Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville: Literature Good, Tradeschool Better

This interesting quote speaks to the need for the study of ancient literature in order to secure a sound democracy. But, it is not good ONLY to study the classics. A society needs the trades, commerce and other producers so that the society’s needs are met, and all are happy.

In other words, your community isn’t worth squat with a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals running around telling each other how smart they are. We need the ditch-diggers, the car-fixers, the grocers, clerks and farmers. Not everyone is going to go to college.

Maybe keeping kids in “…a multitude of bad grammar-schools, where superfluous matters, badly learned, stand in the way of sound instruction in necessary studies” is a bad thing. Maybe we should consider invigorating the general health of our communities by allowing those who are predisposed to the trades and other useful yet not necessarily academic studies, get to it and get on with their lives.

(Any added emphasis is mine.)

Alexis de Tocqueville, from "Democracy in America"

It is important that this point should be clearly under-stood. A particular study may be useful to the literature of a people without being appropriate to its social and political wants. If men were to persist in teaching nothing but the literature of the dead languages in a community where everyone is habitually led to make vehement exertions to augment or to maintain his fortune, the result would be a very polished, but a very dangerous set of citizens. For as their social and political condition would give them every day a sense of wants, which their education would never teach them to supply, they would perturb the state, in the name of the Greeks and Romans, instead of enriching it by their productive industry.

It is evident that in democratic communities the interest of individuals as well as the security of the commonwealth demands that the education of the greater number should be scientific, commercial, and industrial rather than literary.

Greek and Latin should not be taught in all the schools; but it is important that those who, by their natural disposition or their fortune, are destined to cultivate letters or prepared to relish them should find schools where a complete knowledge of ancient literature may be acquired and where the true scholar may be formed. A few excellent universities would do more towards the attainment of this object than a multitude of bad grammar-schools, where superfluous matters, badly learned, stand in the way of sound instruction in necessary studies.

All who aspire to literary excellence in democratic nations ought frequently to refresh themselves at the springs of ancient literature; there is no more wholesome medicine for the mind. Not that I hold the literary productions of the ancients to be irreproachable, but I think that they have some special merits, admirably calculated to counterbalance our peculiar defects. They are a prop on the side on which we are in most danger of falling.

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One thought on “Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville: Literature Good, Tradeschool Better

  1. In Your Quote: ” …A few excellent universities would do more towards the attainment of this object than a multitude of bad grammar-schools”
    Just a side note: In Trindad and Tobago, at St. Mary’s College where I went to high school, one was exposed to three foreign languages when one entered school at age eleven: Latin, Spanish and French. When I was twelve, a decision was taken by the Board to discontinue Latin, the only language I liked. Spanish was made compulsory throughout the five years of schooling — the Board taught it wise as we were so geographically close to teh rest of Sbanish speaking Latin America. Now, more than thirty years later and five years of compulsory Spanish, I know no more Spanish than French or Latin and very little of all three. I promise myself to one day take up Latin again.

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