Syllabus: Public Writing in de Tocqueville’s America

We’re in an interesting political era, to put it mildly. I don’t just mean “Trump’s America,” or the specific partisan aspects of our contemporary situation. I mean also that we’ve been publicly grappling with broader issues of how individual people can feel empowered and engaged in the work of deliberative democracy, when so many of our digital tools have made us seem further away from those we disagree with than ever before. We’ve been grappling with this broad idea called “populism,” a curious debate given the basic definitions of democracy; we’ve argued over the proper role of experts and expertise; we’ve worried over bubbles, fake news, and the death of the commons.

We’ve also asked for decades how the liberal arts can be made relevant and important again. These seem to me to be two questions that answer the other. It is precisely the humanities that has long concerned itself with these questions, and it is the humanities that is best suited to answer them. We should look beyond our narrowly vocational interests in education, and recognize that STEM-mania and the obsession with technical skills have something to do with our unhealthy public discourse. A healthy deliberative democracy requires work. It requires people to go out of their way to foster discursive spaces where we can have a truly democratic conversation. Dismantling the humanities, despite what you’d read in the average magazine article, has consequences, and we’re living with them.

A college class, obviously, is a little thing, and doesn’t have much impact on the national conversation. But I am naive enough to believe that teaching and learning still matter, and so I’m laying out a vision for a class I thought up that is designed to address precisely the crisis of conversation we’re seeing today. The liberal arts are constantly based for their supposed impracticality, but it’s hard for me to imagine a task more practical than that of teaching young people how to be engaged, involved citizens.

Seminar in Public Writing: de Tocqueville’s America

The class I’m proposing here I envision as a 400-level seminar in English or Writing programs, entitled “Seminar in Public Writing: de Tocqueville’s America.” The class will be a seminar revolving around Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal text Democracy in America, and using the text as a lens to consider public writing, public formation, and deliberative democracy.

Public writing is a field concerned both with writing objects designed for public consumption and with the theoretical and practical structures within public writing. It foregrounds the role writing plays in various types of political power structures, with an emphasis on its generative potential within a deliberative democracy. Public writing is ideally designed to produce effects within the world. Those effects may be as passive as mutual understanding or as active as generating concrete expression within the political process. In every case, public writing looks out from the individual or small group concerns of the creator of the writing onto a larger public to which it is addressed.

Dr. Linda Shamoon, Professor Emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, once described the process of public writing creating social change as such:

In our democratic society we ordinary citizens (as well as professional writers and those in leadership positions) who encounter a problem we consider to be public in nature may use many kinds of writing to arouse the concern of others in our community. Some in our society say we are obligated to speak out—or write—about such problems or issues. Initially,  we may get little or no response to our demands for a remedy to the problem, but those of us who track an issue and seek or develop forums for our voices to be heard may find ourselves involved in many different kinds of public writing in support of our cause and working with others for solutions we had just begun to understand when we started.

Public writing assumes various stages of success. Generally, we see public writing succeeding in four stages:

Recognition— the work of public writing is read/heard; the argument is recognized as having been made.
Inclusion— the person or persons who produced the writing are recognized as valid members of the public, permitted to make public statements.
Discussion— the piece of public writing is legitimately and openly debated in good faith.
Action— the public writing produces those effects it was designed to produce.

Note that any piece of public writing need not be successful at any of these stages for it to be considered worthwhile by the person or persons writing it. Political dissidents and other out-group members often participate in public writing with no expectation that their writing will be recognized, included, discussed, or will generate the action they desire. We should still see the effort involved in public writing as beneficial and worthwhile even if it satisfies none of these stages. Democracy involves failure as well as success.

The tendency for public writing to be created but to be denied entry into the space of public discourse concerns the second stage of success, inclusion. Public writing is deeply concerned with the question of who has the right to speak— that is, who is allowed entry into a particular public sphere. Publics formation is one of the key theoretical areas of public writing, and it is here that we intersect with Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy in America.

De Tocqueville’s text is one of the seminal works of early political science and a definitive statement on early American democracy. De Tocqueville, a traveling French nobleman, was deeply intrigued by the still-young American republic of the 1830s. Commissioned to examine the American prison system, de Tocqueville and his traveling companion sojourned across the United States and into parts of Canada, documenting many aspects of early American life that were in contrast to the practical and political norms of continental Europe. De Tocqueville’s text is a useful historical account, but it is must valued today as one of the most important evolutions in the history of political science.

A pressing question animates de Tocqueville’s text: why had republican representative democracy succeeded in America when it had seemingly failed in many other parts of the world? As an intrigued and sympathetic observer, de Tocqueville catalogs the unique elements of American democracy and civic participation. Concerned particularly with the intersection of religion, citizenship, and democratic duty, Democracy in America attempts to understand the particular American equation for successful repesentative democracy.

Of course, the success of 1830s America was success predicated on a system of brutal and oppressive inequities in power and quality of life, which de Tocqueville does not ignore. (It is relevant to point out that de Tocqueville’s view on American democracy grew much darker in his later years.) Indeed, the question of slavery haunts the book. De Tocqueville does not ignore the fact that slaves, women, and native peoples were written out of the very democratic processes he praised, and neither should we. Rather, who is included and who is excluded from democracy is of central importance to the theories of public writing. De Tocqueville’s text remains relevant to a 21st century audience in part because it is so insightful about how democracies have always excluded as well as included, with the backdrop of 19th-century America providing a host of examples of how a public is formed and how marginalized people are excluded from it.

The following syllabus describes the course, its readings, and its goals. Students will learn basic theories of publics through philosophers like Habermas, discuss what it means to write for a public, consider the impact of the internet on publics formation, and read through Democracy in America, using the text to give the course shape and structure. They will participate in creating a journal of their own writing, to be hosted online as well as bound, printed, and distributed on campus – because it’s still a thrill to see your words in real print, especially for young students.

public writing and DIA syllabus (editable Word document)

public writing and DIA syllabus