History lessons are brought to life Education: A British graduate student re-creates the look and lessons of 19th-century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville.

November 02, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's a tough gig, getting up in knee breeches, a frock coat and a white stock in front of a couple of dozen 10th-graders and condensing a book of more than 700 pages, "Democracy in America," into one or two ideas that the students can take home.

Timothy Lynch, a 25-year-old graduate student from England, has been impersonating the book's author, Alexis de Tocqueville, since May. He's the live entertainment on a C-SPAN bus that's retracing the journey of the 19th-century French historian and sociologist, who toured the young United States in 1831 and 1832 in an attempt to comprehend democracy in action.

"I've had worse," Lynch says of the unresponsive group from Westminster High School that faced him at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Carroll County Farm Museum, where the bus stopped, about a third of the way through its travels. De Tocqueville probably never visited Carroll County -- for one thing, there was no Carroll County until it split off from Baltimore County in 1837 -- but he visited Baltimore 166 years ago this week.

In one of his de Tocqueville moments, trying to illustrate the concept of "tyranny of the majority," Lynch asks the students whether they own shoes by Nike, or if they ever wear blue jeans. About half the students raise their hands for Nike, and more than half the teen-agers are in jeans. Lynch wants them to see the irony of a country that pats itself on the back over its rugged individualism, while all the rugged individualists wear pretty much the same clothes.

"At one school, I was there during a retro week," he said. "When I asked if anyone were wearing Nikes, no one was. Everyone was in platform shoes and flared trousers." About 150 Westminster students came out to see the bus and its de Tocqueville presentation. They learned a little about the man, who lived from 1805 to 1859, a little about the book and a little about television journalism, and they got a breath of vivid fall air in the museum's herb garden.

Most were Level 4 American history students taught by Christine Brockman and Ralph Shewell, and they'd had little preparation for the event.

"We have talked about him, but not much," said Brockman. "But of course he's standard reading for college students."

Students who choose advanced placement American history will read an excerpt of "Democracy in America," she said.

Lynch, the impersonator, is a doctoral candidate in American politics at Boston College. During his presentation, he carried what was obviously a well-thumbed copy of "Democracy in America," which de Tocqueville wrote in two volumes, published in 1835 and 1840. "Twenty dollars in your local bookstore," Lynch joked.

The second group of students was more lively, and after his talk, as they waited their turn to board the bus, four girls approached the costumed actor and asked shyly whether they might talk with him.

They learned then why the covers of his "Democracy in America" are curled, its corners split, its pages full of underlinings and scribbles.

"I've written so many papers off this book," said Lynch, who has two degrees in American history from British universities, as well as an exchange year at the University of Kansas.

So he told the girls, and three or four other students who drifted up, about de Tocqueville's penetrating analysis of American faults and virtues: the love of money, the self-satisfaction of the national profile, the "peculiar institution" of slavery. In his book, he predicted both the Civil War and the Cold War.

"He was right about everything -- like Nostradamus," said one of the students.

On the bus, marketing representative Meka Nelson described its technical equipment. The bus is one of two custom-made vehicles on the de Tocqueville tour, each a fully equipped production studio that films highlights of the route and interviews with people along the way.

At the Farm Museum, the crew shot footage of Lynch, as de Tocqueville, in a 19th-century carriage, and of Bob Morris, one of the museum's blacksmiths. The segment will air Nov. 6 on Prestige Cablevision (Channel 3).

The tour will cover some 55 cities from Newport, R.I., where de Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, landed after their 5 1/2 -week ocean crossing, to Milledgeville, Ga. Beaumont, though not the literary figure that de Tocqueville was, wrote a novel based on his travels in the South, called "Marie, or Slavery in the United States."

The journey by the Frenchmen took them to 17 of the 24 states then in the Union, and to Quebec. Their farthest point west was Green Bay, Wis., then regarded as the end of civilization.

"Some people still regard it as the end of civilization," said Lynch.

The bus has "America's Electronic Town Hall" emblazoned on its side, and Nelson, with the aid of mini-videos, explained the link the project tries to draw between de Tocqueville, the observer, and C-SPAN, the 24-hour eye on government activities and current events.

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