Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Book Reviews

Teachable Moments

Danielle Charette

Bust of Rousseau by Houdon, 1780; Liebieghaus Collection; Wikimedia Commons.

Toward more intelligent conversations about civic education.

In Henrik Ibsen’s 1883 play An Enemy of the People, Dr. Thomas Stockmann’s screed against his fellow townspeople hits an antidemocratic crescendo when he declares, “I am going to prove to you, scientifically, that the People’s Messenger leads you by the nose in a shameful manner when it tells you that you—that the common people, the crowd, the masses, are the real essence of the People. That is only a newspaper lie, I tell you!” Stockmann starts off a benign and bookish small-town scientist, but his neighbors’ refusal to heed his warning about local water contamination brings the doctor to despair “The common people are nothing more than the raw material of which a People is made,” he sneers.

Although Dana Villa doesn’t mention Ibsen in Teachers of the People, he is clearly troubled by this well-worn metaphor of citizens being molded from some amorphous political clay. He refers to a number of classic examples: Plato describes the philosopher as a kind of craftsman who could refashion society, if only we’d let him. Machiavelli speaks of imposing “form” on Florence’s untutored matter.

But Villa focuses his criticisms on Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Mill, all of whom, by his account, were guilty of assuming a paternalistic attitude toward the people they proposed to enlighten. Villa suspects something pernicious in their talk of “the people.” Populists may claim to rally the common folk against plutocrats or the “one percent,” but Villa worries that the idea of a vacuous “people” flatters elites, who fancy they can offer a guiding hand.

Villa’s narrative begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writing is suffused with the language of le peuple. Yet Rousseau is a vexing case. The Social Contract (1762) renders it impossible for the people to outsource their duties to a representative, but Rousseau’s vigilant version of popular sovereignty also denies any dissent from the “general will.” Villa rightly finds this level of consensus unworkable. Furthermore, he’s wary of the leading role Rousseau’s robust republicanism assigns to “the legislator.” In semimythical fashion, Rousseau’s lawgiver hands down his form of the civic good—but only when the polity is still young and impressionable. Rousseau’s citizens agree on the general will, it seems, because they’ve been chosen and chiseled in advance. Most of us, Villa trusts, don’t want to be forced into this sort of freedom. The legislator looks a lot like the tutor in Rousseau’s Émile (alternatively titled On Education), and his pedagogy is offensively heavy-handed.

It’s not Rousseau but Alexis de Tocqueville, however, who comes in for Villa’s harshest criticism. Irked by small-government types who lionize Tocqueville’s study of civil society, Villa downplays Tocqueville’s reputation as a prophet and insists that Democracy in America (1835–40) was written to temper egalitarian passions in postrevolutionary France—not to flatter American pride. Fair enough. But even if Tocqueville wanted to safeguard Old Europe against “the power of the Vandals or Goths,” as he put in his Recollections his analysis of evolving social conditions is full of subtleties Villa is too quick to dismiss.

Villa grafts Rousseau’s more militant tendencies onto Tocqueville, thus casting the latter as something of a moralizing republican. Read as such, Tocqueville becomes “a monist who fears eccentricity.” Worse yet, in the rapidly democratizing 1830s, Tocqueville didn’t have recourse to traditional republican standbys such as Spartan discipline or a small city-state. Rather, Villa argues, he tried to solve this “Rousseauian paradox” through an over-reliance on religion and the tools of “social tyranny.”

For anyone familiar with Tocqueville’s trepidation about the “omnipotence of the majority,” this assessment will seem to miss the mark. Yes, Tocqueville often uses martial metaphors—such as the “arsenal” of enlightenment or the “weapon” of the newspaper—but these usually illustrate his ambivalence toward majoritarian power and progress. They are hardly an endorsement of marching in democratic lockstep. We can criticize Tocqueville’s sanguine attitude toward government administration and his overesteem for lawyers without labeling him a dogmatist or dismissing Democracy in America as a didactic “textbook.”

Villa is leery of the idea that religious institutions can play an educative role, and he’s eager to contrast Tocqueville’s Christianity with the freethinking of John Stuart Mill. In this rather uncharitable comparison, Tocqueville becomes the writer more comfortable with religion’s “herd mentality.” But if Tocqueville’s only ambition was, per Villa, to reaffirm “France’s Christian Catholic roots,” then studying New England Congregationalists or Scots-Irish frontiersmen was an odd way to go about it. Crossing the Atlantic to speak with Jacksonian democrats and a variety of denominational Protestants doesn’t seem to be the approach of a dogmatist.

Whether Tocqueville himself was a believing Catholic has long been doubtful, and sincere Christians might legitimately take offense at the Frenchman’s pragmatic descriptions of religion as the handmaiden of democratic mores. If Tocqueville was a believer, he certainly wasn’t a “dogmatic” one. Yet in his critique of Tocqueville’s Christian “conformism,” Villa concludes that Tocqueville swapped “the political form of the tyranny of the majority” for “a social form of the tyranny of belief.” This is a peculiar interpretation of a thinker who, perhaps more than anyone else in the nineteenth century, warned against the dangers of the crowd.

Tocqueville had a habit of writing in broad ecumenical strokes: Even when we worship God in different ways, he implied, we all preach the same morality. For Villa, though, this is Tocqueville’s strategy for shoring up Christian “hegemony.” Yes, Tocqueville’s pluralism is still biased toward white Christians, but recent European history had shown that sufferance among religious sects was by no means a given—especially if we read Democracy in America, as Villa urges, from the perspective of the French.

Tocqueville’s own observations of moral conflict in the American South and West belie the idea that New England’s aggressive homogeneity was a long-term solution. In his lengthy chapter on the “Three Races”—which Villa, unfortunately, doesn’t discuss—Tocqueville writes of North Americans’ exploitation of blacks and indigenous people with scathing irony. The Americans have offered the Indian nations “a fraternal hand,” Tocqueville says, and then “lead the natives off to die somewhere other than in the land of their fathers.” This is a blistering charge against European “contract” theory and what white Americans have managed to achieve “quietly, legally, philanthropically, [and] without bloodshed.”

As for slavery, Tocqueville doesn’t mince words. It is an “evil” perpetuated by New World Christians: “Christianity had destroyed servitude; the Christians of the sixteenth century reinstated it.” In 1830s America, “the Black is permitted to implore the same God as the whites but not to pray at the same altar.” Here Tocqueville rails against Christian hypocrisy; he hardly confirms or conforms to it. Americans would have been smart to take Tocqueville’s lesson. Instead, we paid the price with civil war.

Tocqueville’s greatest English proselytizer was John Stuart Mill, who wrote a glowing review of the first volume of Democracy in America in 1835. Like Tocqueville, Mill was uneasy about the tyranny of the majority and regarded local governments as “large free schools” for responsible citizenship. But he was unlike Tocqueville in that he also helped uphold the East India Company’s colonial bureaucracy, proposed giving extra votes to Oxbridge graduates, and believed that those “superior in civilization” had permission to rule cultures that progress had left behind. Mill, in today’s political jargon, was a bit of a technocrat. Villa notes these problems in Mill’s career while still acknowledging the “vehement anti-paternalist” theme that runs throughout Mill’s thought.

Mill’s least forgivable foibles, though, were his assumption that the majority speaks with one voice and his exaggerated suspicion of the English working class. In matters such as these, Villa writes, Mill was “schooled by Tocqueville.” This is unfair. Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Carlyle, and Auguste Compte were more direct sources for Mill’s priggish positivism. And Mill himself should be held principally responsible for his various Victorian blind spots.

Tocqueville’s frequent resort to providential descriptions of democracy sometimes produces a strident effect, but it’s not as if Mill was immune to religious language when it suited his political enthusiasms. He called himself a “zealous apostle” on behalf of the proposals in Thomas Hare’s Machinery of Representation. What Mill was evangelizing, however, was Hare’s plan to assign different numbers of votes to different voters. Mill gives the impression that he was mentally tallying the votes of the “educated” and “uneducated” in a way Tocqueville never did.

Even when Mill was heralding government as a system for practical education, his scheme for the representation of British subjects was still too insulated from the people. At his most bureaucratic, Mill conceived of a “Commission of Legislation,” sanctioned by a “Commission of Codification.” These, as outlined in his Considerations on Representative Government (1861), would be separate from the House of Commons proper, with Parliament serving foremost as the country’s “Committee of Grievances” and “Congress of Opinions.” Mill the administrator seemed content to let representatives do most of the talking.

Villa is right to emphasize the unsatisfactory nature of Mill’s parliamentary blueprints, particularly in regard to civic education. So today, what’s a well-meaning democratic citizen-activist to do? “Teachable moments” of the sort President Barack Obama occasionally called for are unlikely to be widely persuasive; the same seems true of the unreflective populism of those who rejected Obama’s lessons. “Citizens are adults,” Villa concludes, “and politics is not a nursery in which they are to be instructed and molded” in the name of some preordained civic virtue. This is a healthy reminder, especially after the 2016 election and the endless pathologizing of so much of the electorate.

But Villa’s message leaves antipaternalists—not to mention university professors—in a difficult spot. It’s one thing to decry the excesses of the nanny state. (Banning Big Gulps surely runs afoul of Mill’s harm principle.) It’s another to suggest that all civic education after high school is moral preening. Not every endeavor aimed at improving the political literacy of adults is headed by undemocratic schoolmarms.

In the absence of intelligent civic conversations, those who loathe being lectured will continue bowing to Napoleons. In our infantilizing political moment, a few old-guard liberals might be just what we need. It’s too bad Tocqueville isn’t offering night classes.