Wilfred McClay: The Tocquevillean Moment ... and Ours

Roundup: Talking About History

Wilfred McClay, a Wilson Center senior scholar, is SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, and author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (1994).

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.”
So let me propose, as a lifeline for our own era, that we consult a figure who has served Americans well in the past: the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59), one of the most eminent European social and political thinkers of the 19th century, and still an incomparable analyst of the virtues and pitfalls of modern democratic societies. The first part of my title not only refers to the man and his unique biographical context, but also uses his name to label something more general: a particular kind of pivotal moment in human history, something that he both described well and experienced fully—a moment of profound social transition in which an entire way of life is in the process of being inexorably transformed, but in which the precise shape of this transformation is yet to be fully determined...

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