Monday, October 1, 2012

What the Great 19th-century Observer of America’s Democratic Revolution Has to Teach Us

Wilfred McClay

There are many ways to read Tocqueville, and my interest in writing a recent article for the Wilson Quarterly was to explore how Tocqueville might be read and understood as the premier analyst of change: specifically, of how a modern society can manage huge and inevitable changes in ways that are both optimal and graceful. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the digital revolution we’re living through could be understood, not only as a very large structural change, but speaking very broadly as part of the same great revolution that Tocqueville grappled with in the Democracy; not merely a similar revolution but the same revolution of democratization, though embodied and expressed in a present-day context and iteration. And I’ve applied it to the situation that all of us are talking about, and enthusing about, and worrying about, in the world of higher education.

"The Tocquevillean Moment . . . and Ours," Wilson Quarterly (Summer 2012)
by Wilfred M. McClay

To say that we are living through a time of momentous change, and now stand on the threshold of a future we could barely have imagined a quarter-century ago, may seem merely to restate the blazingly obvious. But it is no less true, and no less worrisome, for being so. Uncertainties about the fiscal soundness of sovereign governments and the stability of basic political, economic, and financial institutions, not to mention the fundamental solvency of countless American families, are rippling through all facets of the nation’s life. Those of us in the field of higher education find these new circumstances particularly unsettling. Our once-buffered corner of the world seems to have lost control of its boundaries and lost sight of its proper ends, and stands accused of having become at once unaffordable and irrelevant except as a credential mill for the many and a certification of social rank for the few. And despite all the wonderful possibilities that beckon from the sunlit uplands of technological progress, the digital revolution that is upon us threatens not only to disrupt the economic model of higher education but to undermine the very qualities of mind that are the university’s reason for being. There is a sense that events and processes are careening out of control, and that the great bubble that has so far contained us is now in the process of bursting.

By harping on the unprecedented character of the challenges we face, however, we may allow ourselves to become unduly overwhelmed and intimidated by them. Although history never repeats itself, it rarely, if ever, presents us with situations that have absolutely no precedent, and no echoes. We have, in some respects, already been here before. “In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning,” wrote the novelist John Dos Passos in the tense year of 1941, “a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.”>>>read on

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