The language of personal autonomy occupies a central position in the discourse of liberal democracy and indeed in western thought the two concepts are integrally related. Democratic governments presuppose and depend on, to some extent, an autonomous citizenry capable of exercising independent and informed political choices; and it is a feature of democratic states that they are governed by laws and constitutions designed to prevent them from overweening interference in the exercise of such individual autonomy. More strongly, ‘developmental’ arguments in support of, in particular, participatory democracy suggest that democratic procedures provide the conditions under which personal autonomy will be cultivated and developed (cf. Mill 1971; Parry 1972).
The notion of autonomy, therefore, attracts a great deal of attention and being, apparently, such an unqualified good thing is made the vehicle for a whole package of what are held within the liberal democratic ideology to be the necessary or desirable features of its citizens. As Dworkin suggests, the concept is made to do a lot of work:
It is used sometimes as an equivalent of liberty…sometimes as equivalent to self-rule or sovereignty, sometimes identical with the freedom of the will. It is equated with dignity, integrity, individuality, independence, responsibility and self knowledge. It is identified with qualities of self-assertion, with critical reflection, with freedom from obligation, with absence of external causation, with knowledge of one’s own interests…. It relates to actions, to beliefs, to reasons for action, to rules, to the will of other persons, to thoughts and to principles. About the only features held constant from one author to another are that autonomy is a feature of persons and that it is a desirable quality to have.
In this chapter I want to review briefly something of the range of the qualities which have featured in particular in educational discourse about