The last semester, with all its Kilo weirdness, was over, and while I knew I was “in trouble” because Kilo was an influential professor, I knew there was nothing else to do but keep moving forward, and the task at hand at the beginning of each semester concerned picking out classes. I already had three — international relations seminar, American politics seminar, and complex system simulation — but I was looking for a fourth. I sat in on a class, “20th Century European Labor Movements” I think it was, and the professor was so arrogant and condescending I thought I was going to scream. Also in attendance was an MIT classmate, Juliet. She was from Poland, and while she was blonde, pretty, and crackerjack smart — she was in the PhD program while I was only in the master’s program, she was on full scholarship, and she had also been accepted to Stanford. Being from Poland though, Jules was also a strident anti-communist and a bit of a handful. As we were walking out of class together, I told her that I was looking for one more class and was surprised that she was there given her antipathy towards communism. She laughed and said she just wanted to attend one class to see how bad the professor and syllabus were. She had no intention of taking that class and was going to take a seminar on Alexis de Tocqueville with Prof. Fox at Harvard. She suggested that I should take the class with her.
Before going to MIT, I had been watching Bill Moyer’s television program World of Ideas in which he interviewed notable intellectuals, and about every other guest referred to Tocqueville. Also, since I was almost certain to get thrown out by Kilo, I may as well take one class at Harvard just so I could say I did. Besides, Tocqueville’s most famous work was Democracy in America, so I thought it would provide a nice historical contrast to the democratic socialism of Kilo. Fox’s class was meeting the next day, so I planned to meet Jules at Harvard, only two T-stops (what they call the subway in Cambridge/MIT) from MIT.
The next day I got off at the Harvard T-stop and walked through Harvard yard to get to the seminar, which in some ways was anti-climactic because it was just a room with some tables, students, and a professor. However, Fox wasn’t just any professor, he was a legend — soft-spoken and as smart as they come. So for twelve weeks, we did nothing but read Tocqueville and then talk about him once a week, which for me was gloriously intellectual, indulgent, and actually taught me a couple of things.
First, democracy is, in itself, problematic. Tocqueville came to America to study its “conservative” revolution, its separation from England that did not involve anything like France’s “terror” that featured Robespierre, Jacobins, the guillotine, and mass murder. Tocqueville argued that democracy did increase equality but was antithetical to excellence, which was more the domain of aristocracy. Tocqueville was both an aristocrat and intellectually excellent, so that was his perspective.
Second, Tocqueville pointed out that democracy is not the way of the world — it is, instead, the exception. It is hard for Americans to understand this because they’re literally surrounded by democracy, so they don’t know anything different. But most of the world is different — a lot different, and by different, I mean hierarchical and authoritarian. Recall that in Tocqueville’s France, the French revolution was replaced by one of the most famous authoritarians of all time, Napoleon. Tocqueville was writing in the aftermath of that chaos and destruction, and visited America in the 1830s, which gave him a certain perspective.
Third, and perhaps most important to me is the nature of Tocqueville’s perspective, which is to that it was a real-world perspective and that human intelligence, properly applied, can make the world is comprehensible. Many academics are cloistered away on their campuses, which are beautiful and enjoyable, but they are also insulated and removed from the real world. Tocqueville, in contrast, took some paper, some pens, and his intelligence and traveled, observed, thought, and wrote. The result was a remarkable work that has stood the test of time. One of my favorite grad school questions is, “Is Tocqueville a philosopher?” The assumption is that philosophers — and in this case, political philosophers — simplify the world and work in an intellectual space of abstract ideas. Tocqueville instead took on the full complexity of the world and helped to make it more abstract through his informed descriptions.
I was still fairly inexperienced in the ways of philosophy, only a masters student. However Juliet was much more experienced, a PhD student on full scholarship. Moreover, she was fierce in a way I admired, having come from Poland just as the Soviet Union was failing and communism was losing its grip on her home country. My understanding of Marxism, communism, socialism, or democrat socialism — call it what you will — was still fairly rudimentary. However, her family had lived through all the real-world politics that Poland, both the German Nazis and the Russian communists, which was quite the education. Juliet was a bit intense, but she did the work, was intelligent, and had a deep faith in the goodness of America.
In that way, Juliet was somewhat like Tocqueville himself — coming to America with an almost too-deep appreciation of the complexity and terrors of the old world to learn what it is about America that makes it different, and if one could be so bold, better. America had helped Poland during the time of the Soviet occupation in many ways, but perhaps the most significant way was by serving as a hope for something better, a hope for truth, a hope for an escape from Soviet communism, and she had made it! Juliet had made it to America and was taking classes at two of the best schools in the world — Harvard and MIT — en route to earning an MIT degree. Or at least, that was the plan.