“It is not a matter of indifference that the minds of the people be enlightened.” This quotation from Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws serves as the epigraph for the introductory chapter of Dana Villa’s Teachers of the PeopleLike the figures at the center of Villa’s study — Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Mill — many have struggled to tread a middle path between taking Montesquieu’s assertion as a conceptual problem, and thus an occasion for clarifying political principles or the very meaning of enlightenment, and a practical problem that so often leads to versions of paternalism or worse. This tension was a hallmark of 18th and 19th century political thought and has reached a new inflection point in our current political moment.

Dana Villa, the Packey J. Dee Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, has written an absorbing and dare I saw enlightening study of this basic problem of political education. Below we take up the temptation of paternalism, the relationship between political education and what takes place in schools, and the “middle term” that philosophers have so often sought linking theory and practice.

Michael Schapira: The great temptation that each of these thinkers try to resist, but ultimately succumb to in various ways, is to make the education of the people a paternalist project, what Mill called “a government of leading strings.” This is a temptation that was arguably present in the Obama administration’s embrace of behavioral economists, and remains a temptation for commentators of a reactionary sort after the 2016 election. Hannah Arendt, who you invoke in the conclusion, provides us an alternative model of politics that accounts for contingency, risk, and plurality, but it strikes me that her model hasn’t been able to break this paternalist strain. I have two questions related to this, each approaching the same topic from opposite sides: 

First, do you think that one of our problems today is the equation of education with schooling, and hence the restriction of what constitutes political education to a kind of instruction instead of recognizing the formative political education that comes through learning about events global and local, participating in political actions, feeling the sting of injustice or precarity, etc.?

Second, there is a robust literature on civic education, but political education is a term that scholars tend to shy away from. Coming back to Arendt, do you think this has more to do with an impoverished view of politics than an impoverished view of education?

Dana Villa: To take the second question first: I think “political education” summons up memories of Soviet times. We tend to hear the term as overtly ideological and/or partisan. “Civic education” sounds, well, civic — instruction in citizenship (rights, duties, responsibilities). As such, reassuringly neutral.

Connecting this to Arendt: she was about restoring — or perhaps unearthing — the dignity of politics and the political life after centuries of devaluation by our philosophical and religious traditions, and (more recently, post Adam Smith) by our market-oriented thinking. In contemporary America, in contrast, “politics” has a hugely negative connotation — almost up there with “politicians.” So yes, we do have an impoverished view of politics. But the answer to that is not to bash any particular partisan grouping, demographic, or author. It is, rather, to acquaint students with unfamiliar views of politics (such as Arendt’s, at the university level) and to get them to think about the public realm and citizenship outside preconceived categories and the emasculating vocabulary of “civics.”

To the first question, Arendt — and I too — would agree that people’s fundamental (and perhaps most important) political education comes from experience (often of injustice), participation (in both “partisan”/political and civil society settings), and events themselves. So, being “involved” is important. However, it’s preferable if that involvement includes some basic knowledge of domestic and foreign affairs, history, and how governments work. These are all things that can be subjects of traditional education without becoming overtly ideological.

Like Max Weber, I think it’s dishonest and somewhat cheesy to use the lecture platform to voice one’s own political leanings. Students deserve better than to be harangued or have their liberal or conservative prejudices confirmed. But THAT posture (of mine and Weber) applies only to university or school settings. A LOT of practical political education has — obviously — been imparted by “partisan” or ideologically informed groupings like unions, the women’s movement, the ecological movement, etc., etc. The difference between them and universities/schools is that an individual chooses to take part — sign on, if you will, to the “cause” in question, whereas pursuing causes through overt (and covert) political rhetoric on the lecture platform is an attempt to use one’s authority as a scholar to claim a bogus authority in political-ideological matters.

So, in talking about “political education” we have to give experience, contingency, and individual (or class or group) experience its due. But to say that is precisely not to say that the lecture or classroom is the place to impart ideological content (disguised as objective knowledge). One can learn a lot in a classroom — about American history, the Constitution, how other political systems work, the science on climate change, etc. — but NOT talking points for liberal or conservative ideological purposes.

As far as “schooling” goes: literacy in America is in perilous shape, and basic knowledge about constitutional government and American history are increasingly rare commodities. Since Reagan and the ascendency of a tax-cutting ideology (think Prop. 13 in California), our commitment to, and support of, public schools and universities has declined precipitously, and this is a real danger to democracy. So, don’t undervalue “schooling.”

An interesting aspect of your readings of Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Mill is your focus on the “middle term” that each worked out in a variety of settings between theory and practice. Rousseau for example gave advice for constitutions in Corsica and Poland with interesting differences between the two. Tocqueville and Mill served in political office and advocated positions that are discordant with some of their written work, and Hegel spent a great deal of time trying to develop a scheme of public participation in political life through the mediating organ of the estates. Was your focus on this middle term something that naturally lent itself to the project (i.e. it’s baked into the nature of political education), or did it serve some sort of methodological motivation for doing a kind of political theory?

For me, this is a fairly straightforward question. I wanted to show that — despite their reputations in some quarters — none of these figures was doctrinaire in their thinking. In other words, they avoided any “deduction” of practice from theory. On the other hand, I think they all suffer moments of what might be called self-betrayal. These are perhaps starkest in Mill and Tocqueville: Mill betrays his own anti-paternalism (vehemently expressed in “On Liberty,” the quote in the introduction about “immature” peoples notwithstanding — that quote is a good example of self-betrayal), while Tocqueville undercuts his “learning by doing” message by a) implying that the French working class is not in any condition to profit by political experience, and b) by placing his hopes — at least initially — in elites who might guide the “inevitable” democratic revolution.

Aside from Rousseau these thinkers are developing a conception of political education with the French Revolution as a signal event in their minds — that is, a problematic for which the historical sequence of post-revolutionary politics yielded unsatisfactory answers. We are at the 50th anniversary of 1968 and for many on the radical left that has served as an organizing event or fixation for their political thought. For some on the right 9/11 is this event, for my generation Occupy might stand out. I’m curious to know what you think the benefits and limitations are for political theorists who organize their thought around a particular historical event.

I think it’s inevitable that such events have a profound impact and shape perceptions. For the parents of the baby-boomers, it was WWII and the Cold War. But, while these events provide a context, they do not — or at least not necessarily — fix one’s political views and perceptions permanently or in any predictable direction. Since my view of education is that it is — largely — a matter of confronting students with the foreign and unfamiliar, it follows that I think that such contexts NOT be allowed to become restrictive filters through which new political events and experiences are either recoded (the new and unfamiliar being made into something familiar — e.g., “another Munich”) or not allowed to penetrate.

As for political theorists: this is a somewhat different matter. It would be absurd to say, for example, that because the English Civil War determined a lot of Hobbes’s political thought, it’s irrelevant to us, or that it’s somehow defective because of this “inspiration.” On the other hand, it’s not like the Western canon of political theory is a conversation between mountain-tops (Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, et al) who HAVE NO historical-political context. The Straussians approach the tradition in much this way, whereas the “Cambridge historians” (Quentin Skinner, John Dunn) tend to see context as determinative. For me, it’s a question of taking a middle course between these two extremes — that is, of recognizing the shaping influence of events like the English Civil War or the French Revolution on canonical theorists, while simultaneously recognizing that the great authors/texts say something that transcends their immediate context, and provide ways of looking at politics that — while perhaps unfamiliar — have the virtue of helping us relativize and step back from our own immediate political experience.

There is an uncanny quality to returning to the 19th century. To take a representative example from the book: “As Tocqueville was to observe, the narrow focus on one’s individual property, affairs, and status is a central element in the decline of whatever public life exists. Wherever such a bourgeois attitude takes hold, the state is set for (a) the alienation of all public power to a set of magistrates or public representatives and (b) the subsequent usurpation and monopolization of political power by an individual or clique.” We had a perverse form of this in the Clintonite technocratic argument verses the Trumpian effective businessman argument in the last election. Pankash Mishra also goes back to the 19th century to work out what he has called our “age of anger.” What in the long history of political theory strikes you as so potent about the 19th century?

That’s a very big question. In short, three things. First, it was, as Tocqueville and Mill recognized, an age of democratization (slow and painful as this was for ordinary working people). Second, it was the age of the ascendency of the bourgeoisie as a class, and they had a very instrumental view of politics — namely, that it should serve their economic interests. This basic idea — that political power/government is legitimate when it is facilitating business and protecting property, but illegitimate when it goes beyond these tasks, has — unfortunately — become part of America’s political DNA. Third, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the age of European imperialism, and we are still very much feeling the effects of that period. So, in a nutshell, the nineteenth century starkly underlines the themes of class and democracy, the subjection of government and the public realm to economic interests, and the economically rapacious (and ideologically racist) approach of the Western powers to Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

The book begins and ends with some scathing remarks on our flight from any kind of robust commitment to public education, whether it be basic literacy (in which we rank very poorly amongst peer nations) or massive inequalities in educational opportunity and outcomes. It struck me that Hegel is the figure of which you are fondest of this quartet, and it seems no accident that he picks up Bildung, an ideal driving Prussian educational reform at the time, as central to his philosophical system. Feel free to correct my impression, but amongst the four is there one thinker who you think has the most sophisticated picture of where politics and education converge?

Well, Hegel thought it important to educate middle class young men so that they could become good civil servants. In context, this is progressive, particularly when contrasted with the ubiquity of venal offices in England at the time. Believe it or not, between 1815 and 1840, Prussia was viewed as a pretty modern, rational, and “liberal” place — at least compared to the rest of the “Holy Alliance” that defeated Napoleon.

I don’t think Hegel had the most sophisticated picture of where politics and education converge — like Mill, he thought it critical to have expert knowledge around, and that practical politics was NOT something to be left to relatively uneducated people (the “rabble”). But Hegel DOES manage to combine radical and reformist themes in a way I find attractive. As I try to argue in the chapter, the Preface to the “Philosophy of Right” and the Master/Slave dialectic are not the work of a reactionary old Hegel and a liberal young Hegel. Hegel’s “liberalism” and VERY positive judgment of the French Revolution were features of his entire adult life.

If we are thinking about “the people” the recent testimony of Mark Zuckerberg has some troubling implications, perhaps worse than conceiving of the people as the Volk or the masses. Up until recently Facebook would use data collected on users to sell what they called something like affinity-based advertisements, some of which were used for blatantly discriminatory purposes. Tocqueville’s “il faut une science politique nouvelle à un monde tout nouveau” seems to take on a new significance today. Who in the 21st century (though not necessarily a 21st century figure) have you found fruitful in thinking through the implications of technology on the public sphere?

Another big question. For starters, I’ll trot out the usual suspects: Adorno and Horkheimer, Heidegger, and Habermas. But — increasingly — I think that Foucault has the most to say to us about this subject. Facebook is a kind of Panopticon, one that people — up to now — have been happy to participate in, under the illusion that there was no central point from which their information might be collected, analyzed and “weaponized.” In other words, we had the illusion of total visibility (to our “friends”) and transparency (we could make our private selves public) WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE. What the Facebook scandal shows is that the chickens are coming home to roost.

Your earlier invocation of Max Weber leads to one final question. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read The Decline of the German Mandarins by Fritz Ringer, but it’s a brilliant book about (in part) that hinge moment in the first decades of the 20th century when Weber is trying to thread the needle between those lapsing into “academic prophecy” (who Ringer calls “orthodox Mandarins”) and those who are trying to contend with the upheavals of modern life in a responsible way. (The contrast would be between Weber’s goal of teaching students to “recognize inconvenient facts” and that voiced by Arthur Salz, an orthodox Mandarin, which was “[to have] the guidance of life as a goal, intuition as the method, and universality of scope.”) I’m not so much interested in the debate, but the moment that Ringer describes in which the high pitch of debate leads to what he calls the “semantic disease” of differences in position blossoming into a crisis of learning that seeks resolution. This is a very roundabout way of asking the very impolitic question about the reception of the book as you’ve been giving lectures or participating in panels or teaching this material post-2016 election. Given the subject of the book and the often-high pitch of our own moment, have you seen engagements with the book or the underlying ideas shading in interesting directions?

This is an interesting question.  However, I haven’t been barnstorming the country, so I’ve only done a few things on the book (more in the fall at APSA and elsewhere).

That said, one pushback I’ve gotten is ‘of course these guys are paternalistic in their tutorial ambitions.’  This line was taken by a Straussian colleague. If I had to guess, the objection means less that ‘theory should guide practice’ than it means ‘the point of political philosophy is to articulate what the ‘good life’ is, and to try to spread that conception (at least among a literate, educated audience).’

Contra the Straussian, I don’t think the function of political theory/philosophy is to provide a conception of the good life that all would-be virtuous citizens should seek or aspire to.  We live in a pluralist liberal society, in which there is a wide variety of conceptions of the good life — religious, secular, and philosophical. When, at end of the book I cite Arendt saying that, in politics, ‘we are not in the nursery’ — i.e., that we are dealing with adults capable of employing their own moral and intellectual faculties — I take it that the flip side of this statement (as it applies to acting in the public sphere) is something like Mill’s plea to let adult individuals ‘pursue their own good in their own way in their private lives. This gets back to the basic distinction between the Right and the Good — between political-juridical-legal fairness and views about the ‘proper end’ or purpose of life. Liberal democracies prioritize the Right over the Good, confining the major part of the latter to the private sphere and individual choice or conscience.

Michael Schapira is an Interviews editor at Full Stop and teaches Philosophy at St. Joseph’s University.


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