Tocqueville Celebrates Democracy

June 29, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

"Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill

Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that democracy presented major changes in the political world which would also affect the social world. Therefore, in his two-part volume, Democracy in America, he set out to discover how democracy functioned in America. He explains that this one experiment will affect a wide variety of nations, institutions and behaviors. Tocqueville is both heartened and saddened at the equalizing forces which accompany democracy. He sees equality as a necessary and just system, but with it comes loss of education and intellectual excellence. Whether or not this is true, he notes that from freedom follow necessary outcomes, many of which are unintended, but deserve calm, thoughtful discussion and contemplation.

Tocqueville views the blossoming equality with interest, but also fear. He notes how equalizing forces have the potential to lessen the quality of education, to minimize interest in political affairs, and that democracy allows little time for reflection. Everyone in democracy rushes to pursue an object of personal interest, but not necessarily one of societal benefit. He terms this quick pace “habitual inattention” and labels it “the great vice of the democratic spirit”. (329B) His solution to this naturally arising problem is contemplation. He does not spell out a specific plan, but rather asks that citizens spend time contemplating their existence, their fellows’ existences and that of society as a whole. He recognizes that information in an age of equality is constant and feels like a barrage. In aristocratic ages, on the other hand, Tocqueville notes that only a small, elite group controlled and disseminated information. In fact, information for the masses was altogether rare. Furthermore, the lower-classes understood their position, knew their place, and therefore, poor treatment was almost an expectation and rarely questioned. There was no path to question injustice. On the other hand, democracy reverses the problem of aristocracies by removing information controls. It is the citizen’s responsibility to seek and process information.

In democracy, Tocqueville warns, the potential for abuse actually widens because the masses must take care of and be involved with issues regarding the masses. He claims that a habitual inattention leads citizens to miss clues to their own well-being. Following a section about the level of uniformity achieved by majority-run governments, he writes, “The government’s faults are forgiven for the sake of its tastes.” By this, I think he intends to say that the majority drives contemporary rhetoric, issues and tastes, which, in turn, forces the government toward action. However, it is also the citizens who must evaluate and re-evaluate their decisions. Therefore, while contemporary taste forces government to act, we cannot condemn democracy for acting. Rather, the government’s faults are “forgiven” by future generations as people work to address inequities.

While he is sad to perceive the loss of aristocratic education, he is happy to find a more just system. Equality, he believes, stems directly from God. Democratic systems are more fair, more just and reflect the way that God perceives humanity. Pulling his thoughts together in conclusion, he writes:

“When the world was full of men of great importance and extreme insignificance, very wealthy and very poor, very learned and very ignorant, I turned my attention from the latter to concentrate on the pleasure of contemplating the former. But I see that this pleasure arose from my weakness. It is because I am unable to see all at once all that is around me that I am allowed thus to select and separate the objects of my choice from among so many others which it pleases me to contemplate. It is not so with the Almighty and Eternal Being, whose gaze and necessity includes the whole of created things and who surveys distinctly and simultaneously all mankind and each single man.

“It is natural to suppose that not the particular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What seems to me decay is thus in His eyes progress; what pains me is acceptable to Him. Equality may be less elevated, but it is more just, and in its justice lies its greatness and beauty.”

A little later, he adds: “The task is no longer to preserve the particular advantages which inequality of conditions had procured for men, but to secure those new benefits which equality may supply. We should not strive to be like our fathers but should try to attain that form of greatness and of happiness which is proper to ourselves.

“For myself, looking back now from the extreme end of my task and seeing at a distance, but collected together, all the various things which had attracted my close attention upon my way, I am full of fears and of hopes. I see great dangers which may be warded off and mighty evils which may be avoided or kept in check; and I am ever increasingly confirmed in my belief that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous, it is enough if they will to be so.”

Tocqueville introduces the idea of democratic will in his final words. It is this will which still lives in the current American “experiment,” as he terms it. Though we are still learning and re-evaluating, we can also honor those authors of our past who set us on this path. With the Fourth of July just around the corner, we can also celebrate the thoughts and ideas of our founders.

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The Pins of Pinterest

August 18, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Recently, I was looking for some graphic that would help explain a few points about ancient Rome. My initial Google search sent me to mostly Pinterest sites. I thought that was interesting since I seldom use Pinterest. I did a little bit more digging and found some things that I wanted (both on and off Pinterest). But as I completed this process, I began to wonder about our reliance upon sites like Pinterest. It functions as an amalgam of posts, displayed as a stream of scrollable ideas which may fit your particular topic. It relies on pins, tags and keywords. As I navigated through the wide variety of pins, I wondered as to whether it was the best use of my time. So, today's blog is a result of my interest in Pinterest.

First off, the name is catchy, clever and witty. It combines function with interest. In other words, it is an online bulletin board that lets you pin only what you are currently interested in. You can create separate boards for each category of interest personal to you. The name relies on one of the oldest uses of “pin” - a small device used for fastening things. These boards enable you to follow other people, though, and have multiple topics all online (replacing that messy corkboard in the kitchen). So, now, your bulletin board of interests can be shared with friends, family or strangers. (It does allow you to create a personalized and private board just for you if you do not want to share everything.)

Pinterest supplies ideas that fill a specific need. They have recipes, lesson plans, craft projects, home decorating tips, how-tos and DIYs. This makes me wonder whether or not we are constantly replicating each other and if this replication is a problem? If we think of the way that the human imagination functions, I see that Pinterest can be both beneficial and harmful. For example, Pinterest is full of art projects and ideas. One can learn about a particular art form or medium simply by copying another's projects and in fact it is a good way to begin. Creative minds will be able to find creative ideas and expand upon them in any medium, I believe. To truly own the idea, however, one must not stop there. Copying allows only for skills and technique, but not necessarily creative thought. So, while the people on Pinterest supply ideas, the user must still transform that idea into a personal creative piece. In other words, Pinterest generates ideas, which is wonderful, but one must also generate ideas in order to advance.

The second issue that I find with Pinterest is misinformation. Of course, this problem is not reserved to Pinterest. Misinformation can be found all over the internet and is something that I mentioned in my article on blogs too. In the case of Pinterest, however, many teaching aides appear helpful, but I did find some with errors. Therefore, as with all information, it is best to do your own homework instead of simply relying on the first lesson that you find. Having said that, however, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Those who have done the research and posted thoughtful lesson plans or worksheets offer a beneficial service to educators and families everywhere. When I began teaching, other teachers presented me with a slew of handouts. I was able to copy these at will. Pinterest offers the same thing, but with much better technology, better graphics and eye-grabbing appeal, all of which resonates with the contemporary classroom.

I find that, in general, the people of Pinterest are really creative and thoughtful, especially with their own interests. The communities built upon common pins reinforces connections with a community. However, it struggles with the same issues as blogs and Facebook. For one, everything revolves around marketing. Many sites ask for money and most contain pop-up advertisements. The advertisements often align with the pinned information. For example, if you have clicked on an idea about crafts, you might see an advertisement for a craft store. In other words, each pin unwittingly leaves a trail of information about you, the user. Also, by creating online communities that revolve only around our own interests, we may be limiting ourselves in unforeseen ways. It is worth thinking about the way that we construct both an online self and an online community. Are these the same as their public counterparts?

None of the pros or cons that I have listed means much of anything by itself. I simply like to think about the technology that we rely upon everyday, how it interacts with ourselves and the various hats we wear. How does this technology affect my life in unseen ways? What do we gain by using the newest trend? What do we lose? One final factor that I have not mentioned in any of these blogs on technology is the idea of time. Is the time spent online useful? Has it increased your ability to be a better person in any way? I find that, personally, there is a line. Some information is helpful, but endless searching is fruitless and wasteful. Where is your line regarding time spent navigating social media?

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A Blog Is A Blog

June 30, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

What is a blog? While unofficial, it appears that the first blog dates back to 1994. Weblogs, coined in 1997, became plain old blogs in 1999. Then, as their popularity rose, Merriam-Webster presented it as the word of the year in 2004. Back then, the word was defined as, “Online journal where the writer presents a record of activities, thoughts, or beliefs.”

Blogs continue to be a space for contemplation, ideas, crafts, words or sharing your favorite pieces of culture. They have greatly expanded due to the converging rise of Do-It-Yourself projects. Merriam-Webster now defines blog as “a website that contains online personal reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks, videos, and photographs provided by the writer.” In a second definition, Merriam-Webster claims that a blog can also be associated with an online publication that “relates to a particular topic and consists of articles and personal commentary by one or more authors.” An important aspect of both definitions is that they rely on the term “personal”. While writers always share something personal, there is movement away from the idea of a professional writer, into more of an amateur field.

There are many reasons for the desire to share something personal. However, personal implies that the entire conversation is personal. In other words, it is a conversation typically reserved for an audience among family and friends. Precisely who is included in our personal circle? Our thoughts are certainly personal, and yet, the rise in blogging suggests that humans have a need to more widely distribute their own thoughts. Does a blog offer effective contemplation, conversation? Does it provide a necessary and useful format for society? Or should blogs be relegated to personal interest?

Blogs reflect, I believe, the way in which our societal structure has changed over the past thirty to fifty years. Neighborhoods no longer define community. Instead, we create community through schools, interest groups, activities, churches and family structures. As society alters the style of our community, so does our style of communication. In part, these arose simultaneously. For example, we have access to transportation and communication devices with a fair amount of ease. Our ability to text, call, email, or facetime enables us to travel great distances without leaving our homes. It also allows us the freedom to make plans and change them up to the moment. Transportation grants the freedom to make plans in any number of locations. We can visit friends all over the world with relative ease. And while it is not impossible to maintain strong connections through words alone, visiting certainly helps.

Having this great power of movement, however, also changes the dynamics of our close relationships. While many studies show a correlation between good health and positive relationships, society continues to rely on social media as one form of relationship. I wonder, therefore, how healthy that relationship is for the human psyche and does it fit the need that we need it to fill?

One potentially problematic aspect of blogs is that the writer can claim anything. For the most part, there is no editor or fact-checker. Whether looking up information about cooking, crafting, politics or historical fact, it is likely that you will stumble upon nearly every side of a coin, regardless of fact. Also, it may be difficult to find the information that you need. Searching for a particular issue, may actually lead you astray. In other words, the reader must do their own homework since searchability and reliability remain unresolved issues of blogs.

Having said that, I believe that blogs provide a space in which we can enhance our levels of contemplation. For example, writing offers many potential benefits. A society which writes must be thinking about a wide variety of issues, entertainments and interests. I like the idea that we can form a web of communication with others whom we do not know, have never met and are unlikely to meet. It has the potential to bring us together in contemplation and discussion, not necessarily in agreement. It seems important to support a society of writers and thinkers. To my mind, this is the best that a blog community can offer: serious contemplation of any subject, coupled by thoughtful commentary.

However, the most glaring drawback of blog community is the lack of personal interaction. Without the handshake, hug, facial expression or physical presence, some people feel it is acceptable to write something that would be deemed inappropriate in a social setting. It is as if we enable an internal editor when speaking publicly, but dissociate ourselves from this very same editing device when speaking electronically. This divide seriously puzzles and frightens me.

I hope that as the blogging community grows, our awareness of socially appropriate speech will re-engage, that we will be reminded of the power of speech, of courtesy and grace. I enjoy presenting my thoughts in dialogue and I appreciate the responses that articulate both thoughtful approval and dissent. While I still much prefer human interaction and direct conversation, I can see the potential service that blogs may provide.

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What Constitutes Conversation

January 27, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

“What is the ultimate goal of conversation? It is to produce a meeting of minds.” - Mortimer J. Adler

Not all conversation is legitimate, in the terms of Mortimer Adler, founder of the Great Books Foundation. In this 45 minute presentation, he discusses different types of conversation and focuses on the types of conversation that help us become better people. He gently admonishes people who have no skills in listening, though he claims it is more a fault of our educational style, than of any individual fault. In claiming that an open mind and the ability to listen is an essential piece of every conversation, he also shows how every human already has the potential to engage in meaningful conversation. Adler defines conversation as mind to mind discussion. This is especially profound to me: two minds actually meeting excites me. In fact, without two open minds, there is no discussion at all, but rather two sides of a story passing along parallel lines, without intersect.

There is much proof to back up Adler's comment that listening is a most difficult skill for humans. We study in lectures, learn to speak, write and read, but are rarely taught how to listen in a way that requires thoughtful response. Schools devote a lot of time to writing skills. Yet, as compared to speaking or reading, we use writing the least on average. And unlike reading and writing, Adler notes that listening flows only in one direction. We cannot turn a page back while listening to a discussion. Again, this strikes me as important, particularly in an age of Google and Siri in which we think information always exists at our fingertips. To listen, one must be present and actively engaged. Arguments are often subtle, especially philosophical arguments, which require much depth and concentration. It makes sense that we begin to understand philosophical arguments from texts. I also believe that it is not so terrible to devote much of our time to reading and writing. In fact, these skills are necessary precursors to Adler's ideal conversation. Before engaging in a lively debate, it is best to know a little bit about your subject. Therefore, one will be able to understand difficult terminology – or at least ask for critical clarification – and also address the main issue of the conversation. The skills learned in reading and note-taking enable us to listen in a sense. Yet, still, reading enables the turning of pages, which is not possible in conversation.

Many people believe that reading is passive, that one can sit down and relax with a book. Certainly, there are books that offer relaxation, but today's post is intended more towards ideas that challenge us. This type of reading is not at all passive. Instead, it activates the mind by connecting personal experience to the book's experience. Better yet, reading melds into communal action. We begin with author to student discussion, in which the student writes questions and comments in the margins of a text. Then, expanding these comments into a group discussion is not such a big leap. Fully understanding a difficult book may require a meeting of minds to discuss the content. Otherwise, the action of reading takes place within the same self that judges the material using the same voice and the same metrics as the only gauge of a book's quality. It is only when we step outside of our own boundaries that we actually come to find new information. It is true that one can learn much from simply reading. But one can learn much more, in a shorter time, if one applies dialogue to the difficult reading.

Mind to mind discussions – either instructive or persuasive – can only exist between two open minds. In other words, we must attempt to, even if only for a moment, silence our own argument. The creation of an argument comes only through dedicated learning and an open mind. If we are to advance our understanding of an issue, it must be through an open mind. We often approach literature this way, so why not live conversation? Once a thought is spoken, it passes. If no one challenges that thought, then it stands. Likewise, if no one agrees with the thought, then it stands alone.

I encourage you to listen to Adler's lecture on how to begin a discussion. Next, put your thoughts into action and try out a discussion. Harrison Middleton University follows this Socratic method in the one-to-one discussions with students, in which the student engages with a text, but also shares their questions. These fruitful discussions offer the best educational model that I have ever experienced. From there, jump into a small group discussion, which expands the conversation to a variety of opinions. A meeting of minds creates a kind of verbal map of how the mind works and how a piece of literature affects us all.

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