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.

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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.

Monday, January 4, 2016

de Tocqueville, pages 229-230

Most of what I've read so far has been de Tocqueville's attempt to explain our system of government.  There has been a bit of cultural commentary, but the cultural commentary most relevant to my concerns on this blog is all delayed until the second half.  In the meantime, enjoy this gem from pages 229-230.  I have broken it up into numbered pieces, while keeping the author's paragraph break in place, so that I can dissect it according to my own division of the ideas.
[1] Whatever one does, it is impossible to raise the intelligence of a nation above a certain level.  It will be quite useless to ease the access to human knowledge, improve teaching methods, or reduce the cost of education, for men will never become educated nor develop their intelligence without devoting time to the matter.
Therefore the inevitable limitations upon a nation's intellectual progress are governed by how great or small is the ease with which it can live without working.  This limitation is further off in certain countries and nearer in others; for it not to exist at all, however, the people would need to be free of the physical cares of life.  It would have to cease to be the people. [2] This it is as difficult to imagine a society where all men are enlightened as a state where all the citizens are wealthy; those are two related difficulties.  I willingly accept that the bulk of the population very sincerely supports the welfare of the country; [3] I might go even further to state that in general the lower social classes seem to be less likely to confuse their personal interests with this support than the upper classes. [4] But what they always lack, more or less, is the skill to judge the means to achieve this sincerely desired end.  A long study and many different ideas indeed are needed to reach a precise picture of the character of one single individual!  Would the masses succeed where the greatest geniuses go astray?  The people never find the time or the means to devote to this work. [5] They have always to come to hasty judgments and to latch on to the most obvious of features.  As a result, charlatans of all kinds know full well the secret of pleasing the people whereas more often than not their real friends fail to do so.
The first and longest part is a statement about the price of knowledge.  I endorse it whole-heartedly, despite the fact that I am endorsing an unabashedly elitist statement.

The second part is a statement that a French nobleman accepts more easily than I might, but I regretfully concede the heavy truth in it.

The third part is an important insight.  My own journey in the educated classes convinces me of its truth.

The fourth is not entirely right and not entirely wrong.  A system that ignores the voices of the masses is not a healthy one, but it is certainly true that the popularity of an idea is hardly an infallible measure of merit.  We're left with the usual "Worst possible system...except for all the other ones" critique of democracy.

On the fifth point, my sojourn among the educated elites convinces me that they are as guilty of this as the masses are.  Educated people love nothing more than a good clickbait article that can flatter their sensibilities.

My conclusion is this:  de Tocqueville accurately understands the price of wisdom and knowledge, accurately diagnoses the weaknesses in the masses, but does not fully appreciate that the elites can be just as hasty and superficial as the masses.  I think he's hinting at it when he speaks of charlatans, but it isn't clear whether he thinks of the charlatans as coming from the upper classes.  Believe me, there are plenty of charlatans among the educated elites.