Into the Canon: De Tocqueville

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I finished up Middlemarch two days ago, and had a good debate about it on Twitter. Ultimately I found the book shockingly ambitious and ultimately disappointing. Those two notions are connected, and I'll have more on that later.


But next up in my pursuit of an invisible degree from the university without walls is De Tocqueville's Democracy In America. I don't want to say too much, for now, but this graff in the introduction struck me:

From the time when the exercise of the intellect became the source of strength and of wealth, it is impossible not to consider every addition to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea as a germ of power placed within the reach of the people. Poetry, eloquence, and memory, the grace of wit, the glow of imagination, the depth of thought, and all the gifts which are bestowed by Providence with an equal hand, turned to the advantage of the democracy; and even when they were in the possession of its adversaries they still served its cause by throwing into relief the natural greatness of man; its conquests spread, therefore, with those of civilization and knowledge, and literature became an arsenal where the poorest and the weakest could always find weapons to their hand.
The modernism evinced here, and the sense of inevitable progress, is an obvious target. And yet so much of this calls back to both Malcolm and Douglass's resolve to educate himself, to that old African-American sense that there is covert and belligerent about the life of an autodidact, that to be ignorant is to do the work of one's enemies. 

Tocqueville quotes the Puritans motives for enforcing public education:

Whereas," says the law, "Satan, the enemy of mankind, finds his strongest weapons in the ignorance of men, and whereas it is important that the wisdom of our fathers shall not remain buried in their tombs, and whereas the education of children is one of the prime concerns of the state, with the aid of the Lord...."
That reasoning is very, very familiar.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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