Against Democracy in Education: Reading, Writing, Shooting, and Smoking in Tocqueville, Jefferson, and Palafox

You may not have noticed, but we live in revolutionary times and at a global level.

A lab-created plague just killed millions of people, and now we’re witnessing the migration of millions more from third-world countries into Europe and the United States. Constitutional governance has drawn to a close in the only remaining superpower, where for the first time in its history, a former president and the leading candidate for re-election is being subjected to show trials. The debt to gross domestic product ratio in Western countries staggers the mind. A decentralized monetary system based on digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum is ready to rise from the ashes when the current economic order crumbles. Artificial intelligence (AI) has begun to render obsolete a wide range of high-skilled jobs. The worldwide web connects massive numbers of people to a strange new public square. Space exploration has been privatized. Latin America again lurches between the extremes of populism in places like Venezuela and Argentina. And, China has attained a presence on the world stage not seen for centuries.

Tectonic instability is the new norm.

As Edmund Burke noted in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)—published less than a year and a half after the event that marked the advent of the modern era—neither tyranny nor suffering are the root causes of revolt. Complacency on the part of rulers and improvement in the lives of the ruled allow the latter enough free time to act on their resentful and envious thoughts. If Burke was right, we’re in for serious upheaval. After unprecedented economic growth, the world’s masses have left poverty behind, and cell phones and the internet offer us all a way to amplify and focus our wildest sentiments and behaviors.

At times like these, we might reflect on the utility of education.

In America, we now think everybody under the sun deserves a university degree and perfect grades regardless of effort. Is this wise? Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Jefferson, and Juan de Palafox y Mendoza are giants of the Western tradition who thought deeply about revolutions and wrote much about education in their most salient texts. A Frenchman, an American, and a Spaniard—three intellectuals reflecting on the value of the intellect—can help us assess our situation and make better decisions going forward.

Tocqueville remains the greatest theorist of Jeffersonian democracy. Unrivaled are his detailed assessments of the American character—our habits and our preferences—and his subtle applications of historical, legal, and sociological frames to the nation that gave rise to modern electoral politics. Democracy in America (1835/40) reveals that Tocqueville was ambivalent about education.

On the one hand, learning is fundamental since liberty requires second-order thinking as opposed to the lazy charitable instinct that drives social justice and wealth redistribution. But most Americans are pragmatic, focused on material advancement rather than the theories behind constitutions and free markets. Thus, they’re susceptible to demagoguery. “They always have to come to hasty judgements and latch on to the most obvious features. As a result, charlatans of all kinds know full well the secret of pleasing the people whereas more often than not their real friends fail to do so” (DA 1.2.5). Education helps the people, who are the ultimate guardians of liberty, stay skeptical about the ideas that drive mass movements.

On the other hand, Tocqueville turns dystopian in the final stages of his book. The dull egalitarians of American society will eventually industrialize schooling. This will undermine the independence needed to preserve our democratic liberty, subjecting citizens to “a mass of petty preliminary tests, in the process of which their youth disappears and their imagination is snuffed out” (DA 2.3.19). Tocqueville warns that political correction arises from uniformity in mass education. Citizens then spiral out of control, driven mad by the cult of equality: “they become annoyed in some way when they do not resemble each other. Far from wanting to preserve their own individual distinguishing features, they seek to abandon these so as to blend in with the masses which alone represent, in their view, what is right and what is strong” (2.3.26n2). Echoing Alexander von Humboldt—another fan of Jefferson—Tocqueville rails against the idea that governments should mold the minds of future citizens. “Education, alongside charity, has turned into a national concern in most contemporary nations. The state welcomes and often takes the child from its mother’s arms to entrust it to its official agents; it assumes responsibility for forming the feelings and shaping the ideas of each generation. Uniformity prevails in the classroom as in everything else; diversity is daily vanishing along with freedom” (2.4.5).

This sounds familiar to modern Americans grappling with the woke absurdities that infect elementary schools as well as top universities like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. As with other democratic ideas, Tocqueville is guardedly positive about education, but he warns of risks when it’s politicized and made universal by government officials. Most interestingly, Tocqueville remains skeptical about a classical education steeped in Greek and Latin, especially when democracy itself is an illusion. He says elites who dedicate too much time to such topics will lose the ability to earn money, and then they’ll become bitterly utopian and abusive toward a public they’ll view as inferior to themselves. Too much Greek and Latin will result in petty tyrants.

If Tocqueville is still the best model for thinking about democracy, Jefferson and Palafox are critical precursors. The Frenchman cites the founder of American democracy extensively, and he alludes to Palafox in ways that modern readers have yet to see. For his part, writing his masterpiece two years after the American Revolution, which ended in 1783, and two years before the Constitutional Convention held at Philadelphia in 1787, Jefferson was far more optimistic than Tocqueville about education. He wouldn’t agree, however, with those absolutist egalitarians who insist everyone has a right to an A in every course, an advanced degree in astrophysics from Berkeley followed by an automatic job at NASA or Space-X.

In Query XIV of Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson lays out a three-stage plan for schooling in a new frontier nation. Ironically, since we associate him with the Enlightenment, Jefferson’s vision of education echoed how mendicant orders and Jesuits operated in Spain and Latin America. This makes sense, given the marginal regions toward which these orders gravitated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Like them, the author of the Declaration of Independence viewed education as a public works program designed “to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people.” Jefferson thought all children should learn elementary reading, writing, and arithmetic. Three years of study would be publicly funded, and then parents who wanted more for their children should pay for it. A handful of exceptional students who needed financing would be sent to grammar schools to learn Greek, Latin, geography, and higher math. The best would attend the College of William and Mary to study “all the useful sciences.”

Jefferson believed firmly in a publicly financed education system as a way to locate successful students who would later form an elite group of leaders. It was democratic because Jefferson wanted to subsidize the poor but also believed in merit. Only the ambitious and the talented would be advanced free-of-charge.

In one of the most notable contrasts between Jefferson and Tocqueville, the American embraced ancient and modern languages. Too much pragmatism can be bad. We marvel at young geniuses who focus on science and math since they seem like men when they’re still children. But the cost comes later. Their inability to access the truths of history will have the effect of “reducing them to be children when they should be men.” Jefferson worried about the consequences of too many juvenile savants.

In the end, both Jefferson and Tocqueville are anti-egalitarian and anti-industrialist when it comes to education, believing—like Humboldt—that any system targeting the masses corrupts them. Jefferson is more elitist than Tocqueville because he’s less wary of a centralized system; he views education as the duty of each state government, not the nation at large. But both men felt the minds of citizens should be promoted and improved. They’re moderates. Sustaining science but also a pluralistic “republic of letters” keeps democracy from degenerating back into a society run by petty tyrants or some new caste of elites.

Palafox was more radical and critical regarding universal education. More than a century before Jefferson and Tocqueville, and near the end of his political career—which included service as the Bishop of Puebla and Viceroy of New Spain—he penned an epic novel in the vein of Miguel de Cervantes and Baltasar Gracián. The Conquest of China (c.1654) is a wondrous amalgam of history, fantasy, speculation, and personal confession—a futuristic looking-glass into which Palafox projects life’s lessons while meditating on a revolution on the other side of the world that replaces the Ming dynasty with the Qing.

A remarkable aspect of The Conquest of China is its persistent criticism of the intellectuals and advisors who made up the parasitical caste known as “mandarins.” These had siphoned off the Ming Empire’s morale through their conformity, corruption, and cowardice. But the focus on China is a device. Long before he wrote his novel, Palafox had resolved to reform the Spanish Empire by freeing it from the dual shackles of authoritarian rule and local privilege. Ironically, since he was himself a man of letters, he recognized the inherent danger of a stagnating education system that ends up granting its students empty political and moral credentials. This leads to a culture of decadence and impractical knowledge.

Palafox’s novel should interest us because his most negative reflections on intellectuals appear in the climactic episodes of a vision of revolutions as massive tidal fluctuations in human events. As one of the Count-Duke of Olivares’s most powerful agents in Mexico, Palafox found himself at the epicenter of the global sociopolitical crisis of the mid-seventeenth century. This crisis revealed to him in uncanny ways the simultaneous rigidity of the imperial regimes of Spain, China, and England (disguised as Japan in his novel).

Cataluña’s and Portugal’s rebellions in 1640, Peking’s surrender to Qing forces in 1644, and Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power in 1653, signaled something new. From Macao and Nagasaki to Puebla to Cadiz and Bristol, the astonishing spread of commerce around the world facilitated by the Spanish piece of eight laid the grounds for each of these alterations. Given this far-flung interconnectedness, which caught so many leaders everywhere unawares, when Palafox rails against the arrogance and idleness of administrators, judges, eunuchs, and priests in Ming China, he’s saying disruptions at civilization’s margins are more likely to topple the social order when we cherish our intellects over commonsense, morality, and hard work.

Towards the end of The Conquest of China, Palafox dedicates an entire chapter to the prissy, bookish education so prized by Ming elites. This contrasts with the rough-and-tumble realism of their new Qing rulers, who mock the sophistication of the society they’ve just overthrown. Palafox shares the Qing’s disdain for a republic based so heavily on letters that sharp weapons disappear. Gone too are the surgeons needed for sowing up wounds. At court, mandarins and eunuchs now scratch at each other like birds or cats. Palafox opens chapter twenty-eight with a parallel observation about the history of his own nation: “Spain fought more than five thousand battles in times that saw few books come to light. And she didn’t need books to found and extend her monarchy. If you don’t believe me, look at her conquests.” In the chapter’s climactic episode, a Qing warrior expropriates a summer-house where a Ming mandarin keeps his library. The functionary doesn’t even read his books. They merely signal his social status:

Ah, Mr. Mandarin, by your life, allow me to pillage this structure, and get all of these tomes out of my sight. If you don’t want to remove them, then leave them here, and my soldiers and I will use them up fast, turning them into wads for harquebuses and rolling papers for cigarillos, and with that we’ll move them about far more than your grace does.

I’m from Texas, the former province of the Spanish Empire known as Las Nuevas Filipinas. I’m a huge fan of Tocqueville and Jefferson. But in the end, I’ll worship at the altar of Palafox. The Bishop of Puebla viewed the overabundance of intellectuals as symptomatic of a society’s fragility and corruption. Too many books signal the need for reform, if not outright revolution. Superfluous reading has killed our desire to smoke and shoot. I believe Palafox would tell us we ought to get on with colonizing the seas, the Moon, and Mars, and stop droning on about our genitals, our ethnicities, and our institutional credentials.

Photo by Bicentenario México — Wikimedia Commons


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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2 thoughts on “Against Democracy in Education: Reading, Writing, Shooting, and Smoking in Tocqueville, Jefferson, and Palafox

  1. I’m for technical training. Aside from that, Thucydides, Cervantes, and Tocqueville should suffice. Secondary school is certainly the problem. And in the U.S., we do everything we can to avoid that fact.

  2. One might point to Thomas Sowell’s “Intellectuals and Society” as a good follow-on to one of the arguments made here. As for education, I continue to believe that much of the difficulties both in the general behavior of average young adults, and in their ability to derive utility from a robust college program, stem from either effective or ineffective secondary education, perhaps going back further to primary. One conservative professor at the University of Chicago, otherwise stated that students generally come into their freshman class, already either ideologically indoctrinated, and/or in comprehensive need of certain basic remediations. If high school, or a well-ordered college preparatory sequence (my bias: the Watkinson School in Connecticut) is taken seriously by students, college consists of an advanced, effective “add-on” or post-grad track. Secondary school is the main problem, and opportunity. Moreover, if organized in an effective “trivium” or quadrivium, college liberal arts may be redundant, or unnecessary outside professional or technical training (e.g. engineering, law, medicine, music, architecture, business, aviation, or Ph.D research).

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