Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Alternative Education versus the Common Will

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Alternative Education versus the Common Will

Article excerpt

Liberal democracy combines two fundamental political commitments: one to popular sovereignty, the other to individual liberty. And since popular sovereignty, in practice, rarely achieves unanimity, a tension between these two is built in from the outset. Citizens in a liberal democracy often find their liberty limited by a majoritarian policy designed (in part) to protect it. Theories of liberal democracy thus face an integral question: when should individual liberty triumph over the will of the majority? This question pertains to the issue of alternative education's legitimacy in a democracy at its most basic essence. Public, common education has been enshrined and protected as a necessary prerequisite to the continuation of democracy over generations while alternatives have been, at best, tolerated within the American system as a stop-gap measure for special interest groups. This article, therefore, will examine the complexity of the concept of popular sovereignty with reference to alternative education in order to determine its application and limitations regarding the maintenance of both the letter and spirit of democracy.

The Deep Roots of Popular Sovereignty

Since the Enlightenment, the premise of popular sovereignty has been accepted as a major basis for democracy. Propounded most clearly by the seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke, popular sovereignty set out the template that a community can be likened to the parts of a physical body: the only way it can survive is if the parts (individuals) are united in every action (community decision). Since it is unreasonable to believe that all individuals within any community should think the same way, the only means by which a democracy can function is if each member agrees to follow the decisions of the majority. (1)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau formalized this axiom in his treatise, The Social Contract in 1762. Based on his belief that everyone is born in a natural state of 'goodness,' he defended each individual's right to have full participation within a democracy. However, Rousseau tempered this statement by the caveat that,

   'goodness' merely requires the absence of an intention to harm
   others ... In contrast, virtue is not natural; virtue requires the
   mastery of natural impulsions and the intention to act well towards
   others, and hence presupposes that men have learned to think within
   society. (2)

Because men do things on the basis of self-interest and emotions, in a democracy there must be some superior guiding force to order their actions, and to enjoin them to go beyond the narrow field of their vision; to accept things non-proximate or unfamiliar that as isolated individuals they would reject. The state must therefore be of paramount interest to each of its citizens.

   If we are heirs to the same father, if we are brothers in
   dependency, if we cannot move in any direction one without the
   other, we are bound to perceive the benefits of cooperation. (3)

Rousseau saw that only when every individual is bound to the state, would they relate to each other as equal citizens. As such, individual self-interest must be overcome by the common will embodied in a higher love and loyalty to the state. This would cause citizens to decide every issue on the basis of honesty and integrity instead of selfishness. In Rousseau's eyes, therefore, the common will could never be wrong, and it alone has the authority to direct the state towards some objective: Rousseau called this the common good. (4)

It was Rousseau's supposition, therefore, that for a democracy to truly work, its citizens cannot simply be coerced into conforming to the common will, but must be taught to suppress their individual "self-interest," to understand the common good, and to become virtuous. (5) For this reason, Rousseau advocated that the only proper education for a child is one that has been devised and controlled by the state to inform succeeding generations of its common will. …

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