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.

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