Religion & Liberty Online

Alexis de Tocqueville and the Character of American Education

A schoolhouse in New England from the 1830s.

According to a recent Pew Center report, “Record levels of bachelor’s degree attainment in 2012 are apparent for most basic demographic groups.” 33% of 25- to 29- year-olds are completing both high school and college. According to the report, this number is up from five years ago and at record levels for the United States in general. But what does it mean? Statistics like these are constantly being produced, but they are no good to us if we do not know how to interpret them. After attending the joint Acton/Liberty Fund conference this past weekend on Acton and Tocqueville, I have Tocqueville on the brain and wonder if, perhaps, he might have some insights that are still relevant today.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville writes,

The observer who is desirous of forming an opinion on the state of instruction amongst the Anglo-Americans must consider the same object from two different points of view. If he only singles out the learned, he will be astonished to find how rare they are; but if he counts the ignorant, the American people will appear to be the most enlightened community in the world. The whole population … is situated between these two extremes.

In his day, American education was notable for being both widespread and mediocre. In fact, it was so widespread that he describes the typical pioneer in this way:

Everything about him is primitive and unformed, but he is himself the result of the labor and the experience of eighteen centuries. He wears the dress, and he speaks the language of cities; he is acquainted with the past, curious of the future, and ready for argument upon the present; he is, in short, a highly civilized being, who consents, for a time, to inhabit the backwoods, and who penetrates into the wilds of the New World with the Bible, an axe, and a file of newspapers.

In the 1830s, when Tocqueville visited the United States, even the peculiar figure of the roughneck pioneer, “with the Bible, an axe, and a file of newspapers,” was educated.

But what conclusions does he draw from what was in his time such a unique phenomenon?

It cannot be doubted that, in the United States, the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic; and such must always be the case, I believe, where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart. But I by no means exaggerate this benefit, and I am still further from thinking, as so many people do think in Europe, that men can be instantaneously made citizens by teaching them to read and write. True information is mainly derived from experience; and if the Americans had not been gradually accustomed to govern themselves, their book-learning would not assist them much at the present day.

It is common for many to look at statistics related to level of education and annual income and make too much of the correlation. Steady grade inflation since the 1960s has reduced the quality of the education that many are getting today in record numbers, and rising costs have produced record amounts of debt (more on this here). The result is the looming “higher ed bubble,” which like the “housing bubble” that caused the 2008 financial crisis, is set to burst if our attitudes and practices toward debt in this country do not change.

The problem is that due to the correlation between educational achievement and annual income, and our characteristic democratic desire for greater equality, the quality of education has been reduced in order to try to equalize the playing field, meaning that the college educated today are not necessarily that better off than those who only received a high school diploma only a few generations ago. In fact, financially speaking, they are worse off. Tens of thousands of dollars of debt worse off, in many cases.

At the same time, this younger, statistically more educated generation is also the statistically least religious, though the significance of that statistic is debatable as well. For my purposes here, lets assume that the typical analysis, that Millennials are less religious than previous generations, is accurate. In that case, we have the same mediocre education as always, but at greater the cost and with less of that “moral education which amends the heart.” We have less of the societal checks and balances on human passion, relatively no greater level of education, and significantly greater economic pressure to invigorate those passions.

As I have said in the past, the state of US education—lower quality and greater debt—is a moral problem. I am not comforted by the finding that 33% of my generation has graduated from college in these conditions. (And how many more have gone but not graduated?) What we can be sure of is that it means more debt, possibly less of a moral compass, greater expectations, and a greater likelihood that such expectations are unfounded, that the promises of education for a better life will prove to have been gravely false.

Thankfully, statistics can be deceiving, and whole generations are not bound by any statistic at any moment in time. Indeed, as Tocqueville believed, there is something innate within all people that fosters the potential for rising beyond living for material comforts (or for enduring material hardship, as the case may be):

Man has not given himself the taste for the infinite and the love of what is immortal. These sublime instincts do not arise from a caprice of the will; they have their unchanging foundation in his nature; they exist despite his efforts. He can hinder and deform them, but not destroy them.

So long as human beings are human beings, there will always be hope for the moral progress and religious reprise so necessary for a free society to weather the winds of economic crisis and avoid the snares of materialistic promises that may not truly improve our lives in the first place. The great struggle for societal improvement between generations need not focus on overblown correlations and statistics, but rather on a renewed love for and education in the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, arguably the true point of education in the first place.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.