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The Tocquevillean moment

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

“My aim in writing [Democracy in America] was to point out these dreadful downward paths opening under the feet of our contemporaries, not to prove that they must be thrown back into an aristocratic society . . . but to make these tendencies feared by painting them in vivid colors, and thus to secure the effort of mind and will which alone can combat them–to teach democracy to know itself, and thereby to direct itself and contain itself.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

In the current issue of The Wilson Quarterly, Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, has an essay about “the Tocquevillean moment . . . and ours.” This moment, McClay writes, is “when social change arrives at a crossroads, and awaits further direction. [It] involves the ways in which we come to terms, not only as individuals but also as citizens and societies, with whatever fatal circle our times and conditions have drawn around us.”

McClay continues:

How did Tocqueville believe that the Americans of his day managed to counter the dangerous aspects of democracy and create a free and vibrant society? He located a number of factors. He credited the pervasive influence of religion in American life, noting to his astonishment the ways  in which religion served to support democratic values and free institutions. He applauded Americans for their talent in forming voluntary associations, and for their decentralized federal institutions, both of which tended to disperse power and encourage the involvement of citizens in the activity of governing themselves.

But more than anything else, Tocqueville praised Americans for their embrace of the principle of self-interest rightly understood. It was a foregone conclusion, in his view, that self-interest had replaced virtue as the chief force driving human action. To tell an American to do virtuous things for virtue’s sake, or at the authoritative direction of priests, prelates, or princes, was futile. But the same request would readily be granted if real benefits could be shown to flow from it. The challenge of moral philosophy in such an environment was to demonstrate how “private interest and public interest meet and amalgamate,” and how one’s devotion to the general good could also promote one’s personal advantage. Belief in that conjunction—that one could do well by doing good—was exactly what was meant by the “right understanding” of self-interest.

Hence, it was imperative to educate democratic citizens in this understanding, to teach them how to reason their own way to acceptance of the greater good. The American example made Tocqueville hopeful that the modern principle of self-interest could be so channeled, hedged about, habituated, and clothed as to produce public order and public good, even in the absence of “aristocratic” sources of authority. But it would not happen of its own accord.

“Enlighten them, therefore, at any price.” Or, as another translation expresses it, “Educate them, then.” Whatever else we may believe about the applicability of Tocqueville’s ideas to the present day, we can be in no doubt that he was right in his emphasis upon education. But not just any kind of education.  He was talking about what we call liberal education, in the strictest sense of the term, an education that makes men and women capable of the exercise of liberty, and equips them for the task of rational self-governance. And the future of that ideal of education is today very much in doubt.

The proper education of the citizenry, McClay notes, is our “Tocquevillian moment”–or at least one of them. With educational goals changing and with increasingly greater use of technology in classrooms, we are “at a crossroads” about how to educate the next generation of citizens. He continues:

An education that still revolves around the encounter with serious and substantial books is therefore to be commended on very practical, Tocquevillean grounds. To borrow the words Tocqueville used in his letter to his French critic, such an education seeks to teach democracy to know itself, and thereby to direct itself and contain itself. It equips us to negotiate the multitude of Tocquevillean dilemmas presented to us by the fatal circle of our times—such as the tsunami of digitization that is, precisely like Tocqueville’s own revolution of democratization, too powerful to be reversed, but too full of potential for both good and ill to be treated fatalistically.

Continue reading the whole essay here.

Related: Check out Rita Koganzon’s policy brief for the Program, “Educating for Liberty? The Shortcomings of Contemporary Civic Education Theories.”