Democratic Education

Democratic Education

Democratic Education

Democratic Education


Who should have the authority to shape the education of citizens in a democracy? This is the central question posed by Amy Gutmann in the first book-length study of the democratic theory of education.


The central question in the political theory of education—How should citizens be educated, and by whom?—has become even more prominent since the first edition of Democratic Education appeared ten years ago. The question has become more prominent in practice and in theory. Education tops the list of politically salient issues in American politics, ranking above even the economy, employment, and crime. Many more political philosophers are now addressing the most salient issues in the politics of education: the content of education, its distribution, and the distribution of educational authority.

As societies have become more interdependent than ever, educational issues have become increasingly international. Debates abound about whether the content of education should be more multicultural and whether schools should try to cultivate cosmopolitan rather than patriotic sensibilities among students. At the same time, the demand for less public control and more parental control over schooling has also become more prominent, especially in the United States.

One response to the conflicting demands placed on education is to let parents decide for their own children how to resolve such conflicts. Even this seemingly nonpolitical response—let parents decide—requires a political decision by citizens and their accountable representatives to distribute public resources to parents and let them spend those resources on the publicly accredited education of their choice. It also requires a political decision about what should count as a publicly accredited education. Except by abolishing mandatory schooling, there is no way of avoiding a political decision about the content of schooling, its distribution, and the distribution of educational authority. And even the decision to abolish mandatory schooling would of course be a political decision. A political decision would similarly be required to institute the system of civic minimalism, which is the latest and strongest defense of parental choice.

The Epilogue begins by examining the case for civic minimalism. Civic minimalists argue that parental authority over publicly subsidized schooling may be limited only by what is essential to civic education in a liberal democracy. Citizens (or their representatives) may mandate the civic minimum, they argue, but no more. Public decisions over schooling more generally may extend no further than mandating the civic minimum. Parents must be given the right to . . .

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