Democracy untethered, according to Tocqueville.

I am still thoroughly engaged with the home school year preparation which has short circuited leisure reading opportunities. Of course, as my blog title indicates, there is life and activity superimposed over the joy of reading books. The current core focus of our life is education, and I am always desirous, welcoming, and in need of educational inspiration. There’s no better place to find it than Circe Institute.

This morning I was treated to an exposition on saving the democratic mind by D.C. Thomas. He draws most of the inspiration for his piece from the mind of Alex de Tocqueville, whose thoughts on Democracy in America, 183 years after being penned, still resonate with us today.

Among other impressive predictions like the Civil War and the Cold War, Tocqueville predicted the shift in modern education toward hostility for the Western tradition and agenda-driven pragmatism. He also argued for classical education as a corrective for our modern moment all the way back in 1840.

According to Tocqueville, democracy is not just a form of government but the total equality of conditions—material and spiritual. It “gains no less dominion over civil society than over government: it creates opinions, gives birth to sentiments, suggests usages, and modifies everything it does not produce.”

Democratic education is no exception. So what values should direct American teaching? Pragmatism, mass consensus, and pantheism are the most popular answers.

Pragmatism decides what is true based on what works. Therefore, most American educational theorists obsess over “objective learning outcomes” and “skills-based assessments.” It’s much easier to measure increased ACT scores than it is to measure “taste for the infinite” or “greatness of soul.” Tocqueville would observe that Americans’ obsession with STEM-focused education is mostly about applied science—useful science—not done for its own sake.

Mass consensus allows the American to melt into the cultural zeitgeist of popular opinions. Tocqueville writes,

When the man who lives in democratic countries compares himself individually to all those who surround him . . . he is immediately overwhelmed by his own insignificance and weakness. . . . [T]he majority takes charge of providing individuals with a host of ready-made opinions, and thus relieves them of the obligation to form for themselves opinions that are their own.

On the outworking of these traits with regards to how information is disseminated, Mr. Thomas adds:

Tocqueville also notes that while the brutal violence in the Iliad might disrupt public order in Viking society, it can be helpful in timid, commercial democracies. Since most American writing is geared toward a mass audience, it reinforces rather than challenges the prejudices of the day. On this point, Tocqueville agrees with C.S. Lewis who noted a century later in “On Reading Old Books” that “[e]very age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.”

But Tocqueville goes further than Lewis when he explains that democracy changes language itself. Americans change language because democracies love change and novelty rather than the tried and true. Americans create new words all the time. As the late Peter Lawler summarized this point,

If a thought isn’t useful for a free being who works, then it couldn’t possibly be true. That’s one reason Tocqueville explains why language and democratic times tend to become techno-standardized or flat and ironic; metaphysics and theology in particular lose ground.

To anyone interested in the intersection of freedom of thought un-tethered from a common understanding of foundational truths and how it affects the way we educate our children, it’s worth it to read the whole thing.

 

4 thoughts on “Democracy untethered, according to Tocqueville.

  1. stmichaelkozaki says:

    Mass consensus allows the American to melt into the cultural zeitgeist of popular opinions.

    This is one of the reasons STEM has appeal in education today, not just utility. That is, there is no “mass consensus” in true science. It is what it is. The bridge will fall down if built incorrectly by PC engineers. This is why I’m a STEM guy, the only sane place anymore, it’s easy to point at PC (or bad religious ideas) and laugh using science alone.

    Popular opinion rule is what happens in any democracy-led culture. Everything becomes “just an opinion” and unity is harvest via vote, not provable truth, Aquinas-style. It’s then more important to have “my” ideas rule, not seek out the “provable” ideas and conform my mind to them, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular. It’s how Aquinas could use Aristotle to basically prove traditional Church doctrine, and why Chesterton explains in Orthodoxy on how he traveled the world to discover truth to only find it sitting on his bookshelf. Both men held an allegiance to the truth as it was proven to them, not to their own ideas, which is why the Classics make sense: ideas must hold up over many generations and cultures to be shown true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elspeth says:

    Everything becomes “just an opinion” and unity is harvest via vote, not provable truth, Aquinas-style. It’s then more important to have “my” ideas rule, not seek out the “provable” ideas and conform my mind to them, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular.

    Yes. I agree completely. This is where we are and even in places that seem orderly enough, there is an invisible undercurrent of chaos because of this very thing.

    Educating our children in a way that helps them understand that immutable truth often hurts our feelings is as important as anything we’ll ever do.

    Like

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