Tocqueville and the Promise of Classical Education

Year after year, education policy experts produce reports and proposals that assume we need some form of national education reform, one that can put American schools back on track. Of course, these vary in quality and focus, but many of them operate on the assumption that to allow robust federalism to guide these efforts is out of the question. Since they demand a uniform, national approach to education, they cannot help but fail to see the ways that education requires we deal with both hearts and minds in a way Deweyan pragmatism cannot abide.

If we take Alexis de Tocqueville seriously, it’s almost inconceivable that such efforts would succeed – unless their real aim was the growth of what Tocqueville called the tutelary despotism, an orderly, gentle system that “restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.”

The curriculum such schools offer is addressed to what policy experts see as effective or useful; apart from PR campaigns to revive public values and certain aspirational goals, there isn’t much serious effort to help cultivate students as citizens. “Pass it on” may be the best a truly value-neutral public campaign can do today at forming the hearts of young people, but the neutered values that schools can try to convey are not hard-cultivated virtues.

Tocqueville’s account of democratic culture suggests that schools can’t rely on there being some kind of default national moral culture that they themselves don’t have to inculcate. So, instead many public schools have advanced their own secular doctrines of progressive toleration and kindness.

That’s not to say that lots of people don’t see a revival of concern with citizenship as impossible in public schools – it’s just that many obstacles stand in their way. Worse still, the very act of centralizing offers new disincentives to participating in one’s local public schools. This poses a real challenge in that effective revivals of good education, if they are going to happen at all, are only likely to succeed on a local scale, and will happen outside the conventional frameworks of public school.

Reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America offers sobering lessons about most aspects of democratic life. We look to education to remedy some of these failings, but if we follow Tocqueville, aspects of our most cherished beliefs in equality stand in the way of reform.

To Tocqueville, American intellectual life seemed driven by utility, with an almost obsessive focus on how to apply ideas to the real world. This is as true in science as it is with “softer” fields. The question every parent has of their child’s studies is “what are you going to do with that?” It isn’t a question we should ignore in a time of skyrocketing student debt and lackluster educational results at every level. But the trouble is that the way universities have tried to offer relevance and employability has deeply undermined the prospects for improving liberal education as a whole. Where universities have failed, so too does education at the primary and secondary levels.

Mercifully, Tocqueville doesn’t just offer a gloomy diagnosis of where democratic education will take us. An often-overlooked element of his prescription is the recommendation that Americans read the classics:

A glance at the writings left to us by the ancients is enough to show that those writers sometimes lacked variety and fertility in the choice of subjects and boldness, movement, and a power of generalization in their thought, but they were always admirably careful and skillful in detail. Nothing is written hurriedly or casually, but is always intended for connoisseurs and is always seeking an ideal beauty. No other literature puts in bolder relief just those qualities democratic writers tend to lack, and therefore no other literature is better to be studied at such times. This study is the best antidote against the inherent defects of the times, whereas the good qualities natural to the age will blossom untended.

The first and perhaps most important consequence of such an education that it can chasten our belief in every-kid-gets-a-trophy equality. It’s hard for anyone to read Tocqueville, let alone Plato or Cicero, and believe that even with a similar education they could match these authors. To read great books is a reminder that genius exists, and is not just a product of reaching 10,000 hours of practice at any given activity.

But the second major benefit of reading in this manner is the way such books force their readers to adopt patient manners of study and reasoning. The value of this endeavor is hard to quantify in the utilitarian way many attempt to defend the humanities. Despite their value as models of grace and excellence, studying them probably cannot be justified on utilitarian grounds. (How could you measure student learning from a seminar setting? Indeed, wouldn’t any such measure ignore the very things we aim at in conversational teaching?)

In 1914, John Alexander Smith opened a lecture to his students at Oxford University by noting that while a very few of them might “use” their education in classics, the rest would not:

nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life — save only this — that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.

Tocqueville implicitly agreed. Democratic writers, he tells us, tend toward abstraction and neologism, using a language where “new words are generally taken from the jargon of parties, the mechanical arts, or trade.” We use lofty words that obscure the relative humbleness of what we’re doing (garbage companies engage in “waste management”; to use Tocqueville’s example, “rope-dancers are turned into acrobats and funambulists). Some other consequences follow:

Democratic peoples have this passion for generic terms and abstract words because such phrases broaden the scope of thought and allow the mind to include much in a few words.

A democratic writer will freely put “the capabilities,” meaning capable men, without going into details as to what these capabilities are to be applied to…. They go further, and to make speech run quicker, personify these abstractions and make them act like real men. They will say, “The force of things wills that capacities govern.”

This last line is almost a parody of business school “thought leadership,” but it is precisely the kind of reasoning that a close reading of great books tends to dispel, at least when it happens in a seminar setting. Virtually everyone I know that teaches these books in a seminar setting thinks that there’s something to be learned there about the practice of virtuous citizenship. At the very least, discussing great books in a fair way teaches participants lessons about how to disagree civilly, which is sorely lacking in our public life. In short, great books education cultivates habits of mind that remedy the worst tendencies of the age.

Tocqueville was also clear that this form of education would be hard to make universal. The dangers latent in classical learning Tocqueville warns us about have to do with both setting and method. He tells us that it’s very important that some number of pupils in democratic times learn the classics, but that they shouldn’t be the dominant method, or the only one:

An obstinate determination to teach nothing but the classics in a society always struggling to acquire or keep wealth would produce very well-educated but very dangerous citizens. For the state of politics and society would always make them want things with their education had not taught them how to earn, and they would perturb the state, in the name of the Greeks and Romans, instead of enriching it by their industry.

But this is probably a worry without cause. There are simply too few people interested in, let alone qualified to undertake the teaching of classics. At this point, we can only discuss it in a constellation of alternatives that might help restore long lost civic virtues here and there in society.

Having a few schools at every level that are dedicated to doing this well is better than attempting to do it poorly everywhere. The fact that a few colleges still offer a sequential course of classical education, as well the fact that some K-12 private and even charter schools have pursued this might strike some as archaic.

If Tocqueville is right, classical education offers a source of intellectual nourishment for those that are fortunate enough to experience it, and it might even provide a source of renewal for republican self-government.