October 14, 2012

WHICH IS WHY PUBLIC EDUCATION IS CENTRAL TO THE rEPUBLIC...:

The Tocquevillean Moment . . . and Ours (Wilfred M. McClay, Summer 2012, Wilson Quarterly)

The Tocquevillean moment involves the ways in which we come to terms, not only as individuals but also as citizens and societies, with whatever fatal circle our times and conditions have drawn around us.

How did Tocqueville believe that the Americans of his day managed to counter the dangerous aspects of democracy and create a free and vibrant society? He located a number of factors. He credited the pervasive influence of religion in American life, noting to his astonishment the ways  in which religion served to support democratic values and free institutions. He applauded Americans for their talent in forming voluntary associations, and for their decentralized federal institutions, both of which tended to disperse power and encourage the involvement of citizens in the activity of governing themselves.

But more than anything else, Tocqueville praised Americans for their embrace of the principle of self-interest rightly understood. It was a foregone conclusion, in his view, that self-interest had replaced virtue as the chief force driving human action. To tell an American to do virtuous things for virtue's sake, or at the authoritative direction of priests, prelates, or princes, was futile. But the same request would readily be granted if real benefits could be shown to flow from it. The challenge of moral philosophy in such an environment was to demonstrate how "private interest and public interest meet and amalgamate," and how one's devotion to the general good could also promote one's personal advantage. Belief in that conjunction--that one could do well by doing good--was exactly what was meant by the "right understanding" of self-interest.

Hence, it was imperative to educate democratic citizens in this understanding, to teach them how to reason their own way to acceptance of the greater good. The American example made Tocqueville hopeful that the modern principle of self-interest could be so channeled, hedged about, habituated, and clothed as to produce public order and public good, even in the absence of "aristocratic" sources of authority. But it would not happen of its own accord.

"Enlighten them, therefore, at any price." Or, as another translation expresses it, "Educate them, then." Whatever else we may believe about the applicability of Tocqueville's ideas to the present day, we can be in no doubt that he was right in his emphasis upon education. But not just any kind of education.  He was talking about what we call liberal education, in the strictest sense of the term, an education that makes men and women capable of the exercise of liberty, and equips them for the task of rational self-governance. And the future of that ideal of education is today very much in doubt.

...and why it has nothing to do with preparing kids for jobs.  

  



Posted by at October 14, 2012 8:54 AM
  

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