Educational Autonomy in a Civil Society:
A Model of Checks and Balances
In the education-reform debate we can often discern three rival approaches revolving, respectively, around markets, government, and the family. In the first, the main assumption is that the power of the market to enhance the common welfare, as an aggregate result of the individual pursuit of self-interest, can be fruitfully exploited for the purpose of general education. In the second, the assumption is that government is the privileged actor in ensuring civility and civic education and maintaining schools free from the strife of groups, religious sects, and the fetters of prejudice. In the third, the family is considered the key agent of education on the assumption that parents are the ones most intimately concerned about the well-being of their children and because they hold ultimate authority over their upbringing. In this essay I suggest that the civil society, properly understood, represents a frame of reference that facilitates harnessing the educational powers of all three agents just mentioned. Specifically, I argue that an institutional arrangement that satisfies the different normative implications of civility in the realm of education is one that casts the different agents of education in a relation of checks and balances. This is especially clear if we compare European and American traditions of civil society.
Civil society, properly understood, is a realm of conflicting normative claims delimited by the claim of liberty and freedom from undue government interference on one hand (Mill, 1985; Tocqueville, 1971), and by the claim of community obligation and solidarity on the other (Dahrendorf, 1990; Taylor, 1992; Walzer, 1995). This is, at any rate, suggested by American and European experiences of civil society. In the