Today’s Tocqueville Dialogue
Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 16:09
Since its inception, the Tocqueville Forum has served as an arena for students interested in government to unearth the fundamental causes behind contemporary Western society and theological thought.
Every year as part of its quest, government professor and forum director Patrick Deneen leads a group of students off campus in a retreat to reflect on the foundation of such values.
"We break bread together, we discuss books, we hike. We try — just for a weekend — to experience college as it once was, spending hours inside and outside seminar rooms discussing ideas and truth."
It has been five years since Deneen founded the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy in the hopes of mirroring the intellectual project of Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who strove to define the foundation of American democracy, culture and intellect. Since 2006, Deneen has grown its number of undergraduate fellows to over 70 students.
"What has always been the case and what interested me from the very beginning was that the Tocqueville Forum is very welcoming to all students and that there is a rich intellectual dialogue that is often missing on campus," said Eric Wind (SFS '09), who was involved with the program in his undergraduate years.
Seeking a way for students to express their thoughts beyond term papers and friendly discussions, Wind, in consultation with Deneen, seized the opportunity to establish Utraque Unum, the forum's academic journal, which is currently in its fourth volume.
"The journal presents an opportunity to write more substantive pieces on issues," Deneen said. "It's directing students toward fundamental questions about politics and culture rather than constraining attention to current events."
The perks of fellowship in the Tocqueville Forum — dining with some of the country's most highly regarded minds while conversing about the condition of democracy and liberty — attract students to the program, but what the fellows discuss among themselves appears to spark the most excitement.
"My favorite is the reading group — it's run by post-doctoral fellows and is basically an opportunity for students to get together over some cookies and discuss a good book without any worries about grades or being judged," Michael Fischer (SFS '13) said. "It's a very liberating experience to discuss and enjoy a piece of literature or philosophical thought purely for its own merit."
Fellows are encouraged to participate in a reading group, which enhances their experiences with guest speakers. Recently, Providence College professor and prominent national theologian Anthony Esolen spoke to the Fellows about Augustine's "Confessions."
"What strikes me as the best feature of the forum for fellows is that with us, they feel like this is the group of people with whom they can take ideas to a deeper level, particularly with democracy and the Western tradition," Program Coordinator Dierdre Lawler said.
The Tocqueville Forum also invites professors in residence to come to campus on leave from other institutions, offers post-graduate fellowships and sponsors courses in order to deepen the fellows' understanding of the roots of American democracy and culture.
"As an institution, our attention is increasingly focused on international and global affairs. At the same time, we ought to retain a focus on what it means to be a citizen and encourage a deeper knowledge of the ideas and history of the United States and the West," Deneen said.
This summer, forum alum Wind utilized the forum to further his passion for the history of Georgetown. After speaking with Deneen and former forum Associate Director Steven Brust, Wind created a summer course about the background of the university for students and alumni.
"Often, summers at Georgetown can be slow for those interning or taking classes, so it seemed like the perfect time to offer a complimentary course for those that were interested," Wind said. "It was about the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake."
For all its activities, the Tocqueville Forum remains most widely recognized on campus for the variety of speakers it brings to the Hilltop, the most recent being The New York Times columnist David Brooks yesterday. Guests sponsored by the forum are chosen not simply for their popularity, but also for the intellectual depth of their study of American society. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia inaugurated the initiative in 2006.
"I think people in Harvard or Yale would have received [Brooks] for the iconic factor, but I think especially the Tocqueville Forum fellows are educated and given a framework with which they could better understand what Brooks had to say," said Rev. Arne Panula, director of the Catholic Information Center in D.C. and a follower of the forum since its commencement.