“The Tocquevillian Moment” and Other Adventures at Furman University


I’m just wrapping up a wonderful day at Furman University. Since graduating in 1992 (was that really 22 years ago???), I have not spent very much time on campus. It has really changed! Made me feel old.

But what a tremendous day it was. I can’t say enough about all the classy people at the school who made me feel right at home.

This morning, I met up with my advisor, Marian Strobel. Here is a fun story about Dr. Strobel, who once saved me from utter disgrace and abject humiliation. I had Dr. Strobel for Women’s History and US Since 1941. She is a wonderful scholar/teacher, and I have never forgotten her influence on my life. She took me under her wing when I was a scared freshman, and she has remained a mentor to me all these years.

I spent most of the day in the library writing on my book. The James B. Duke Library at Furman is truly second to none. It was fantastic when I was a student, but it is really impressive now. And the nice folks on staff there were very helpful.

At 4:30, I went down to the Student Center to find a seat for Wilfred McClay’s lecture entitled “The Tocquevillian Moment . . . And Ours.” I figured I’d better get down there so I could get a good seat, but wouldn’t you know it–Paige Blankenship of the Political Science Department had reserved a seat for me on the front row. Like I said–classy folks.

Then Dr. McClay spoke–a tremendous lecture. McClay set up the lecture by demonstrating a connection between Tocqueville’s time in the 1830s-40s and our own. Both his time and ours are marked by tectonic shifts in culture. Tocqueville was witnessing great social, political, economic, and religious changes in his native France, and of course, the changes wrought by the success of the American Revolution and the beginning of the American career in democracy. We in our own day are witnessing the enormous changes brought about by advances in technology (which, McClay noted, are an extension of the changes in Tocqueville’s day, in that we are seeing a democratization of information). With great change comes the prospect of hope, but change also brings anxiety for the future. McClay taught that history helps us to navigate challenging times, because history connects us to past generations that dealt with challenging times of their own. The past offers we who live in the present a lifeline.

Tocqueville saw great hope in American democracy, but he was anxious about the degenerating influence of self interest that is inherent in democracy. Tocqueville looked to the past for ways in which this degenerating influence could be controlled. Part of his solution was to be found in educating the citizenry in how to pursue self interest, rightly understood. That is, teach people what virtue is, and how to pursue not only individual good, but also the common good. In other words, do well by doing good. This is the key to a liberal education, and to training people how to be able to govern themselves.

McClay applied Tocqueville’s lessons to the challenge faced by institutions of higher education today. Those challenges are many, but hyper-connectivity to the internet and the ever-expanding costs of higher education are two of the big ones. Like Tocqueville, we should affirm that change is good–and unstoppable. But we should resist the temptation to uncritically accept the idea that four year residential colleges and universities are doomed. But how?

In short, accept the changes offered by technology that offer the greatest good to the greatest number of people. But recognize that information mediated by technology is often thrown at us in fragmented, contextless bursts. An education is obtained through the careful, deliberate, and patient process of receiving information that is situated in context, and then critically evaluated. An education is had in the physical presence of a teacher, other students, and a classroom. Physical presence makes relationship and trust possible, and without these, true education can hardly take place.

McClay spoke of reading books, and particularly old books. Reading Plato’s Republic, for example, is helpful because we avail ourselves the opportunity of critiquing the usually sacrosanct idea of democracy. We need to think critically, even about an idea that we all embrace, if for nothing less than to know our democracy better, and to improve on it.

After the lecture, the Political Science Department hosted a dinner in Dr. McClay’s honor at a place in Downtown Greenville called High Cotton–fabulous food! Ty Tessitore, who is heading up the Tocqueville Program this year, graciously included me, and I was assigned a seat next to Dr. McClay. We chatted about his and Ted McAllister’s new book on place, along with other topics. I’m looking forward to seeing him in September at this year’s Conference on Faith and History.

Sitting across from me was yet another of my professors from undergrad days–Lloyd Benson, a nineteenth century US historian. I took Dr. Benson’s US from 1820-1890 course during the summer before my senior year, and it was a truly formative experience for me. He remains one of the best teachers I have ever had. We had some fun with “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” and I got to bounce some ideas off him on some of my ideas on exceptionalism. And I also enjoyed some fun conversation on Thomas Hobbes with Jenna Silber Storey, an insightful political philosopher.

Many thanks to Ty Tessitore and Ben Storey for their work on the Tocqueville Program at Furman–and for their gracious hospitality. I thoroughly enjoyed being with all my friends at Furman, both old friends and new.


2 responses to ““The Tocquevillian Moment” and Other Adventures at Furman University

  1. What a wonderful day you must have had!
    It is so clear throughout your post, the pleasure you obtained just being among your old and new friends, and to be enlightened by the conversation and the learning you experienced..
    My heart is full of gladness for you John.

    Proverbs 3:13 (NKJV)
    Happy is the man who finds wisdom, And the man who gains understanding;

  2. You are most kind. Thank you, Dave!

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