Two Sides to Tocqueville
While researching current thoughts on collaboration in writing studies, I came across a reference to Alexis de Tocqueville that seemed to contradict a quote I had seen attributed to him in a friend’s recent blog post. Resolving the difference between the quoted pieces of Tocqueville’s writing sheds light on the role of collaborative writing in American culture.
On the other hand, have you ever tried to write something without referring to anything you had heard from someone else, and without having any intended future reader in mind—writing that is completely isolated from others and completely independent? Even a diary fails at this goal, as it has an audience (typically the diary itself or an older version of the author) and reflects experiences during the author’s day that were influenced by other people. Yet in schools across the country, we instill the fear of God in our students that they aren’t allowed to plagiarize the work of others or steal thoughts without properly attributing the source. Is that even possible, given how much our writing relies on other people in so many ways?
Dangers of Individualism
Collaborative Authorship and the Teaching of Writing”, Lunsford and Ede position writing in a historical context that they trace back to an 1840 publication by Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville uses the word individualism to get at the heart of American thinking, saying that it “disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the main of his fellows” and let society “look after itself.” He goes on to warn of the “danger that [man] may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.” While that may sound delightful to introverted authors, it’s clearly not how writing needs to work.
What Tocqueville sees as an American tendency toward isolation sounds more or less like the traditional image of a lone author, sequestered in a study, struggling to extract the Next Great Work from the confines of a solitary mind. He was afraid that American culture might emphasize too strongly the accomplishments and activities of the individual, without sufficient regard for the surrounding society. More than a century and a half later, and our school systems still reinforce that bias by obsessing over plagiarism and originality. Ask any high-school English teacher how original student ideas are after reading 150 copies of whatever essay was just collected. It’s tough to find 150 distinct opinions about anything, especially when that “anything” is based on an author’s use of literary devices in a story. Our education system holds as its standard a goal which is aligned with American ideals but which is an ideal impossible to reach.
Benefits of Individualism
My classmate—and one helluva blogger—Mike Sacasas also referred to Tocqueville’s text in one of his posts from last year. He focuses on a much different element of Tocqueville’s thinking than Lunsford and Ede did. Sacasas discusses the American tendency to emphasize practical applications of science over more theoretical work. For his article, Sacasas cites this excerpt from Democracy in America:
“Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences, or of the more elevated departments of science, than meditation; and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society.”
Now it sounds as though Tocqueville is reversing his stance, saying that American society isn’t set up to encourage the independent thinking that pure science (and, I would argue, our traditional view of independent writing) requires. For one who warned of the dangers of isolation, Tocqueville sure sounds like he values it. Tocqueville’s stance is that Americans value the application of technology than in the knowledge-building behind it. In Sacasas’s words, “America is much more likely to produce a Thomas Edison than an Albert Einstein.” Our nation produces innovations and new technologies based on the pure science that may be more highly valued in other societies. I would argue that our values exclusively follow our cash, and that we don’t often profit off a scientific discovery until it takes the form of a technological innovation. But I digress; this is not the place for economics.
The tension between isolationism and individualism noted above did not go unnoticed by Tocqueville. He observed what he saw as an antidote to rampant individualism: community and public discourse. He believed that the ability to discuss public affairs requires citizens to emerge from their isolation.
“Citizens who are bound to take part in public affairs must turn from private interests and occasionally take a look at something other than themselves.”
Because our democratic society allows, perhaps even encourages, active citizen involvement in public affairs, members of the society avoid becoming completely isolated in their work and thinking. Lunsford and Ede summarize this balance very well, saying that civic involvement with public discourse is “the balancing factor that would keep America from developing into a society of naturally exclusive, autonomous individuals.”
In this balance, I see a call for creating civic-minded writing situations for students. These situations could be realistic, situated, and collaborative. By having students engage in authentic public discourse, we could develop a sense of community in the need for writing, in the audience of written work, and in the social views of students. With civic situations for student writing, we could help stave off the isolation inherent in democratic individualism but still leave room for the meditation Tocqueville called for and feared would go missing in our society.
Conference on College Composition and Communication—the major annual gathering of writing and rhetoric scholars in America—meets in March with “The Public Work of Composition” as its theme. After thinking about Tocqueville’s words, I see this theme in new light. Where I had been thinking of ways in which student writing could be used to further existing public works, I now see writing itself as the work of the public in America. Composition in civic discourse can become the quintessential American activity that balances our drive for individualism with the dangers of isolation.