Democracy Today — Rereading Carl L. Becker

15 October 2021
By Mary Goodale Crowther ’58
Book Cover: Modern Democracy

English 102 with Professor Owen Jenkins

During my junior year in high school, Carl L. Becker’s Modern World traveled back and forth in a green bookbag as I commuted by train from Cambridge to Concord, MA. My history teacher was a proponent of the ‘influence of character’ in historical developments. Do people shape the course of history, or are they shaped by historical events? I became fascinated with the life of Peter the Great and delved into The Imperial Orgy by Edgar Saltus.

Then I entered Carleton College in September 1954.

Professor Owen Jenkins was my English teacher at Carleton College. While my first interest was in history, especially U.S. history, Jenkins’ terse remarks scrawled over the margins prodded me to reshaping a better phrase to convey my meaning. When we talk about history, people, and events, eyewitness accounts are primary sources.

Jenkins chose Modern Democracy by Carl Lotus Becker (Oxford University Press, January 1941) as one of his second semester reading requirements. We were to write a commentary on the arguments Becker used to defend his economic thesis. My freshman compositions are shameful disasters with respect to typos and format. However, upon rereading my commentary, I’m stunned and even pleased in a rather disturbing way, that many of the arguments Becker made in 1941 — before our engagement in the Pacific theater of WWII — are relevant today.

I recommend Modern Democracy by Carl L. Becker. As a historian of his day, he observed that many freedoms were being curtailed in “democratic” nations. Are democracies governed by their economic policies? Today, Becker might acknowledge that restrictions on freedoms have been woven with iron strands into economic policies of many industrially-minded nations.

There is no “ideal” democracy, Becker would say. The reader might agree that those who wear a baseball cap, a hard hat, or a diamond tiara, need to transform material wealth into rational economic and political action for the common good. Without the freedom to choose a moral approach, modern liberal democracy will cease to exist.

In 1958, Visiting Professor Dr. Anatole Mazur, a refugee from Russia, shared his personal experience in a semester course “Russia After 1917.” It remains among those at the top rung of my history major studies.

In 2002, I visited St. Petersburg, was guided through The Hermitage, and toured the grand estate Peterhof. I remember the bus ride through small villages with potato fields on either side; each one with a small shelter for the attending farmer. The tour ended at the Ballet Theater.