Each of us has but one life to live and despite the many differences between us, there is no reason to suppose that one person should use their life to serve the goals, interests and aspirations of another, unless they so choose. It is therefore legitimate, and in each person’s interest, to acquire the capacity to choose and sustain the most desirable way of life for themselves, subject only to the requirement to respect the rights of others to do likewise. The precondition of such a capacity is a grasp of the possibilities the world offers and the necessary constraints it imposes. Such has been the justification for education given by a number of philosophers (Peters 1973; Crittenden 1978; White, J. 1982; Jonathan 1983) some of whom, in addition to information about the world and the range of goals worth pursuing have also written of the way in which education enables us to acquire the ability to apply the criteria according to which various categories of claim may be appraised.
In recent years both the moral justification for autonomy suggested above and the epistemological possibility of the kind of rational judgement upon which it is based have been challenged from two directions by groups of writers who, for the sake of convenience and with a degree of regrettable simplification will be referred to as, on the one hand, communitarians and, on the other, postmodernists. It is proposed to examine these two challenges and their educational implications showing that the educational consequences of communitarianism would be morally indefensible and that key propositions of postmodernism are either patently untenable or are less damaging to the educational goal of autonomy than might be supposed.
The notion of individuals freely choosing their way of life from a full range of conceivable options and, furthermore, having some kind of a right to do so has been hotly contested, not to say to some extent derided, by a number of