Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Thursday, January 7, 2016

de Tocqueville on education in America

Most of what he has to say about education will come in the second volume, but in Vol. I, Part 2, Chapter 9 ("Causes which tend to maintain a democratic republic") de Tocqueville has a section on "How the education, habits, and practical experience of Americans contribute to the success of democratic institutions."  (Pages 352-357 in the Penguin Classics edition that I'm reading.)

He was writing in a time when America was an intellectual backwater (unlike now, when our intellectual heights are very high, even if our lows are very low and our average is disappointing).  He praised the way in which virtually every common man in New England was literate and at least modestly educated, and even in the south and west the average level of education was better than much of Europe.  In his opinion, our ancestors were an unintellectual people who were determined to hang on to what they did know.  I think it's a bit more complicated than that, but he was speaking of the snapshot of America that he saw in the 1830's.

This is in some ways a contrast with the present, where we emphasize inequality, but there are two lines of continuity with the past:
1) I've noted repeatedly that much of the anti-intellectual ethos in the modern progressive academy is motivated (at least in part) by an egalitarian hope.  The egalitarianism noted by de Tocqueville, where we were proud that even the common man knew something despite the lack of European-class intellectuals, carries through in progressive educators to this day.
2) de Tocqueville restricted his attention primarily to white men, not to all of America.  This is an unpardonable crime today, but he was not merely "a man of his time"; his goal was to understand our democratic system, so he surveyed the educational state of those who were participants in it.  He analyzed the system on its own terms, which can be appropriate if your goal is simply to comprehend the workings of a system (though it is obviously inappropriate for those who participate in a system and have a moral duty to improve it).  If we were to look at the full population of America in the time of de Tocqueville, we would see quite substantial inequality, as now.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.

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