques Barzun seemed to have a limitless capacity to understand and translate complex ideas about the evolution of Western culture, what it means to be free, even the value of American baseball. He did it at numerous books and magazine articles and at Columbia University, where he worked for half a century. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Barzun died last night, a month shy of his 105th birthday.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In an interview 12 years ago on this program, Jacques Barzun said he believed history is driven by emancipation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

JACQUES BARZUN: It is getting rid of whatever constraint at the moment seems intolerable, that of class, government, and now it seems to be against clothing.

ULABY: If that smacks of a kind of intellectual get-off-my-lawn-ism, well, Barzun was a thinker of uncompromisingly high standards and some degree of sarcasm. He was born in Paris, son of a diplomat. French universities had been decimated by World War I, so he attended Columbia in New York. The summer after graduating, he was teaching there. He helped design its great books program but lamented that his approach is disappearing from universities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BARZUN: School today, if it achieves anything at all, aims at socialization rather than intellectual span and grasp.

ULABY: Barzun's own intellectual pursuits ran from editing Ellery Queen mysteries to championing the work of composer Hector Berlioz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Jacques Barzun also wrote about baseball. Maybe his most famous quote is inscribed on the walls of that sport's hall of fame: Whoever wants to know the heart and soul of America had better learn baseball. Barzun's friend, Professor Henry Graff, says his colleague had no problem reconciling his many interests.

HENRY GRAFF: Jacques was the Babe Ruth of romanticism.

ULABY: Graff says Barzun fervently believed that culture and ideas should be part of everyone's experience. To that end, Barzun cofounded a book club to make literature and philosophy widely available. He wrote for Time magazine and for the Saturday Evening Post.

GRAFF: He saw the great value in reaching a larger public than just his friends. He read everything, and I don't know anybody who had such a renaissance mind, a mind that I don't think I will ever encounter anywhere again.

ULABY: At the age of 94, Barzun wrote a survey of Western culture currently, he argued, in decline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BARZUN: It sounds alarming, but it isn't. It's simply the clearing of the ground for the bases being laid of a new culture.

ULABY: A new culture less dependent on its European roots in the 1500s, one more global and complex. It's a shame that Jacques Barzun will not be around to critique it. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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