In the same  Wilson Quarterly  issue I linked to last week First Things’ own Wilfred M. McClay reflects on what the perennially relevant Alexis de Tocqueville can teach us today , especially on the subject of education.

McClay reviews the genesis of  Democracy in America  and quotes a letter in which Tocqueville explains to a fellow Frenchman his purpose in writing the book: to point out the “dangerous tendencies” of the “new social state” towards individualism, materialism, and isolation, conditions that together would enable the rise of a benevolent, all-encompassing bureaucratic state.

In issuing this warning, Tocqueville continued, he intended not to argue for a return to aristocracy but “to make these tendencies feared by painting them in vivid colors, and thus to secure the effort of mind and will which alone can combat them—-to teach democracy to know itself, and thereby to direct itself and contain itself.”

That concern led Tocqueville to emphasize the importance of education. But, as McClay specifies, “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.

For more on Tocqueville, liberal education, and the technological revolution, read the whole article .

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