Tocqueville and the American Experiment

Course No. 4863
Professor William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
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Course No. 4863
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Course Overview

How is it possible that perhaps the greatest book about U.S. democracy ever written was penned by a Frenchman visiting this country 175 years ago? Why is it still relevant in today’s ever-changing political landscape?

Now you can draw your own conclusions as you join Professor William R. Cook for a spirited exploration of Alexis de Tocqueville and his unique observations of this young nation that resulted in the two volumes of Democracy in America.

Democracy and Our National Identity

Democracy is so much a part of our national identity as to be inseparable from it. It is all too easily taken for granted as we live our lives, debate our country’s issues, freely criticize our leaders, and cast our ballots.

But in today’s world, where we are also trying to understand how to make democracy a part of the national identity of other nations, an in-depth understanding of this remarkable political system is especially relevant.

What is American democracy, and why has it flourished? Is there something unique in our national character, in our social fabric and communities, that makes the United States especially fertile ground for the growth of democracy? Can American democracy be exported? Does it naturally fortify itself over time? Or do its benefits, ironically, work to undermine its strengths?

After more than two centuries of living with democracy, fundamental questions like these often go unasked.

Yet there was a time when the unique relationship between the American people and their government was still new, barely two generations old, and these questions were very much at the forefront of the age’s greatest minds.

One of those minds belonged to a 25-year-old French nobleman, a lawyer named Alexis de Tocqueville, who journeyed here in 1831, and whose written observations at that time left us a lasting and provocative look at U.S. democracy’s formative years.

Tocqueville took this journey with another young lawyer, Gustave de Beaumont, who had written a report on French prisons. Although the official purpose of the trip was to research innovations in the American penal system, the two of them—especially Tocqueville—had in mind a much broader use of the credentials provided them by their government.

Tocqueville wanted to observe firsthand the successful political experiment that was evolving in the United States and take his findings home to France, which was itself trying to shape its own young democracy.

A Hero Claimed by Liberals and Conservatives

The remarkable book that resulted—Democracy in America—has been called both the best book ever written about democracy and the best book ever written about America.

Published in two parts, one in 1835 and the second in 1840, it reveals, in its 700 pages, insights about democracy and the American character that have led both liberals and conservatives to claim Tocqueville as their own, often by citing the very same passages, and often out of context.

And its prescience runs so deep that it includes Tocqueville’s prediction, more than a century ahead of the fact, of the eventual emergence of the United States and what was then pre-Soviet Russia as the world’s reigning superpowers.

In Tocqueville and the American Experiment, Professor Cook leads you on an engaging and energetic discussion on Tocqueville, his journey, his writing of Democracy in America and, most of all, his thoughts on the young nation he was observing. For Tocqueville, it seems, had opinions about almost everything he encountered in America, and not exclusively politics and “classical” issues such as the nature of the judiciary and the role of freedom of the press. He wrote of:

  • The meaning of family in a democracy
  • Race and the damage done by slavery
  • The crucial role of women
  • Religion as a moral guide
  • The dangers of turning religion to political ends.

Seeing Ourselves Through a Foreigner’s Observations

“Tocqueville,” notes Professor Cook, “provides the brilliant observations of an outsider that still allow Americans to understand themselves better for having encountered his writings.

“Furthermore, in a time when America is encouraging nations around the world to adopt democratic values and is engaged in nation building, Tocqueville can be both a guide and a reminder of the cultural context in which democratic institutions can develop and flourish.

“Whatever we feel about particular American policies,” he continues, “we as a nation are trying to build democracies in other places.

“To do that, we have to ask, what in America is transferable to other cultures and other histories, and what isn’t? What are the most fundamental things, and what are secondary and tertiary in importance? What kind of education is needed to create not just a democratic institution, but what Tocqueville himself calls the ‘habits of the heart,’ [the American characteristics that] make a democracy more than a form of government but a way of life?”

A Professor’s very Personal Interest

Professor Cook will be familiar to Teaching Company customers. He has taught subjects that range from Dante to St. Francis to St. Augustine, but his interest in Tocqueville comes from a very different place than his background as an award-winning medieval historian.

Ever since his days as an undergraduate, he has been fascinated with democracy. In 1998 he decided to take a semester off to run for Congress, describing his campaign as a kind of “laboratory” for examining how democracy works. A careful reading of Democracy in America was part of his preparation.

Although he lost that race, a course in Tocqueville has since become part of the array of subjects he teaches.

It is especially interesting to realize that as Professor Cook describes Tocqueville’s journey and illustrates Tocqueville’s insights with examples from his own small town in upstate New York, that many of those insights were gathered in the same district in which Professor Cook ran for Congress.

Tocqueville spent several weeks in that area, including significant time as the guest in the Canandaigua, New York, home of a man named John Canfield Spencer, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives, held two Cabinet offices in the presidential administration of John Tyler, and was a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Spencer was instrumental in the American publication of Democracy in America. He contributed an introduction and some corrective footnotes—but his greatest contribution may well have been in the long conversations he had with Tocqueville.

Although Tocqueville never mentions Spencer’s name in his book, he did record some of those conversations verbatim. Professor Cook points out how those discussions, included in his letters and his journal, not only influenced Tocqueville’s thinking, but offer a window to us today into how that thinking evolved over the years between Tocqueville’s journey to America and the appearance of his book.

Freedom of the Press and Centralized Government

A primary example of Tocqueville’s changing opinions over the nine-year interval between his visit and the completion of Democracy in America concerns freedom of the press.

Describing those changes in the same friendly, conversational style that marks his presentation of the entire course, Professor Cook notes how Tocqueville was initially quite nervous about the unbridled freedom of the press he found in America, fearing that a dominant press might acquire too much power. But Tocqueville was used to the far more centralized press of France, with only a small number of major newspapers. It is fascinating to see how his views evolve as he learns more about the vibrant American press and how its many outlets serve to prevent the centralization of power.

Tocqueville constantly cautioned against the centralization of governmental administration. He believed that if Congress or a state legislature passes a bad law that is administered centrally, for example, the bad effects are felt everywhere. But if those laws are administered locally, there will always be places where the application will be less rigid and the impact of the bad laws thus less onerous. This would provide an opportunity for public demonstrations that would make changes in those laws more likely.

What Else Did Tocqueville Believe?

As Professor Cook traces Tocqueville’s journey and thoughts about the society he is exploring, you’ll see certain concerns emerge repeatedly.

Tocqueville believed, for example, that the forces that held democracy together and made it work most efficiently bubbled up through society, rather than trickling down from government.

He thus saw serving on juries—especially juries in civil cases—as a crucial part of the education of the citizenry, a “school free of charge,” to use Tocqueville’s own words.

“I think,” Cook quotes Tocqueville, “that the practical intelligence and good political sense of the Americans must principally be attributed to a long use that they have made of the jury in civil matters.”

Professor Cook shows how Tocqueville saw much of American daily life as education in good citizenship, with both political and civil associations providing fertile training grounds.

In the case of political associations, participants would have an opportunity not only to advance causes they believed to be in their own self-interest, but to gain practical experience in learning what he called “self-interest well understood.” In giving up their time and energy, and working with other people, citizens would learn how individual self-interest had to be placed within the context of the common good.

In the case of civil associations, Professor Cook uses the story of a cat rescue group in his own town of Geneseo to illustrate Tocqueville’s notion of how civil associations help make life better.

Concerns as Deep as His Admiration

He admired the vibrancy of citizen participation at the base of American democracy, but Tocqueville also saw things that deeply concerned him.

As a system dependent on the will of the majority, democracy needed to be always vigilant against the tyranny of that same majority, the danger that it could rule almost absolutely over the minority.

That danger wasn’t likely to come from government, for there were constitutional safeguards in place. Instead, Tocqueville saw the threat of majoritarianism in the speech that swirled around him, even going so far as to note that despite all of the opinion he heard being voiced, he had found less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion in America than any place he had been!

Although the circle of discussion in America is very broad, he said, its perimeter is clearly delineated. Those whose views fall outside of that circle, even though their views are permitted, are cut off from power, with political careers closed to them. They can become the butt of jokes and, in the worst of cases, the victims of social persecution.

Tocqueville was also concerned about the long-range implications of what he called “equality of conditions,” a term roughly equivalent to what we call equal opportunity. For Tocqueville, equality of conditions was fundamental to democracy, giving “a certain direction to public spirit, a certain turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern and particular habits to the government.”

But in a society in which such a principle pertains, a society without built-in privilege, Tocqueville also saw a danger. He feared that people might well seek other ways to experience the feeling of being special, either by withdrawing into the family or by the selfish pursuit of material wealth.

Tocqueville even coined a term—individualism—to describe this threat, and urged renewed attention to maintaining vibrant local governments and political and civil associations that will constantly demonstrate the advantages of entering and participating in the activities of the public square.

A Book for Today

Tocqueville can be both a guide and a reminder of the cultural context in which democratic institutions can develop and flourish. His book can be seen both as an inspiration and a warning for Americans of the 21st century, providing insights and innovative ways to consider what we all too often take for granted in the United States.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    An Overview of Democracy in America
    The course begins with a brief overview of Tocqueville's masterwork. Written to educate the French about democracy, it was originally published as two separate volumes, released five years apart. x
  • 2
    Alexis de Tocqueville—A Brief Biography
    Professor William R. Cook introduces the young French nobleman, trained as a lawyer, whose most famous book was only one achievement in a life marked by several, including service as France's foreign minister and a history of the French Revolution still regarded as a classic. x
  • 3
    The Journey to America
    Though Tocqueville rarely describes specific events or conversations, his letters and journals allow us to follow him on his trip and get an excellent feel for the experiences he and his colleague, Gustave de Beaumont, have in America. x
  • 4
    Equality of Conditions and Freedom
    This lecture considers the meaning and implications of what Tocqueville introduces in Democracy in America's first paragraph as the foundation of the democratic enterprise: the concept he calls "equality of conditions." x
  • 5
    The Foundations of the American Experience
    Although democracy transcends any particular manifestation of it, Tocqueville stresses specific elements of the American experience that lead to its particular expression of democratic principles, including its roots in England, its form of Protestant Christianity, and its geography. x
  • 6
    Does America Have a Mixed Constitution?
    Americans are often taught that we have a classical republic, consisting of elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. However, Tocqueville challenges this idea by arguing that there is only one overarching principle at work in America: democracy. x
  • 7
    The American Constitution
    This lecture examines Tocqueville's admiration of—and concern over—the American Constitution, with special focus on the role of the federal judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, and the eligibility of a president for re-election. x
  • 8
    The Judiciary and Lawyers in America
    We shift to other levels of the judiciary to see what Tocqueville has to say about justices of the peace, lawyers, and the vital role of juries as schools of democracy. x
  • 9
    Democracy and Local Government
    For Tocqueville, democracy to a large extent trickles up rather than down, with local elections and offices providing both efficiency and a democratic laboratory, both of which are dangerously subject to damage by the centralization of administration. x
  • 10
    Freedom of Speech in Theory and Practice
    This lecture examines Tocqueville's views on the necessity and danger of freedom of speech, including his discussion on the limitations placed on speech not by law, but by custom. x
  • 11
    Freedom of the Press
    We see how Tocqueville's views on freedom of the press clearly evolved between his work's two volumes and also enjoy the opportunity of using his own journal's word-by-word record of a conversation he had on this subject as a case study of his interviewing method. x
  • 12
    Political Parties
    Political parties as we understand them were only in their infancy when Tocqueville arrived in America. We examine his definition of "great" and "small" parties in explaining why the new realities of his time demand a new political science. x
  • 13
    The Problem of the Tyranny of the Majority
    For Tocqueville, the danger of the tyranny of the majority is one of the most serious facing a democratic society. With even institutional safeguards offering insufficient protection, he looks to political associations as an essential barrier against that tyranny. x
  • 14
    Political Associations
    Tocqueville defines political associations as groups of people united for a particular political purpose. He examines how they function and how they act effectively to advocate for the particular issue they agree about. x
  • 15
    Civil Associations
    The great complements to political associations in a democracy are civil associations, those private organizations without a political focus. Tocqueville argues that they not only help bind Americans together, but also are important to the functioning of democracy. x
  • 16
    Blacks and Indians
    Tocqueville cannot paint a picture of America without dealing with race, especially black slavery and the "Indian problem." Although some of his predictions have not proved accurate, his perspective can be helpful in understanding contemporary American society. x
  • 17
    Mores and Democracy
    This lecture examines what Tocqueville calls the mores of democracy—its "habits of the heart"—including the possible implications as we seek to help nations without a tradition of democracy quickly create egalitarian and free societies. x
  • 18
    Christianity and Democracy
    Democracies are prone to changing values because of their majoritarian nature. Hence, an important question is: Where is the anchor of democracy to be found? For Tocqueville, that answer is in religion generally and Christianity specifically. x
  • 19
    Education and Culture in Democracies
    This lecture examines Tocqueville's belief that education in America is broad but shallow, with the average person knowing more than his or her counterpart in Europe, but with America lacking great scientists, writers, philosophers, and artists. x
  • 20
    Individualism in America
    Tocqueville's different take on the trait he called "individualism" creates a useful prism through which to examine this quintessentially American phenomenon and what he saw as its dangerous tendency to cause Americans to withdraw from the public sphere. x
  • 21
    The Desire for Wealth in America
    Tocqueville is disturbed by the materialism he sees in America, with people so caught up in pursuing riches that they ignore other important aspects of what it means to be human, and even fears a long-range threat to equality of conditions. x
  • 22
    The Democratic Family
    This lecture focuses on Tocqueville's observations of the modern democratic family, with special focus on the role of women, both in the daily life of America and in its success. x
  • 23
    Are Democracy and Excellence Compatible?
    From the time of the ancient Greeks, people have debated whether democracy destroys excellence or encourages it. This lecture examines the question of excellence or mediocrity as it is raised in a variety of contexts throughout Democracy in America. x
  • 24
    Tocqueville’s Unanswered Questions
    The course concludes by reviewing Tocqueville's most important insights and applying them to the next 175 years of American history. Of course, our nation's story is still developing, but we can ask which possibilities that Tocqueville outlines are at present those in the ascent. x

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Your professor

William R. Cook

About Your Professor

William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses...
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Tocqueville and the American Experiment is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 70.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific program Full of insights about the U.S. and its politics in the decades before the Civil War. Extremely worthwhile.
Date published: 2018-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Glad to be an American I am a Professor Cook fan and this might be my 4th course I finished with him. I find his style very engaging, knowledge and experience very impressive, and courses great listening. My knowledge of Tocqueville was in his name only, Professor Cook brought him to life, and brought the American Experience alive. This course made me very glad to be an American, the good, the bad, and the ugly, yet our ideals help to lead us forward and hopefully strive more and more towards the good.
Date published: 2018-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So far so good! Two caveats, I am only up to lecture 8 out of 24 and I listen to the Great Courses while exercising. They have to keep my interest otherwise I return them. I have never read Tocqueville and just have a passing knowledge of him. So far I have learned that democracy is built from the ground up, rather than the top down. One of the foundations of democracy is the jury system. Not just in the criminal system but in the civil trials as well. It is where the people are able to express their sovereignty and learn. Can not wait to learn more. HIghly recommend these audio lectures.
Date published: 2018-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great companion to reading the book This is probably the best course I've listened to so far. The concepts are presented and reinforced in each lecture.
Date published: 2018-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great review of classic book In depth review and explanation of important text from 19th century that has implications in today’s world.
Date published: 2018-01-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course about democracy The copyright for this course is 2004, so that is presumably when it came out. I first purchased it in the audio CD format in February 2006, and have listened to it several times since then. In March 2017 I was elected to my first public office, in local government in my town, following retirement from a career in business. This course resonates with me so much more now! Tocqueville has much to say about the importance of local government to democracy. I recently purchased the audio download format and the transcript to augment my well-used CDs. As Professor Cook says, "Democracy in America is at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America." Professor Cook brings this book alive with current examples from his own town of Geneseo, New York, and his own experience (he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1998 and re-visited Tocqueville's travels and writings in his campaign), and from other modern writers such as Professor Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone." America today could benefit from another look at what Tocqueville had to say about us in the 1830s.
Date published: 2017-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Tocqueville and the American Experiment I am only 7, out of 24, into this lecture series. It, and the professor, are excellent. Like the professor, de Tocqueville was on the reading list for my Political Science classes. This series has, so far, greatly increased my knowledge and appreciation of de Tocqueville.
Date published: 2017-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very useful summation of this important work. It's hard to overstate how perceptive this 25-year-old French aristocrat was about Jacksonian America. Tocqueville foresaw the problems of modern America, and the widening fault lines between North and South that would cause the Civil War within a generation of his 11-month visit. He is clear-eyed about the "habits of the heart" that he observed that make Americans different, more self-reliant, more public spirited, more cooperative than the Europeans he knew. He captures that boisterous scrappiness that tamed the frontier. He sees the struggle for order out of what might have been chaos, and the goodness and generosity of Americans, even as he was rightly appalled by slavery, and by the condition of the Eastern Indians and free blacks he either met or heard about. While he honors Christianity as essential and "compatible" with the democracy we built here, he is bitter at the racial segregation he saw in churches. Sound familiar? Prof. Scott has a very engaging, highly personal approach to talking about what Tocqueville learned by relating it to the upstate New York town where he lives today. His constant references to Geneseo and Livingston County might annoy some listeners, but I went to school not too far from there and I appreciated it. Scott communicates his enthusiasm for Tocqueville infectiously, and I believe that part of the reason he keeps referencing his local life is that Tocqueville never really does give examples of what he observed. So, having examples as simple as Geneseo's cat rescue club, civic pride organizations and so forth helps to put some detail on a book of generalities. I will no doubt listen to this course again. Tocqueville's observations are as important today as they were in 1835 and 1840 when his two volumes were published. Maybe even more, because of how right he's been about the dangers of "soft despotism" and the decline in local civic involvement. I hope every American takes this course.
Date published: 2017-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Tocqueville and the American Experiment This is a great course, taught by an enthusiastic, wise, and articulate teacher about a great book. I am reading the book as I listen to the lectures, and the lectures really help to get the most out of the book.
Date published: 2017-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bowling for Democracy...? Audio download Alexis de Tocqueville visited the US in 1830 during the Jackson presidency...the country was only 40+ years old and still trying to find it's national identity. During the nine months in the US, Tocqueville traveled extensively, visiting with both the powerful (J.Q. Adams and Andy Jackson) and the common folk. He recorded his thoughts and impressions and wrote a two-parter, published in 1835 and 1840 entitled "Democracy in America", in which gave his impressions about what's good and bad about our form of government at that time. In that time the US saw 24 states with roughly 12 million people...New York City was the largest city with a little more than 200,000 people. Hence, most of the country was rural...busy farming and pushing the boundaries of the country westward. The southern parts of the US were still dominated by semi-aristocratic plantation owners dedicated to the preservation of slavery...the northern states were becoming more anti-slavery...the entire nation looked to pushing the native Americans further west. Yet, amidst all this growth, Americans can be seen to exhibit an almost universal will to maintain and preserve their unique form of government that, as Tocqueville saw it, was composed of real, grass-root democracy at the local levels and a more republican government at the federal levels. He saw real value in local associations...something as simple as bowling which people from different backgrounds could assemble in support of a common cause. The core values of this young country were seen as liberty and justice, with the role of women serving as a critical...almost necessary...role in sustaining the integrity of this country's form of democracy. Professor Cook presents a series of lectures that serve as a kind of detailed Cliff-Notes version of "Democracy in America" in which he explains much of Tocqueville's views using modern examples and analogies. In a way, the lectures hold a mirror up to us today, helping us see ourselves through another set of eyes, allowing us to (maybe) correct some of the shortcoming and strengthen those values we still hold dear. These are smart, well-presented lectures that will only help you to understand what it means to be an American, warts and all. Some of the concepts and impressions are not comfortable...some are spot-on. If you are considering these lectures, you will not be disappointed...If you have them, listen/watch them again, especially during times leading up to important national elections (such as the time I'm writing this review). Recommended strongly...especially when the course is on sale and you can get an additional 50% off...I got mine at about $0.71/lecture.
Date published: 2016-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating, perceptive and entertaining I have read many references to Tocqueville’s writings on the American political experiment, and in all of them it was perceived as a land-mark study; full of profound perceptions and absolutely relevant – even a century and a half later. I was therefore very eager to hear the course to finally get a better understanding of this document. I was not disappointed. Many of the points discussed were subtle, interesting and very perceptive. One good example is his description of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and his understanding that this is one of the most important mechanisms for maintaining a robust and effective democracy. Another important theme is the involvement of the mass population in the democratic process, and this is manifested in many different mechanisms that come under the microscope such as the judiciary, and local government for example. This is my fourth course given by Professor Cook. I admit, for me his lecturing style was a bit of an acquired taste and the first course of his that I heard “Francis of Assisi” left me unsure what to make of it. In the next two courses “Machiavelli in context” and “Dante’s divine comedy” I got used to his style and enjoyed the courses immensely. In all of these courses (all somewhat biographical in nature), Professor Cook was overflowing with enthusiasm while at the same time managing to be critical and pointing out the subject’s blind spots, shortcoming and errors of perception. In the current course particularly, he was very enthusiastic about Tocqueville’s main point: that the American democracy is powerful and robust because it has mechanisms that involve the local population in the democratic process. This is a central point in the course and both Tocqueville and Professor Cook ask whether this state of affairs is sustainable over a long time. Professor Cook demonstrates this local involvement exhaustively and humorously with regards to his own local municipality in upstate New York. As in his other courses - he is sharp, provocative, insightful, and very entertaining. I found it an absolute pleasure to listen to him in this course too.
Date published: 2016-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from If you only read the Cliff Notes in College... If like most of us you were supposed to read this 700 page two volume tome in college but barely got through the Cliff Notes version, this course is for you. Tocqueville's work is one of the most important on America and democracy that has ever been written. Some 170 years later the lessons and conclusions are as relevant as they were when first published. Professor Cook breaks down Tocqueville into subject contents. That makes it much easier to digest and understand a massive work that otherwise meanders . Professor Cook does a terrific job of showing where Tocqueville got it wrong and right as well as providing contemporary context without becoming political himself. Cook is passionate about the subject and it shows. His vocal delivery isn't the smoothest, although it's not horrible. He uses "or whatever" too often for my liking. There are a few instances where he confuses the subject and I had to go back to figure out what he meant. Overall this is an easy lecture series to listen to and understand. It will help make sense of an important work that you probably never got to back in college. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2016-07-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Most Important Course I Have Watched Thus Far Out of the several courses I have purchased and viewed from The Great Courses, I consider this one to be the most outstanding and important thus far. Dr. Cook provides a comprehensive and insightful analysis of Tocqueville and the many influences that inspired him to write "Democracy in America." Furthermore, because Dr. Cook grew up in a region (e.g., upstate New York) which Tocqueville visited, he was able to provide added insight into what Tocqueville may have experienced back in 1831. This course is a MUST for all Americans who want to know more about the democratic underpinnings of our society.
Date published: 2016-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Many thanks to Professor Cook It is a great course. I have listened to it twice now--the first time was out of curiosity about Tocqueville, the second while I was taking a class on Tocqueville--and both times I appreciated both the content and the presentation. Professor Cook is highly knowledgeable and personable, and I have enjoyed his style of interspersing personal stories and examples. I have found them very useful to understand better Tocqueville. (And I am taken aback by some reviewers who use their anonymity to call this professor disparaging names. If they didn't like his gesticulation, they could always listen just the audio.) Thank you to the Teaching Company and best wishes to Professor Cook. I am looking forward to hearing other courses by him.
Date published: 2015-12-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Informative The course was very interesting as a narrative of the past with implications for the future. The lectures were arranged by topic rather than just going in page order through the book. This was beneficial as each topic was covered thoroughly. There are themes that are constant through the lectures and were summarized very well in the last lecture. The professor utilized quotes from the book along with his own interpretation, and his own personal experience. The presentation was energetic while being educational. This course was interesting historically, but would be good for all Americans to understand as a primer on how our country should work by the interaction of citizens within and without the government bureaucracy.
Date published: 2015-10-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Poor Professor One of the poorest purchases ever. Content is fine, but professor presentation is terrible. His gesticulations are distracting. Tie his hands and he wouldn't be able to say a word. Delivery very disappointing.
Date published: 2015-05-29
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Professor is a clown I had assumed that the professors teaching these courses were serious scholars who presented their material with dignity. This professor is more like an MTV wannabe, or should I say like a clown. He gesticulates constantly and broadly, throwing his arms up in the air to the point where I, a watcher, ducks. He also constantly refers to his home town with reference to virtually everything Tocqueville discusses. Shame on you for allowing this wildly untamed character to join the other distinguished scholars who taught the many other courses I purchased. Please find someone else to teach this course, and if you do, I'll happily return this terrible one and buy the new one.
Date published: 2014-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lively & Engaging AUDIO: CDs This is a really interesting and thought-provoking course about a 700 page two-volume work by a Frenchman, published originally in 1835 and 1840. In twenty-four well-developed and engaging lectures, Professor Cook ably shows why ‘Democracy in America’ is so widely regarded as the greatest work ever written on one country by the citizen of another and, surprisingly, why it is still relevant after all this time. ‘Democracy in America’, according to Professor Cook, is “…an important analytical tool for Americans to use, even in the 21st century…[It] can be both a guide and a reminder of the cultural context in which democratic institutions can develop and flourish…[as well as] an inspiration and a warning for Americans of the 21st century…[challenging] people anywhere on the political spectrum…[providing] insights and ways of questioning what we all too often take for granted in America” (Course Guidebook, Pages 1 and 2). What I liked most about this course is Professor Cook’s thematic approach. He provides relevant context, not only about events of the time, but also background on Tocqueville’s statements and thinking, as well as relating them to present day events and concerns. All of this is done in an easy but by no means meandering fashion, often weaving in details from modern day life (for instance, discussing the operation of a charity event in which Professor Cook participated, his involvement with local government and his run for Congress, and the results of a scholarly study, ‘Bowling Alone’, to make points about political and civil associations that Tocqueville thought so important for the proper functioning of democracy). ‘Democracy in America’ is not a work of great detail, but one of “generalizations and insights” (Page 5) and Professor Cook does a great job in showing how Tocqueville came to some of his conclusions and who most likely influenced his thinking. He also shows where Tocqueville got things wrong, notably regarding state governments, or seemed to be unaware, for instance about the Erie Canal and the Transcendentalist movement. To me, however, the most valuable aspect of this course is Professor Cook’s teasing out the great civics lesson that is ‘Democracy in America’. There is much to ponder here, from the importance of jury service, freedom of the press, the role of religion, the influence of women in the family, citizen participation in social and political organizations, and individuals pursuing “self-interest well-understood” ensuring that democracy flourishes, to the positive and negative aspects of equality and individualism (a term created by Tocqueville) on democracy, the dangers to democracy from the Tyranny of the Majority and, as it crops up repeatedly in the lectures, centralization of administration. This just skims the surface of this fine course on Tocqueville’s work. Perhaps the most eye-opening part of this course for me concerns Tocqueville on Native Americans and African-Americans. As Professor Cook mentions in the lecture, Tocqueville gave more space to this subject than any other in ‘Democracy in America’, but it is more often than not left out of most abridgements. Spurred on by Professor Cook’s riveting lecture, I pulled down my old copy of ‘Democracy in America’ to read the 103 page chapter (The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States) on my own, and was very impressed by Tocqueville’s detailed analysis, finding it really striking and prescient, confirming, too, how well Professor Cook had handled matters in the lecture. Though thematic, the course lectures reference relevant sections and pages of the Mansfield and Winthrop translation of ‘Democracy in America’ (University of Chicago, 2000). This is fine if you have this or another recent translation, but I found that my 1940s update of the original Henry Reeve translation had a different organization for volume one, throwing everything off for me. A minor matter. Just something to keep in mind, however, if you want to actually follow up the lectures with reading from the source. Not many of us have the time these days to wade through a 700 page study, especially one from the 1830s, but many would benefit as citizens from Tocqueville’s insights. Professor Cook has done a great service in his wonderful analysis and presentation. The most surprising aspect for many, as for me, is that Professor Cook is a medievalist. I am sure a specialist in the American history would be more precise and detailed in his treatment of ‘Democracy in America’, but I will stick with Professor Cook, not only for his engaging style and evident knowledge of, attachment to, and respect for the work, but also because I suspect, from the numerous comments on his community activities (which some might find irritating and/or extraneous), that he likely is just the type of person Tocqueville had in mind when describing the best of citizens in this country. I am so impressed by Professor Cook’s lectures on ‘Democracy in America’, I am going on to some of his other TC courses, especially Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and “St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions’.
Date published: 2014-03-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Great Guide to Tocqueville The lectures provide a context for the student to read and better understand Tocqeville. An introduction to the author and his world is provided, followed by guided readings through the work. I had previously read Tocqueville in different translations, but this was a more meaningful experience ( and a great translation is recommended )
Date published: 2013-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great! As a "Great Courses" "nut", I loved this course. I loved Cook's course on Machiavelli, also, and that is why I chose another topic by this professor. His knowledge of small town politics/social clubs is crucial to understanding Tocqueville and the reasons why politics "worked" in America for so long. Local involvement!!! People rubbing elbows with ALL classes and uniting on specific topics, so that they had power to effect outcomes and votes. Grass roots--which Tocqueville witnessed along with a Bible in every home and a book on Shakespeare???. With people retreating to their family/home with thinking that the government will be "fine" without input and their volunteering---is why we are in the trouble we are in today. We let Alinsky types do the "grass roots" and control content in our public schools for decades. In contrast, our churches today have been largely empty in the last 40 years. Many groups like "Elks" are dying. People are too busy or over taxed to get "involved". Group Think (PC) has silenced the masses--they are afraid of speaking out and being destroyed like a Ted Cruz or a Ron Paul. People are punished if they "think" outside the box, and children are humiliated/laughed at if they hold Christian views which are outlawed in public schools since the 50s . It is an atheist "group think" world now, with only a collective "worldview" which was antithetical to most people in Tocqueville's America. Rugged individuality and God were crucial to Americans and politics was a local idea. This healthcare debacle and Marxist control of public education (Common Core) would not have been possible until massive brainwashing of children--the removal of all Classical Knowledge (Adam Smith, John Locke) Maybe the internet will change this---but the lack of "face to face" humanization--is disappearing and people are losing the ability to "talk" face to face. We have been trained/conditioned to "never" discuss "politics and religion" the only two important things worth talking about and what led to the Revolution and founding of the USA. Politics and Religion were even discussed in the early 1900s America---but no more in polite circles where there is disagreement. That is because of the PC ideology (Marxism/Fascism) which will not allow dissenting ideas. Cook gave the best interpretation of Tocqueville that I have run across and I am a history nut. Absolutely "fair" and "balanced" and he talked about the areas which Tocqueville didn't address and some of the areas he didn't quite understand or predictions that just turned out plain wrong. But much of Tocqueville was brilliant insight---a good "foreigner's" perspective on life in 1830's America.
Date published: 2013-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from informative, endearing, and excellent I read excerpts from Democracy in America long ago in high school, and have heard it quoted many times since. Taking Prof. Cook's course gave me a lot deeper understanding of Tocqueville's work than I ever had. Cook summarizes Tocqueville's life then dives into a detailed discussion of the book and what it revealed about America then, and what it may say about America today. Cook is a very clear and engaing speaker, who loves this material. I also found this course, and Prof. Cook, quite endearing. He lives and teaches in Geneseo, NY, a small town in a small county. Local political and civic life (the nature of local newspapers, the types of local clubs and other civic organizations) are much like what people in this area may have participated in when Tocqueville visited in 1831. Prof. Cook weaves these experiences quite artfully into the course, in a way that probably wouln't make sense if he lived in Manhattan or Los Angeles. So in summary, I found this course to be a real winner in terms of substance, style, and presentation.
Date published: 2012-11-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A course worth shouting about ! DVD REVIEW: It's obvious that Dr Cook is super-fired-up, excited & enthusiastic about his topic, the book "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville; this is entirely understandable for it is a major classic with wide & profound significance, should be required study in all high schools in the USA. The first three lectures comprise essential scene-setting info and are time well-spent I feel, dealing with Tocqueville's background and the situation in the USA when he visited in 1831-2. "Equality of conditons" is Tocqueville's critical definition as THE principle for a democracy. Professor Cook explains this expertly, pulling you right into the narrative. He uses his personal experiences to highlight several points: I found this perfectly acceptable, not a problem as some reviewers thought. This is the second course by Dr Cook that I've viewed, and he's still speaking VERY LOUDLY! Not necessary (or pleasant) ~~ nor are all the wild waving arm gestures. Again he comes across in the style of an evangelical preacher, extremely frenetic. Please note, however, that it is well worth the effort to grin & bear it, just taking it in one's stride, for this is a valuable, important course delivered with great passion and sincerity... and the shouting eases off somewhat as the lectures progress. On this side of the Pond, in the United Kingdom, "Democracy in America" is hardly known at all (as opposed to Plato's Republic), but I fervently hope Tocqueville's admirable and insightful classic will become more familiar for it has much to impart to us all: I will assuredly 'promote' it. Highly recommended, memorable, deeply enjoyable course; particularly significant that I viewed much of the course over the 2012 presidential election in the USA.
Date published: 2012-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Frequently quoted but seldom studied Because I enjoyed Prof. Cook's "Cathedral" set, I searched out other topics he has covered. This one looked like it might fill a hole in my history background and I was right. It's an excellent introduction to the life and thought of Alexis de Toqueville, a man who is often quoted but seldom read. Prof. Cook is an enthusiastic guy. In both courses I have taken from him, he clearly knows his topic well and is excited about sharing it with others. This does at times equate to talking very quickly and fairly loudly, but I wasn't bothered by that. (By the way, I downloaded the audio version, which worked just fine for me.) Cook provides a good background on who Toqueville was, the society he came from, and the America he visited. He breaks down Toqueville's magnum opus into digestible segments, and clearly points out the most important arguments of the book. Some reviewers complain about Cook's many references to his own experience, and to the government of his town and state, but I thought these illustrations helped to make Toqueville's points clear for the modern reader. As you listen, you will start to make connections between Toqueville's observations, and current events on the American political scene. (The prof, however, leaves this up to you, and doesn't come across as partisan.) I look forward to more courses from Professor Cook, and I may even dip into my volume of Toqueville to explore it on my own.
Date published: 2012-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just what I was looking for!! This course provided a great review of "Democracy in America" by Tocqueville. Professor Cook is outstanding in his knowledge and energy put forth in the course and stimulates the listener to consider other such writings. I would definitely purchase other courses taught by Dr. Cook. I thoroughly enjoyed the DVD set and it was well worth the purchase.
Date published: 2012-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Course But A Few Caveats In general I enjoyed the lectures and, differing from some other reviewers, I found the various anecdotes to be amusing and illuminating. Professor Cook’s enthusiasm was infectious. Where I thought that the lecturer fell a little short was in a lack of serious analytical thinking in regard to some of the issues that he raised. For example, his various definitions of ‘democracy’ were like something that you would expect in a high school civics class. Also, when discussing the changes in the various governmental institutions over time his handling of the Supreme Court seemed shallow. For example, he dismissed the idea that the Court could change the Constitution out of hand. Obviously the court cannot change the actual wording of the Constitution. But the issue as to whether the Supreme Court can, through its decisions via ‘judicial activism’, change the meaning of the Constitution is a serious question, and should have been dealt with as such.
Date published: 2011-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Delightful I thought this course was a positively delightful tour of America in the 1830s and the writings of Alexander de Toqueville. If you are unfamiliar with "Democracy in America" you will be surprised to find out how much of modern America was well in place over 150 years ago..
Date published: 2011-09-19
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not bad, but I expected more This is my 4th or 5th purchase from the Teaching Company, and my least favorite lecture so far. I was very interested in the topic and actually read Tocqueville's book as I listened to the lectures, which was a good way to go through the material. While Dr Cook did provide me with some different perspectives, I found a lot of his material to be of little value. In the beginning, I appreciated Cook's anecdotes and comparison to his hometown. But after just a few lectures, I became bored with yet another description of life in his quaint upstate NY town. Fast forward! Dr Cook also suffers somewhat from repetition. And not just within a single lecture--he makes the same point multiple times across different lectures. Finally, I think Dr Cook missed some good opportunities--pointing out where Tocqueville "got it wrong" for instance or showing how Tocqueville was "right" in his analysis back then, but that changes in the Constitution have corrected the issue. To level-set (which I find useful when reading reviews), I am reasonably well-educated but have no formal history or political training/education. Democracy in America can be a challenging read at times, and I found Dr Cook to be helpful. I think he could have probably been more helpful, or could have covered the same material in half the lectures. I considered asking for my money back, but frankly I bought the lecture on sale and on download so I didn't pay that much. And I got what I paid for! So I can't really complain.
Date published: 2011-08-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Tocqueville and the American Experience This lecture was my 13th purchased from the Teaching Company and the only one that I have found not worth my time or money. The problem is that the professor, William Cook, is padding the lectures. Time and time again, he repeats the same thing he has already said, perhaps in some slightly different way, but making the same point. Then he'll do it again! What a waste of time. It's not repetition for absorption of a complicated element, it's some simple point. He's stretching the content to 24 lectures. I'm not going to listen to any more. He also spends a lot of time talking about himself, things that serve no purpose other than to boost up his image. After 3 lectures, I started thinking he was padding. I've listened to 12 lectures and am sure of it. Several of these are really putting a different tag on a similar topic, and often have a rather thin connection to Tocqueville. Dr. Cook is a rambler of sorts, skipping away from his topic on tangents that are not well bundled, and are repetitious yet slightly different examples of a point he has already made. I feel like he's constantly veering off course, and unless he's a bad lecturer, the reason must be to pad the material. After 6 hours of lectures, I know more about Dr. Cook's hometown than I do about Tocqueville's work. This is the first dud from the Teaching Company I have come across.
Date published: 2011-07-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Shallow, tedious, and unendurable I'm very surprised at the number of good reviews this course has received. While I know there must be a selection effect - one is more likely to praise a course one likes than to parse the mixture of success and failure that is a mediocre course, and one can always just return a true turkey - there nonetheless seemed to be some consensus that this was a decent, insightful course. Perhaps it''s just me, but it didn't seem that way at all. It started with the first three lectures. The first one is all about the professor, and why he put together a course on Tocqueville in the first place. The second was a capsule biography of Tocqueville. The third was a description of his trip to America. Now, these are all reasonable things to cover, but imho we would have been better served if they were distributed across the lecture series, in relevant contexts. Instead, we have three lectures of preface before we get to anything that Tocqueville said about democracy and/or America. I don't get bored very easily so I stuck with it., but this was not a great opening. It got worse when we get to actual content. Professor Cook pretty consistently misses every opportunity to fact-check and cross-reference. We don't get comparisons of Tocqueville's observations with contemporary's observations, references to historical records, or discussion of how things have changed since Tocqueville's visit. I gave up on the course - and will ask for my money back as soon as I finish this review - when I got to Professor Cook's coverage of Tocqueville's observations about how we have great freedom of speech within limits, but that those who step outside this circle are shunned and even persecuted. It seems to me that this might be related to the formation of the two party system, which Professor Cook kept claiming that Tocqueville missed. Or this might have been a good opportunity for a discussion of how and whether Tocqueville's observations have influenced younger democracies that shun our first-past-the-post system in favor of systems that try to bring many viewpoints into government. Or perhaps a discussion of Red Scares and our response to 9/11. Instead, we get anecdotes about the lady in his village who always complains about everything, or a callow student who ended a bad essay with the claim that "America is becoming a fascist country."
Date published: 2011-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Should be 'required listening' for all Americans I knew the name, Tocqueville, but had never read him, or even read about him. So I ordered this course as an entry into a new area of learning. And I was thrilled with this selection. Professor Cook does a magnificent job of explaining Tocqueville's observations. He frequently goes into his own life to expound on these, including his running for political office and his involvement in local affairs. And this course is not just political. Cook shows how serving on a jury or working with some civic association is essential to the 'democratic experiment.' He also shows how democracy has invaded all areas of the American psyche, including the family. Cook's delivery was lively and thought provoking. It gave me some real insights into how we, as Americans, are different from other people. Our history and values are different from other people and, therefore, we can not transplant our form of democracy around the world. Even though Tocqueville wrote over 180 years ago, his insights are still valid today.
Date published: 2011-05-01
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