The Traveling Philosopher: A Discussion Prompt

At the United Nations in September, Barack Obama had Voltaire on his mind.  “I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day,” said the president. “And I will always defend their right to do so.” Voltaire of course famously said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”  Obama’s comments were directed towards the heated debate over the video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which triggered violent reactions in numerous Muslim countries.

In America, Alexis de Tocqueville admired the strong defense of free speech, noting in the 1830s “Among the twelve million people living in the territory of the United States, there is not one single man who has dared to suggest restricting freedom of the press” (page 182).  But unlike Obama, when Tocqueville explained in Democracy in America that the best way to prevent extreme views from becoming dangerous ideas was to legalize them, he was applying this thinking specifically to the US.  Extreme liberty worked in America, thought the young Frenchman, because of the equality of social conditions and the mores of a people without an aristocracy.

In the democratization literature, there is a great debate over sequencing: If elections are held too soon does this give nationalists or radicals an upper hand? Is social mobilization without institutionalization destabilizing? The US invasion of Iraq reignited these debates.  Based on Obama’s comments, it seems that he either believes that sequence does not matter (if you start from political freedom, tolerance will follow regardless), or that there are universal norms of free speech.  Both views seem potentially dangerous, and assessing them requires great imagination.  It is difficult to calculate consequences without a robust ability to imagine a future.  How can we better prepare our students to do this?

Joshua Mitchell on “Tocqueville in Arabia”

Before his October 2012 talk at American University, I asked Georgetown University Professor of Political Theory Joshua Mitchell to think about democratic sequencing, and a series of other issues as part of his lecture on “Tocqueville in Arabia.”  Students in the Middle East “often long to see farther,” he has written, yet they struggle to do so.

Mitchell’s most recent book is “Plato’s Fable: On the Mortal Condition in Shadowy Times” (Princeton University Press, 2006). “Philosophical Quarterly” called the book “a well-researched and eloquently expressed work of scholarship.” The reviewer called the introductory chapter “a tour de force of contemporary political and moral philosophy.”

Tocqueville serves as a lens for reflecting upon his five years teaching in the Middle East (not as a tool for advocating American democracy promotion).  In addition to the question of sequencing, what follows are some of the major themes and ideas I asked him to consider. You can watch a short three minute excerpt of his comments on iTunes University by clicking here.

The Family in Civil Society

The relationship between family obligations, and the broader construction of civil society, arises in various ways in his work.  Religion calls Muslims to practice social responsibility to the broader community, for example through zakat.  But do citizens learn democratic habits this way, I asked?  And how is democratic sequencing different without secularism?

The young generation in Russia during the mid-1800s, who invented the philosophy of nihilism, hoped to advance social reforms by renouncing the social mores of their parents.  Do the youths of Benghazi or Baghdad need to embed democratic rebellion within their family obligations, or do they need to escape them?


In an interview with David Souter on PBS, the retired Supreme Court Justice expressed desperation about the general state of ignorance in America about the Constitution, alluding to a possible solution: that we can somehow become better citizens through exposure to the right political knowledge. As numerous public scholars have pointed out though, the great paradox of the information age is that we have more access to information than ever dreamed possible a generation or two ago, but it is hard to argue that we have gotten any smarter. So maybe civics is not the solution after all, and exposure doesn’t count for much. Right?

Allan Bloom thought we could remedy this not through civics but through Western philosophy, lamenting in The Closing of the American Mind the rise of MTV and other horrors of the 1980s.  But where he feared that multi-culturalism was killing the cannon, Mitchell’s concern is different: “student-centered learning” has replaced the cannon, as has a philosophy of sympathy, and this ultimately provides a poor guide for understanding the world. He also would like to see the “great ideas” resurrected, so that students would become armed with critical thinking not only through Plato and Plutarch, but through “comparative canonical inquiry.”

Martha Nussbaum makes a related argument in her recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, explaining that literature, philosophy and the arts are essential building blocks of creative and engaged citizens. With the School Reform Movement in America today, I don’t think either Bloom or Nussbaum will be satisfied: education has failed because it is not practical enough.  Of course this notion of practicality is also far removed from John Dewey’s idea of practical education through pragmatism. Today Democrats and Republicans alike both want to see education vocationalized: students will be trained for their place in the economy, rather than their place in the polity.  I too am very worried about the students churned out by such schools.

Alternatively, maybe it is not what we know, but how we know each other.  And in this way, the “friending” debasement of friendship, the replacement of companionship with “connectedness” (Mark Zukerberg’s mantra during interviews), becomes what Mitchell describes as a “soliloquy” for young people, a “reoccurring loop that can be halted by the one thing that many of them are most frightened to do, namely, involve themselves in actual face-to face relations – not for a moment, but for an extended period.”  Students today are more connected, and more alone. As many universities embark on massive, ambitious online degree programs that will link more and more students linked to the academy primarily through their computers, can pedagogy make good democrats of our pupils under such conditions?  If not, will they become even lonelier?

Individuality and Collectivity

Another theme Mitchell explores is the dialogue between individuality and collectivity.  I interpret individuality as a precondition for autonomous judgment. This means that the democratic person is on the one hand proud of her independence (self-sufficiency?) and on the other hand prone to loneliness. The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics recently offered grim evidence of the latter’s rise: the suicide rate increased 15 percent over the last decade, and for the first time it now exceeds the fatality rate from car accidents. What does the college campus tell us about this balance between self-sufficiency and alienation?

Things have of course changed in Arabia since Tocqueville wrote. In Egypt he said the ruler believed his people “extremely ignorant and very nearly equal” in the early 1800s (page 677).  At that time – as under Hosni Mubarak’s more recent rule – the centralized state provided a stark contrast with America, where federalism is practically fetishized. Today, can we guess that Tocqueville would write that Egyptians are “extremely angry and very nearly democratic”?

As a post-script to the presentation, I can’t resist noting that the day after Obama’s re-election, the maker of the controversial and insensitive video maligning Islam was sentenced to a year in prison — on charges of violating his parole but not for making the offensive video.  Tocqueville was an astute observer after all.

You can download the full length lecture by Professor Mitchell via iTunes University.


One thought on “The Traveling Philosopher: A Discussion Prompt

  1. Carl LeVan

    Teachers across the US are annoyed with the Common Core Standards which among other things, require them to teach more non-fiction. Even though Alexis de Tocqueville is proposed as suggested non-fiction for high school students, dropping literature from learning and killing creative writing has turned curricula upside down in many cities, including DC.

    According to an article in the Washington Post this week, “New School Standards Make Teachers Smolder,” there has apparently been a big misunderstanding. Teachers are supposed to keep teaching literature…or something like that…

    This interests me because I believe a liberal arts education provides some of the best tools for the anxiety that can accompany the early years of adult independence. I use Brecht to teach Marxism, and Dennis Brutus to explore the horrors of Apartheid. My students love this — and I believe they are more inspired for college and better prepared for the world by reading widely and approaching interpretation as a creative process. Literature is good for that.

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