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 Edward Teller's Memoirs.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I will show you fear in a handful of books

In Chapter 15 of Part 1 of Volume 2, de Tocqueville takes on a surprisingly elitist tone.  It's a short chapter, just a couple pages on why the classics are so important to read (mostly because democracies aren't producing anything of equal worth, in his view), and near the end he writes something that evinces a surprising fear of over-educating the masses:
A persistent education in the classics alone, in a society where everyone was always struggling to increase or preserve their wealth, would produce very sophisticated but very dangerous citizens; for their needs would be prompted every day by their social and political state, which their education would never satisfy, and they would disrupt the state in the name of the Greeks and Romans, instead of enriching it with their industriousness. 
It is clear that in democratic times, individual interest, as well as the security of the state, insists that the education of the masses should be scientific, commercial, and industrial rather than literary.
Greek and Latin should not be taught in all schools; but it is important that those destined by natural endowment or wealth to cultivate or appreciate literature should find schools where they can achieve complete proficiency in classical literature and deeply imbibe its spirit.  A few first-rate universities would be more effective in reaching this goal than numerous poor colleges where badly taught and superfluous studies obstruct the establishment of necessary ones.
I find it interesting that he thinks a liberal arts education would produce a class of unproductive agitators.  I could make a number of jokes about activists at this point, but they are a very distinct minority of the liberally educated, and many of them come from classes that would probably get a liberal arts education regardless of how public policy structured the education system.  From the standpoint of protecting the system from its discontents, I do NOT see a liberal arts education as a threat to public order.  If anything, when I look at mobs flocking to dangerous populists I kind of wish somebody would hand them a book.  For that matter, when I look at academic scientists buying into the latest fads and Right-Think, I wish that they too would pick up a book published more than a few years ago and actually read the whole thing, not just the excerpt published at Salon or Huffington Post or Slate or some other site frequented by Right-Thinking People.  (Notice how in one paragraph I managed to take swipes at the kids supporting Bernie Sanders, the Respectable Liberals supporting Hillary Clinton, and the yahoos supporting Donald Trump. My disdain for people is nothing if not universal.)

On the other hand, I've said many times that making it an imperative to hand diplomas to more people is a dire threat to the academy.  We will be destroyed not by the uncredentialed but by the uneducated. If people are not in a condition to be educated in the liberal arts and sciences or the advanced technical fields then a more pedestrian vocational track would be more advantageous for  them and for the academy.  The academy would be freed of the burden of trying to credential the unteachable and they would be able to go forth and get gainfully employed sooner rather than later.

More importantly, while my take on things may seem very elitist, a more robust foundation for an egalitarian society would be built in several layers over multiple generations.  Move people from low-skilled service jobs to higher-skilled service jobs that they can obtain with a year or two of post-secondary education, and let them save enough to get mortgages, so that the family builds up some assets.  Then focus on moving some portion of the next generation to four-year degrees, and some fraction of the generation after that to professional and graduate degrees.  That's not to say that an individual should be restrained from jumping ahead of that gradual curve, but public policy should focus on gradual progress so that there are multi-generational foundations.  My great-grandfather came here on a boat from southern Italy*, my grandfather was the exception who got a college degree while his siblings ranged from high school drop-outs (not a badge of shame back then, and not a barrier to middle class comfort and respectability), my mother also got a graduate degree, and I got a graduate degree.

My take on all of this is that it's probably in the material interests of most people to encourage a vocational path, but liberal education is NOT a threat to public order.  de Tocqueville over-states his case.

*The very fact that my family is considered "white" these days is a fascinating window into American cultural evolution.  Poor, dark-skinned Catholics speaking a Latinate tongue and adhering to a macho Mediterranean culture were not always considered "white."  It is rather bizarre that my family is considered respectably white while the people crossing our southern border are considered something else, despite their remarkable similarities to southern Italians.

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