Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 17

Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education

Author(s): Geraint Parry

Source: Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 25, No. 1/2, Political Education (Mar. - Jun.,
1999), pp. 23-38
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1050698
Accessed: 26-05-2016 17:24 UTC
Linked references are available on JSTOR for this article:
You may need to log in to JSTOR to access the linked references.
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted
digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about
JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Taylor & Francis, Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Oxford
Review of Education

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 25, Nos. 1 &2, 1999 *


Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education


ABSTRACT It is a recurrent feature of the history of political thought that thinkers have
turned their attention to education. Some have been concerned with the reproduction of
a political culture through education. Others have sought to redress the failings of present

generations by re-educating future citizens. A broad distinction is drawn between

'constructive' political education which takes human nature as given and aims to redirect
pupils to new priorities and 'reconstructive' education which tries to effect a transform-

ation of the mind-set and produce new persons. Constructive theories include early
utilitarians, conservatives such as Oakeshott and moder democratic realists. Examples of

reconstructive theories are communitarians, such as Rousseau and participatory

democrats, including J. S. Mill and Dewey. The article concludes with a discussion of
attempts, such as that by Rawls, to educate for political neutrality.

It is a striking feature of the history of political thought that so many thinkers have
explicitly addressed the subject of education. Some have written works which feature
notably in the history of educational philosophy. Others, whilst not authors of distinct
treatises on education have, nevertheless, discussed the implications of their respective

political theories for education. In each case there is to be expected a degree of

congruence between the theories advanced in the political sphere and the values which
the thinker hopes to see projected onto the younger generation (on 'congruence' see
Eckstein, 1966; Rosenblum, 1994). In this article I propose to draw a distinction
between two broad styles of political education which I term 'constructive' and
'reconstructive'. Included within the constructive camp are utilitarians, certain conservatives, and defenders of 'realist' democracy; the reconstructivist category incorporates
communitarians and participatory democrats. Finally, I address the claims of contemporary political liberals who hope to transcend both constructivism and reconstructivism by producing an education which will encourage future citizens to sustain a form
of politics which is limited in its scope and neutral in its dealings with the diversity of
conceptions of the good life which exist within modern pluralist societies.
Beyond the more immediate objectives pursued by political education, such as the

training of ruling elites or the advancement of the national economy, two broad
purposes appear to have motivated political thinkers in turning to education which
might be termed 'reproduction' and 'redress'. The notion of education as reproduction
is widespread and has been furthered as a result of the influential work of Bourdieu and
Passeron (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990; also Gutmann, 1987). Pedagogic authorities are
seen as capable of exercising a more lasting effect in sustaining social values and
practices than the wielders of political power since education tends to 'reproduce ... the
0305-4985/99/010023-16 $7.00 ? 1999 Taylor & Francis Ltd

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

24 Oxford Review of Education

conditions in which the reproducers were reproduced' (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990,
p. 32; also J. S. Mill, 1984, p. 218).
But other political philosophers, of whom Rousseau is the exemplar, have looked to
education for redress, for the means to rectify the failings of past and present generations of adults. This has entailed the reverse of the project of reproduction through
education. Existing society and politics are perceived as corrupted and educationists as
participants in the policing functions of this society. Accordingly a prime objective must

be to distance the young as far as is possible from the various forms of schooling
provided by the established authorities. Since parents will be parts of the corrupted
generation and are certainly chronologically the first teachers it may also be necessary
to remove the child from their influence. In their place must step teachers who can in
some way stand apart from society and be the representatives of the new world.
Whether the broad aim is to reproduce social practices or to remedy their failings, the
pedagogic proposals advanced by political theorists at a number of levels-of structure,
curriculum and method-can be highly revealing of the ostensible political programme.
Most obviously one might look to ideas on access to schooling and of what kind. In the
18th century doctrines of natural rights were in tension with the exclusion from equal
educational opportunities of various categories of persons such as the poor or women
(see, for example, Payne, 1976; Chisick, 1981; Melton, 1988). Since the advent of
universal and compulsory schooling the relevant questions have surrounded the manner
in which pupils are permitted to advance through the system on the basis of merit or
on the basis of elite recognition (see the seminal work of Turner, 1960). Here the once
clear liberal notion of education preparing for the career open to the talents has become
obscured as the central ideas of merit and talent have joined the ranks of contested
concepts (Green, 1989; Wooldridge, 1994).

In similar fashion disputes over the content of the curriculum have repeatedly
reflected broader political and social concerns, even when portrayed as purely educational issues-whether they were over the hegemony of classical languages or over the
introduction of new, more 'relevant' subjects. The recent controversies in Britain over
'traditional' and 'progressive' teaching methods also have their 'pre-echoes' in earlier
debates. Liberal or radical stress on learning and discovery have confronted conservative emphases on the teacher and on discipline in ways which have drawn explicit

parallels between educational experiences and the acquisition of political values.

It is not being claimed that the history of political and educational thought is devoted
to a set of unchanging problems. Nevertheless the human world, which consists of
adults and of young who, to a degree unlike any other animal, have to learn to be
adults, is constantly likely to address what are fundamentally political questions of
education, such as the extent to which parents rather than society may shape future
values and behaviour or how far a cleavage can be permitted to open up between the
generations. The precise way in which these questions are put and answered will change
over time but it is possible to discern some family resemblances in the manner in which
political theorists have conceived of the role of education which have persisted across
the period of the modern state.

Two such families of political education theory may be designated as 'constructive' and
'reconstructive' education. The distinction draws upon Dennis Thompson's classic
differentiation between ideals of citizenship (Thompson, 1970, pp. 43-52 and passim).

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education 25

A constructive ideal is realisable by non-radical reforms; reconstructive ideals require

for their realisation 'qualitative change in an existing economic, social, or political

structure of a nation state' (Thompson, 1970, p. 45). Analogously, reconstructive or
'regenerative' education aims to bring about a qualitative alteration in the mind-set of

a generation in order to effect a similar change in political attitudes and behaviour

whilst the constructive or 'redirective' approach involves a less thoroughgoing shift,
even though it may bring about significant political change. Constructive theories take
human nature and interests as largely given and the task of education is typically to
redirect the goals and activities of future subjects or citizens towards what are perceived
to be national priorities. Reconstructive theories seek to produce 'new' persons,

transforming their priorities and ways of understanding of the world. Within each
family there are several variations which, whilst sharing a common approach to the
broad purpose of political education, yet differ widely in their policy implications.


Utility, Public Education and National Interest

The 18th century saw the first proposals for a recognisably modem national education
system-the essay by La Chalotais (1763) being the most influential early exposition.
The immediate intellectual inspiration can be traced to an interpretation of Locke's
view of the mind as at birth a tabula rasa, which permitted education to be regarded as
a technology capable of printing ideas on the mind of the child. When coupled with the
assumption of an inbuilt tendency of humans for self-preservation or self-love the
objective of education came to be one of redirecting self-interest to the pursuit of
common or national interests.

In the hands of La Chalotais, the German Cameralists, Helvetius, Priestley or James

Mill this educational technology could be turned to either absolutist or liberal ends (see
Oakeshott, 1975, p. 308). The famous pronouncement of Helvetius that l'education peut
tout captured the mood of this 'positive education'. The teacher confronts the child
with appropriate learning experiences so that ideally it encounters only those ideas
which are beneficial to the individual and society. Morality can be taught by demonstrating to the pupil that the pursuit of the general interest will be rewarded through
gaining the respect of others and will thereby bring personal pleasure. Priestley adds
that the technique consists in constant repetition of ideas intended, like all education,
to 'prejudice' children in favour of our own opinions (Priestley, 1780, p. 90).
This redirective conception was compatible, however, with different views as to
political goals. La Chalotais declared that as 'children of the state' pupils should
be taught in state schools by secular teachers from state-approved textbooks. For
enlightened absolutists in France and the German-speaking territories effective education would form part of the policing function of government which, by ensuring that
private happiness would be found in pursuing the public interest, would bring peace
and order without resort to violence (see, for example, Le Mercier de la Riviere, 1775,
pp. 41-42).
The liberal stream of thinking was agreed on the importance of redirecting personal
endeavour to pursuit of national interests but was sensitive to the implicit political

dangers. Helv&tius himself, whilst recognising that the science of education would
enable the legislator to guide the motions of the 'human puppet' (Helvetius, 1773,
p. 4), for this reason argued that reformation of the absolutist state was necessary to

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

26 Oxford Review of Education

safeguard education and enlightenment from its domination. In Britain Joseph Priestley
and Catharine Macaulay insisted that civil liberty required that there should not be a

nationally prescribed curriculum (Priestley, 1771, section IV; Macaulay, 1790, p. 15).
At the same time Priestley wished schools to provide courses for those playing an active

part in government and commercial society which required a modern curriculum,

including commercial history and trade policy, if Britain were not to fall behind its new
international competitors (Priestley, 1780, p. 189)-a justification for curriculum inno-

vation which was to become increasingly familiar in both secondary and tertiary
education in the 19th and 20th centuries (see, for example, Haldane, 1902; Moberly,
1949 or world league tables of scholastic achievement, e.g. The Economist, 1997).


Conservative educational theory is fundamentally constructivist in its approach. Its

master exponent, Michael Oakeshott, confronts, however, both the vocationalism of the
utilitarians and the reconstructive claims advanced by radical and 'progressive' educa-

tionists. In his famous inaugural lecture at the London School of Economics in 1951
on 'Political Education' Oakeshott described it as 'coming to understand a tradition'
and 'learning how to participate in a conversation' (Oakeshott, 1989, p. 151). This
tradition is largely peculiar to a given society and the conversation it entails stretches
over time and links that society's past and present with its future. Understanding the
tradition is compared to acquiring a language which consists in learning words in use.
Analogously political education involves 'observation and imitation of the behaviour of
our elders', absorbing in effect their political vocabulary (Oakeshott, 1989, p. 152). It
requires especially the study of how the society has thought about the tradition and the
'legends' it has constructed and kept up to date-'not to expose its errors but to
understand its prejudices' (Oakeshott, 1989, p. 153).
This account of political education is of a piece with Oakeshott's conception of the
enterprise of education in general. The product of schooling is likely to be a person who
will be well-attuned to approaching politics as a tradition in which to be inculcated
rather than a practice to be criticised and transformed. Education is 'the deliberate
initiation of a newcomer into a human inheritance of sentiments, beliefs, imaginings,
understandings and activities' (Oakeshott, 1989, p. 68). The emphasis is on teaching
more than on learning (Oakeshott, 1989, pp. 46, 62). The 'world of achievement' into
which the pupil is inducted is made up of the standards of conduct and the activities
which previous generations have approved and pursued. For this reason education is a
'transaction between generations' (Oakeshott, 1989, p. 93). Initiation into a practice
does not mean that the practice will be reproduced unchanged. Education should
impart judgement which allows the pupil to use the language of the practice in ways
which lie beyond the rules of the activity whilst yet maintaining the 'flow of sympathy'
(Oakeshott, 1989, p. 149). In politics judgement consists, in his famous phrase, in the
pursuit of the 'intimations of the tradition' (Oakeshott, 1989, pp. 136-158). But
judgement cannot be exercised in any sphere without information, which presupposes
formal instruction and memory work.
This stress on the teacher as the transmitter of civilisation rather than on the pupil
leads logically to the conservative rejection of ideas of discovery learning. In a caricature
of 'progressive' education, Oakeshott condemns those who see learning as 'finding out',
who reject the idea of a curriculum, who emphasise pictorial over verbal representation

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education 27

and creativity and 'inner discipline' over rules of conduct and who reject the inheritance

of human understandings as an 'insufferable burden' (Oakeshott, 1989, pp. 72-73).

In launching this onslaught Oakeshott was sustaining the conservative critique of
radical democracy which had commenced with the French Revolution. Conservatives
such as Brandes in Germany or Knox in England traced the language of autonomy,
discovery and the idea of inheritance as a 'burden' as much to Rousseau's educational
writings as to his Social Contract (see Brandes, 1809; Knox, 1781; for an appropriately
sympathetic account of Knox see Bantock, 1984, pp. 43-63). For Burke the revolutionary movement was precisely a project of civic education designed to displace religion
(Burke, 1987, p. 130). Conservatives have throughout recognised the congruence
between radical education and radical politics. Whereas conservatives insisted, in
Burke's words, that there were no discoveries to be made in the fundamentals of
morality, politics and religion, men were now being urged instead to treat both nature

and the political arena as new worlds to explore, uninhibited by the intellectual
boundaries and governmental institutions they had inherited. From the outset the
conservatives recognised almost more quickly than its proponents the political
implications of educational reform.
'Realist' Democrats

Alongside the first modem movements towards national education developed calls for
an education which would assist in incorporating emergent classes into the political
system. By the 1820s the inevitability of some considerable extension of the democratic
element in government was widely recognised. The difficulty lay in ensuring, at various
stages through the 19th century, that the new classes would govern with due appreciation of the permanent interests of society. The system devised was representative
government, described by James Mill as 'the grand discovery of modern times' (J. Mill,
1978, p. 73). The essence of representative government lay in, as Schumpeter was to
put it, a 'division of labour' between the people and the politician (Schumpeter, 1943,
p. 295). The political role of the people was to be largely confined to voting in elections.
For this relatively undemanding task education was still necessary. The first requirement, historically, was the promotion of basic literacy and numeracy. Equally
significant was learning democratic self-control in not seeking to be a political activist
engaging in political 'back-seat driving' (Schumpeter, 1943, p. 295).
It is appropriate that James Mill, as the author of the most succinct statement of this
version of representative government, should also have expounded the theory of
education to accompany it. Democracy was designed to protect individuals from being
exploited by sinister interests in government by submitting office-holders to the threat
of defeat in regular and frequent elections. Since all persons, voters as well as holders
of power, are assumed to be moved by private advantage, the political and educational
task is to ensure that voters understand that this will be attained by redirecting
self-interest to the common interest. No transformation of attitudes is demanded.

Education was seen, accordingly, as making 'certain feelings and thoughts take place
instead of others' (J. Mill, 1931, p. 11). The skill lay in manipulating rewards and
sanctions in order to habituate the mind to associate pleasurable trains of ideas with
activities which produced benefits to others (. Mill, 1931, pp. 54-56). The emphasis
was on the teacher and the transmission of values rather than on the pupils and their
discoveries. Substantively the core interest to be learned was the respect for property.
But more significant for present purposes is the style of politics which this education

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

28 Oxford Review of Education

sought to underpin. The protective theory of democracy, whilst insisting on the
importance of acquiring the capacity to judge one's interests and act in their defence,
demands no commitment beyond this. An education for active civic involvement
becomes superfluous.
In the hands of later democrats of this type the expectations of civic responsibilities
were further attenuated. Schumpeter notoriously proclaimed that people fell to a lower
level of mental performance as soon as they set foot in the political arena (Schumpeter,
1943, p. 262). Rather than seeking to remedy this through political education Schumpeter proposed that this be accepted as a realistic assessment of the ways of modern
democracy. Giovanni Sartori argues in the same vein that democracy consists not in the

rule of the people but in the people selecting who is to rule (Sartori, 1987, passim).
Unlike more direct forms of democracy it can accommodate low levels of political
competence and rationality and does not demand an unrealistic transformation in
popular behaviour (Sartori, 1987, pp. 102-130, 425-449). The inference Sartori draws
for political education is that it should concentrate on the political representatives,
enabling them to comprehend and analyse the flood of expert scientific information
they face (Sartori, 1987, p. 110).
The implications for citizens are developed by William Galston who argues for a
mode of civic education which has 'congruence with the basic features of the society it
is intended to sustain' (Galston, 1991, p. 246). He identifies the basic features of
modern democracy in the manner of Schumpeter and Sartori as the selection of
representatives. The appropriate form of civic education is one that enables electors to
select wisely. Beyond that, civic education might legitimately promote toleration,
political self-restraint and commitment to the rule of law. What Galston objects to is
any proposal that civic education in a liberal democracy should advance a sense of
participatory obligations. Nor might it properly inculcate the qualities of confidence,
courage or friendship as specific civic virtues (see White, 1996). It is not that Galston
thinks poorly of such virtues but that to incorporate them into a public education goes
beyond the remit of a genuinely liberal system by privileging a particular ideal of human
excellence which is neither shared generally nor requisite to the conservation of
present-day democracy. This would be 'to endorse a politics of transformation based on
a general conception of the political good external to the concrete polity in question'
(Galston, 1987, p. 246, emphasis added).
The radical riposte to Galston is likely to replicate the criticism which has commonly

been mounted against Schumpeter and Sartori (Duncan & Lukes, 1963; Barber, 1984).
The limited conception of the citizen's role is, it is suggested, itself the product of
political education in the broad sense that current liberal democracy in its institutions,
practices and ideologies distances the citizen from political life and discourages active
participation. School instruction in civics which was congruent with such democracy
would therefore merely reinforce a conception of citizenship deriving from a minimal
theory of civil association (Parry, 1991, pp. 166-173). The realist position is seen as
failing to recognise the negative education it is offering. Participatory theorists by

contrast would expect the state to provide an educative lead in cultivating a more
activist conception of citizenship. The response of liberal realists is that such civic
education represents an attempt by the state to wean children away from the normal
lifestyles of their parents and turn them into new persons who, when adults, will realise
an alternative democratic vision. Such a programme is seen as incompatible with the
values of a limited liberal polity which is capable of being sustained by a far more
modest instruction in a small 'core of civic commitments' (Galston, 1987, p. 255).

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education 29


'Reconstructive' or 'regenerative' theories of civic education are usually responses to

perceived crises in political life. A sense of dissolution of a polity is met by a call for a
new generation to remedy the loss, often entailing a sharp break from past and present.
The prospect of the reinvigoration of the social and political world by the newlyeducated children has a clear appeal to communitarians and participatory theorists who
are often, though not invariably, coupled together.


At whatever period it seems that communitarians lament the disappearance of a past

collective spirit which cannot be restored by the present generation which is already

divided and debased. The most influential exponent of this conception of civic education has, of course, been Rousseau. Although Rousseau insisted that private and civic
education were quite distinct enterprises, his own educational thinking constituted two

alternative responses to a single interpretation of modernity. Man, born good, had

become self-seeking and competitive. The agent of this corruption was society whose
codes of conduct encouraged and rewarded these character traits. To this Rousseau

opposed a vision of men (though not women) as citizens who would be motivated by
a sense of community and public interest.
The dilemma for Rousseau was how to get there from here. How can corrupted man

generate virtuous society? How can the effect become the cause (Rousseau, 1973,
p. 216)? Education appeared to offer the way out and this explains its centrality to
Rousseau's thought. It might be feasible to teach men an entirely new conception of
social and political life. However, existing education was designed to reproduce the
social corruption of which it was the inevitable agent. Hence Rousseau took a step
which was to be characteristic of radical communitarian education. Instruction had to

be divorced from all existing teachers and teaching.

Rousseau offered two contrasting ways of achieving this. One was to further denature
man and give him a total civic education in a closed society, exposing him wholly to the
social values of his patrie. The alternative was to educate the individual to live with as
much integrity as possible within existing society. Even as a realisable second-best
(Jimack, 1983, p. 20) this presented difficulties. It required that Emile, the ideal object
of such education, could not be taught either by his already socialised parents or any

other social agent but by a tutor miraculously aware of corruption but uniquely
uncorrupted-who shared the name Jean-Jacques. The tutor's celebrated 'negative
education' is not, as Rousseau also claims, 'inactive' so much as defensive against the
pressures of debased society (Rousseau, 1991, pp. 317, 93, 117).
Emile is required to be dependent only on nature and not on man and to examine
'facts' and not opinion. Only when confident enough to think his own thoughts is he
released into society. How such an austere individual can be integrated into a community remains Rousseau's most pressing problem. Can Rousseau hope for a world of

citizen Emiles living according to the norms of the society imagined in the Social
Contract? Or are we to attend to the more tragic final pages of Emile where community
is to be found by withdrawal into the household? In each case Rousseau conceived of
renewal by means of an education which was neither reproductive nor merely redirective but, instead, deliberately distanced from the political realm in order to achieve its
more complete reconstruction or rejection.

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

30 Oxford Review of Education

In this Rousseau was to be followed in ways potentially both sinister and emancipatory. Le Pelletier pursued the logic of the new education for the new citizen of the
French Revolution by proposing state boarding schools for all children. They were to
be taken from parents themselves brought up under the old regime and re-educated to
acquire republican virtue (Le Pelletier, 1793). Fichte's Addresses to the German Nation

(1808), the earliest dramatic call for national revival through education, similarly
argued that regeneration was impossible unless the children were removed from
parental supervision for retraining, just as they were for military service (Fichte, 1808,

pp. 360-361). They cannot be released back into the community until they have
learned to detest corruption and are safe from infection by society (Fichte, 1808,
p. 332). Once this first generation is educated it can then in turn educate its successors
without the same precautions.
The problem facing 19th- and 20th-century communitarians has been, however, that
it has ceased to be self-evident wherein this common good consists. Raymond Plant has

described the modem era of thought as 'political philosophy on Dover Beach' (Plant,
1991, pp. 320-379). Plant invokes in Matthew Arnold a theorist for whom education
through the auspices of the state was the key to the restoration of the community he saw

as disintegrating. Arnold exemplifies the dilemma facing modern communitarianism. A

true communitarian will wish to call upon the historical resources of the tradition to
which they feel a belonging. But Arnold and modern communitarians perceive a
rupture in the tradition. Society is divided into a plurality of discourses, none of which

appears likely to be the source of a new shared language. Culture, 'the best that is
known and thought in the world' (Arnold, 1993a, pp. 150, 79) is offered as the new tie
that might bind. However, for it to succeed as a replacement social idea in an anarchy

of opinion culture needs to be taught and the only available educative agency is the
state as, in Arnold's view (following Burke) 'the nation in its collective and corporate
character' and 'representing its best self (Arnold, 1993b, pp. 15, 22-23). The state in
this educative role acts as a disinterested critic of the partial spirit which is reproduced
in existing schools (Arnold, 1993b, p. 17). The regenerative character of the project is
clearly expressed when Arnold argues that the basis of community cannot be found in

'our ordinary selves' but only in 'our best self (Arnold, 1993a, p. 99). The difficulty
Arnold faced, along with others who bewail the disintegration of community whilst
calling for its revival, lay in identifying a genuinely disinterested agency to undertake the
reconstruction (see Williams, 1961, pp. 128-136). Rousseau's educator who is free of
class or sectional associations and Arnold's 'remnant', who can transcend their class
inheritance and promote the 'best', are akin to Plato's philosopher-kings returning to
the polis from the Cave.
This missionary zeal similarly motivated those British Idealists who, inspired by T.
H. Green, devoted so much of their thinking and their practical lives to citizen
education (see Gordon & White, 1979; Vincent & Plant, 1984; Nicholson, 1990). They

accordingly sought a liberal education under a combination of state and voluntary

auspices which might enable the pupils to gain the broad sympathies which would
encourage them to recognise the interconnectedness of knowledge and its relevance
to the common good (MacCunn, 1894). Education would produce 'a person in a
world of responsive persons' (Hetherington & Muirhead, 1918, p. 106)-a society
characterised by mutuality more than mere reciprocity (Parry, 1991, pp. 185-188).
Contemporary communitarians share the earlier ambivalence in both maintaining
that a person possessing no links to a shared narrative with others is at the very least
incapacitated and that this sense of narrative has been seriously eroded. Because

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education 31

individual identity is partly constituted by such narratives it is, they suggest, reasonable
that a society may seek to ensure that its future citizens are able to share in its particular

story. If, as Michael Walzer claims, membership of a human community is 'the primary

good we distribute to one another' (Walzer, 1983, p. 31), educating its children
becomes an essential part of the process of ensuring that the new generation recognises
the nature of this primary good.
Nevertheless, late 20th-century communitarians cannot, given the experience of
totalitarian programmes of re-education, be as relaxed as their predecessors about the
solidaristic tendencies of community. Thus, for Alasdair MacIntyre the self needs to
start from the moral particularities of its community in its search for the universal
(MacIntyre, 1981, p. 205)-a sentiment which the British Idealists would have endorsed. The danger, particularly in the "thick" version advanced by MacIntyre, is that
communitarian education may reproduce the particularity rather than engender the
search for the universal. In the more liberal communitarianism of Walzer the saving
element lies in the relative autonomy of schools, which he perhaps rather optimistically
takes to be a fact of modern society (Walzer, 1983, pp. 197-199; see also Bourdieu &
Passeron, 1990). Schools constitute an 'enclosure' within which teachers can "teach the
truths they understand" and which is a context for the reproduction of social critics.
Walzer's communitarianism may derive its appeal from its attempt to reconcile itself
with pluralism. The school is to be part of a local (neighbourhood) community but also
of the community of communities. For this the school must forge the wider association
and not necessarily reproduce the narrower. In the American context this could involve
'busing' from a restrictive neighbourhood to one more plural. The enclosure must help
change the established patterns of associational life, which reinforce the habits of low
expectations, and protect pupils from themselves. The goal is 'the integration of future
citizens' (Walzer, 1983, p. 222). Here the 'enclosure' plays a role familiar in pedagogy
where the school is a defended space in which critical distance from the outside
community could be established. It seems, however, that the contemporary liberal
communitarian wishes to have it both ways-the school should permit the pupils to
retain their roots in their particular inherited culture and yet learn at the very least that
this culture is only one amongst others recognised within a plural democracy. The
upshot is a watery communitarianism which escapes the danger of collective authoritar-

ianism by teaching children to qualify their local identities by a citizen identity-a

less-wholehearted attempt at personal and social reconstruction than sought by past

Participatory Democrats

If the essence of 'realist' democracy is Schumpeter's electoral self-control, participatory

democracy turns on ideas of self-culture. Both forms of behaviour have to be learned.

The realists look to electors to acquire only the level of understanding of spectators
appraising the performers in the political arena. In a participatory democracy, by
contrast, everyone needed, like the ancient Athenians, to learn to 'play his part upon a
stage where cram was of no use' (J. S. Mill, 1981a, p. 336). Just as Mill himself
discovered that his own education had failed and that he had to 'begin the formation
of my character anew' (J. S. Mill, 1981b, p. 141), so a sense of the responsibility
implicit in self-government could not be acquired by instruction but, rather, through
the exercise of that responsibility. In politics 'what we require to be taught ... is to be
our own teachers' (J. S. Mill, 1984, p. 244).

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

32 Oxford Review of Education

Whilst Mill demanded a basic level of instruction in literacy and numeracy for voters
and some knowledge of political history and institutions, his repeated emphasis was on
learning and finding out. This should presuppose an 'educative democracy' (Garforth,
1980). Institutions should offer the opportunity structures for participation through
which citizens learn about political possibilities, about the legitimate claims of others
and come to reassess their own positions. Government acts as a school. There is not the
generational re-orientation of a Revolutionary communal school or of Fichte but a

continuing process of reformation of character, starting in youth and encouraged

through life.

This emphasis on constant renewal is shared with Dewey's conceptions of both

education and democracy. Education is 'that reconstruction of experience which adds

to the meaning of experience' (Dewey, 1966, p. 76). Pupils are invited repeatedly to
reinterpret their experiences in the light of their transactions with the environment.
They are not to understand themselves as spectators but as involved in an exchange
with their surroundings in which they offer hypotheses which are to be tested by acting
upon the world, but which are to be treated as fallible (Tiles, 1988; Ryan, 1995,

pp. 128-130). As with Mill this educative process of reconstruction of experience

continues in political life and implies a participatory democracy in which citizens can
communicate with one another in addressing issues of joint interest. They interact with
one another in such a way as, through a process of revision and reconstruction, they
come to attach the same meanings to phenomena and discover a community life
(Dewey, 1966, pp. 30-33). This is something for which they have been prepared
from primary school by learning through team project work rather than individual

Where this vision may depart from John Stuart Mill's is in its communitarianism.
Whatever his reputation as the educator for personal self-realisation Dewey was never
concerned to cultivate Mill's rather prickly kind of individual but, rather, someone
whose very character was developed through social transactions and who would be
concerned with the whole. This begins with the school which, as Ryan rightly says, was
not to be an 'apart institution' but be 'of its community' (Ryan, 1995, p. 147). The
school is to promote sets of shared meanings and the teacher represents the community
by selecting the meanings it wishes to transmit.
All this has led more libertarian critics to perceive Dewey as the defender of
conformity to communal culture (Flew, 1977; Bantock, 1984, pp. 316-322). This
inference understates Dewey's insistence on the continual reconstruction of experience.

Truth may be 'warranted assertibility' but the warrant is always up for renewal.
Nevertheless, these responses (for other such criticisms see the discussion in Ryan,
1995, pp. 345-365) indicate a certain ambivalence within the communitarian stream of
participatory democracy between the commitment to dialogue whatever discomfort it
may bring and to community and consensus. It is one thing to say, as Dewey certainly
does, that we need to learn a common set of meanings in order to deliberate together.
It is another to suggest that this common set of meanings is to be such as to imply a
consensus on substantive rather than procedural policies. The first position might have
few implications for education beyond the relatively uncontroversial expectation that
schools should strive to ensure that pupils achieve a level of 'communicative competence' by a command of written and spoken language. More contestable and more
pedagogically demanding would be the inference that such a competence involved
learning to use the language in certain ways such that utterances are recognised to be
sincere or justifiable or framed so as to be open to particular styles of criticism. Citizens

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education 33

who have acquired this stronger version of deliberative competence might then be
expected to wish political opportunity structures which will allow the display of this

What might render some liberals nervous of this commitment to developing a

participatory public is its very insistence on a learning process which involves a
continuing reconstruction and renegotiation of values and of rights in particular.
Benjamin Barber, in this respect very much in the Dewey mould, predicates the 'strong

democracy' he advocates, with its repeated citizen deliberations and re-evaluations

(Barber, 1984), on an education which encourages the student to regard truth claims
not only as hypothetical and conditional but as dependent on 'consensus' or a
community's 'discursive rules' as well as on the 'inclusiveness or exclusiveness' of the
membership of the community participating in the prevailing 'deliberative conventions'
(Barber, 1992, p. 213). Educational 'canons' are to be regarded as flexible and shaped
by the community. The liberal's concern that this reconstruction must stop short of
permitting an erosion of rights is met by participatory democrats with the contention
that 'a democratic dialogue that ... mandates its own renegotiation must uniquely and
properly exercise constraint over the limits of that negotiation' (Steiner, 1994, p. 210).
The task of the teacher is to teach pupils a form of democratic self-constraint but one
very different from that advocated by the 'realists'. It is not a constraint on political
involvement itself but on over-reaching that involvement and can only be exercised by
those who have been transformed by education from being 'ordinary people' into the
different beings called 'citizens' (Barber, 1992, p. 266). The liberal is asked to trust that
citizen training will effectively result in citizen self-limitation as well as citizen



Both the constructive and reconstructive conceptions of political education involve a

commitment on the part of the political system and its educational apparatus to the
pursuit of certain preferred ways of life. Although both approaches have been espoused
by thinkers who have in the past been termed liberals (as well as by non-liberals), in the
contemporary world the archetypal liberal position has been one which insists that the
state and its agencies should aim to be neutral between the various value systems held

by citizens. The prime reservation, which profoundly affects education, is that the
liberal state cannot be neutral about its own neutrality. It must seek to instil respect for
its fundamental principle in its future citizenry. The problem posed by this requirement
is that neutralist liberalism may, in its educational programme, be less accommodating
than it claims towards those who wish to bring their children up to share their own

non-liberal doctrines and consequently to adopt more negative attitudes to what they

variously see to be the spread of the contagion of secularism, anti-traditionalism or

laxity of manners. On the other side the same aspiration to neutrality worries those who
believe that the immersion of pupils in the critical appraisal of values and thinking is
necessary to sustaining a robust democracy into the future. As is so often the case, the
issue of what values one would wish to transmit to the next generation tests the nature
of the commitment to the ideals themselves-in this instance to neutrality, plurality and

One response to this dilemma is libertarian. Schooling is left to the free operation
of the market or to some quasi-market mechanism such as educational vouchers.

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

34 Oxford Review of Education

Libertarianism falls neither into the constructive nor the reconstructive camp to the
degree that it is unconcerned whether the parents select a schooling which will steer
their children along familiar paths or will radically alter their perspectives. What it
opposes is the attempt by the state to reproduce its own preferred values, which are
often interpreted as those of a prevailing elite or pressure group (eg. Liebermann, 1989;
Chubb & Moe, 1990). From the standpoint of the society the problem is that there is
no guarantee that the schools will teach the values of liberty or neutrality on which the
system rests unless the state directly or indirectly infringes the autonomy of the schools
by influencing their curriculum.

An attempt to find a path between libertarianism and an overtly democratising

education is to be found in what, following John Rawls, has been designated 'political
liberalism'. Rawls starts in his recent work by assuming a pluralist society in which

people hold a multiplicity of comprehensive moral doctrines which may conflict on

important values (Rawls, 1993). The appropriate response of a liberal polity is said to

be to institute a system of rule which is neutral as between these comprehensive

doctrines and, hence, does not itself impose any such doctrine on its citizens. The
problem posed for this theory by education is whether the state can ensure that its
children can be brought up to a belief in political neutrality without illiberally limiting
the freedom of parents to instruct their offspring in their own comprehensive value
systems (for a perceptive discussion see Callan, 1997).
Rawls eases the problem by assuming that modern society faces not so much a
plurality of doctrines but of 'reasonable' (i.e. internally consistent) doctrines and that
these are held by 'reasonable' persons (Rawls, 1993, pp. 48-66). The first assumption
appears to be fairly weak and would fail to eliminate many fanatical positions (Parry,
1996, p. 1702). The second assumption implies that reasonable persons are those who
accept the 'burdens of judgment' which involve recognising the complexity of issues
and that others may properly weigh factors differently. Since this recognition of the
legitimate positions of others is implicit in the requirement that citizens 'affirm the same
political conception of themselves as free and equal persons' (Rawls, 1993, p. 180),

the task of political education becomes that of ensuring the development of

'reasonableness' amongst the population.
The ensuing national curriculum would seem, however, to infringe upon the freedom
of those parents who wish to bring their children up according to their own beliefs,
particularly (though not exclusively) so if these doctrines are not liberal. Students
would need to be introduced to other understandings of the world and, presumably, in
a way which led them to acknowledge that these were ideas which, at the very least,
other reasonable persons might hold (see Macedo, 1995; Gutmann, 1995; Callan,
1997). It is significant that it is in the context of education that Rawls most explicitly
acknowledges the affinity between his political liberalism and comprehensive liberalism
and that the effect, but not the intention, of teaching the former may be to encourage
the latter (Rawls, 1993, p. 200; more forcefully Macedo, 1995, p. 485). Neutrality will
result in an education which would be reinforcing or redirective for liberals but
reconstructive from the perspective of those sharing alternative doctrines.
However, political liberals seek to limit this tension by the 'strategy of avoidance'
which aims, through constitutional rules, to remove from the political agenda 'the most
divisive issues, serious contention about which must undermine the bases of social
co-operation' (Rawls, 1993, p. 157; Macedo, 1995, p. 494). This reduces the range of
matters on which democratic decisions might be taken based on a majority's comprehensive moral beliefs. The inference for education is that it would similarly minimise

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education 35

the areas of the curriculum subject to the requirements of what appears an essentially
liberal approach to teaching. It would also minimise the need to look for a widespread
reconstruction of ways of thinking.
Whether such a neat separation of the political and private realms, and of associated
modes of thinking, is feasible is dubious (see Frazer & Lacey, 1995; Callan, 1997).
From the standpoint of democracy the strategy of avoidance succeeds by avoiding
democracy itself. It treats the restricted public realm as given and not itself a political
outcome subject to reappraisal. Education congruent with this political liberalism faces
the unsatisfactory task of encouraging critical capacity within a limited sphere whilst

claiming to be indifferent to the authoritarian modes of schooling which would be

permitted to exist in the non-public arena.
A more robust democratic theory would wish its schools to promote the ability of
future citizens to deliberate freely upon the full range of issues which might appear
directly or indirectly on a less impoverished political agenda. This would indeed involve
the discourse Rawls terms 'public reason' (Rawls, 1993, pp. 212-254) in which, as
Rousseau argued, civic deliberations are guided by public and not private principles.
Such public reason has to be learned and democracies, especially, might be expected
to demand that such a capacity be developed and employed by all its future participants. By limiting the reach of the public sphere political liberalism may not only be
refusing to make what it regards as 'unreasonable' expectations about moral agreement
in modern society (Macedo, 1995, pp. 494-497) but also be accepting as realistic
existing levels of political interest and willingness to engage in political deliberation
about the values which might tie society together. No liberal and very few democrats
would wish to see 'total investments of moral capital in the political realm' (Macedo,
1995, p. 497), but political liberalism may dissuade many from making any such
investment. Its principle of neutrality will lead it to eschew the reconstructive tradition
of education with its ambition to transform the typical 'Schumpeterian' elector into an
active citizen and, in the end, to settle for the more modest goals of constructive
education designed to sustain democratic life at 'realistic' levels of political

The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Economic and Social Research
Council (Grant R000235410) and of the Leverhulme Trust for the research of which
this study forms part.

ARNOLD, M. (1993a) Culture and Anarchy, in: S. COLLINI (Ed.) Culture and Anarchy
and Other Writings (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
ARNOLD, M. (1993b) Democracy, in: S. COLLINI (Ed.) Culture and Anarchy and Other
Writings (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
BANTOCK, G.H. (1984) Studies in the History of Educational Theory. Vol. II. The Minds
and the Masses, 1760-1780 (London, Allen & Unwin).
BARBER, B. (1992) An Aristocracy of Everyone: the politics of education and the future of
America (New York, Oxford University Press).
BARBER, B. (1984) Strong Democracy: participatory democracy for a new age (Berkeley,
CA, University of California Press).

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

36 Oxford Review of Education

BOURDIEU, P. & PASSERON, J-C. (1990) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture,
2nd edn (London, Sage).
BRANDES, E. (1809) Ueber das Du und Du zwischen Eltern und Kindern (Hanover).
BURKE, E. (1987) Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J.G.A. POCOCK
(Indianapolis, Hackett).
CALLAN, E. (1997) Creating Citizens: political education and liberal democracy (Oxford,
Oxford University Press).
CHISICK, H. (1981) The Limits of Reform in the Enlightenment: attitudes toward the
education of the lower classes in eighteenth-century France (Princeton, NJ, Princeton
University Press).
CHUBB, J. & MOE, T. (1990) Politics, Markets and America's Schools (Washington DC,
Brookings Institution).
DEWEY, J. (1966) Democracy and Education (New York, Free Press).

DUNCAN, G. & LUKES, S. (1963) The new democracy, Political Studies, 11, 2, pp. 156177.

ECKSTEIN, H. (1966) A theory of stable democracy, in: H. ECKSTEIN Division and

Cohesion in Democracy: a study of Norway (Princeton, Princeton University Press).
THE ECONOMIST (1997) World education league: who's top?, The Economist, 29 March,
pp. 25-27.
FICHTE, J.G. (1808) Reden an die deutsche Nation (Berlin).

FLEW, A. (1977) Democracy and education, in: R.S. PETERS (Ed.) John Dewey
Reconsidered (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul).
FRAZER, E. & LACEY, N. (1995) Politics and the public in Rawls' Liberalism, Political
Studies, 43, pp. 233-247.
GALSTON, W. (1991) Liberal Purposes: goods, virtues, and diversity in the liberal state
(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
GARFORTH, F. (1980) Educative Democracy: John Stuart Mill on education in society
(Oxford, Oxford University Press).
GORDON, P. & WHITE, J. (1979) Philosophers as Educational Reformers: the influence of
idealism on British educational thought and practice (London, Routledge).
GREEN, S. (1989) Competitive equality of opportunity: a defence, Ethics, 100, pp. 532.

GUTMANN, A. (1987) Democratic Education (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press).

GUTMANN, A. (1995) Civic education and social diversity, Ethics, 105, pp. 557-579.
HALDANE, R. (1902) Education and Empire (London, Murray).
HELVETIUS, C.A. (1773) De L'Homme, de ses Facultes Intellectuelles et de son Education
HETHERINGTON, H. & MUIRHEAD, J.H. (1918) Social Purpose: a contribution to a
philosophy of civic society (London, Allen & Unwin).
JIMACK, P. (1983) Rousseau: Emile (London, Grant & Cutler).
KNOX, V. (1781) Liberal Education, 3rd edn (London).
LA CHALOTAIS, LR DE C. (1763) Essai d'Education Nationale (Geneva).
LE MERCIER DE LA RIVIERE, P. (1775) De L'Instruction Publique (Stockholm).
LIEBERMANN, M. (1989) Privatization and Educational Choice (Basingstoke, Macmillan).
LE PELLETIER, M. (1793) Plan d'Education Nationale (Paris).
MACAULAY, C. (1790) Letters on Education, With Observations on Religious and
Metaphysical Subjects (London).
MACCUNN, J. (1894) Ethics of Citizenship (Maclehose, Glasgow).

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education 37

MACEDO, S. (1995) Liberal civic education and religious fundamentalism: the case of
God v. John Rawls?, Ethics, 105, pp. 468-515.
MACINTYRE, A. (1981) After Virtue (London, Duckworth).
MARCET, J. (1816) Conversations on Political Economy; in which the elements of that science

are familiarly explained (London).

MELTON, J. (1988) Absolutism and the Eighteenth-century Origins of Compulsory Schooling

in Prussia and Austria (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

MILL, J. (1931) Education, in: F.A. CAVENAGH (Ed.) James and John Stuart Mill on
Education (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
MILL, J. (1978) An essay on government, in: J.C. REES & J. LIVELY (Eds) Utilitarian
Logic and Politics (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
MILL, J.S. (1969) Coleridge, in: Collected Works, Vol. X (Toronto, Toronto University
MILL, J.S. (1981a) On genius, in: Collected Works, Vol. I (Toronto, Toronto University
MILL, J.S. (1981b) Autobiography, in: Collected Works, Vol. I (Toronto, Toronto
University Press).
MILL, J.S. (1984) Inaugural address delivered to the University of St. Andrews, in:
Collected Works, Vol. XXI (Toronto, Toronto University Press).
MOBERLY, W. (1949) The Universities in Crisis (London, SCM Press).
NICHOLSON, P. (1990) The Political Philosophy of the British Idealists: selected studies
(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
OAKESHOTT, M. (1962) Rationalism in Politics and other Essays (London, Methuen).
OAKESHOTT, M. (1975) On Human Conduct (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
OAKESHOTT, M. (1989) The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education
(Ed. Timothy Fuller) (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press).
PARRY, G. (1991) Conclusion: paths to citizenship, in: U. VOGEL & M. MORAN (Eds)
The Frontiers of Citizenship (Basingstoke, Macmillan).
PARRY, G. (1996) Political liberalism and education, in: I. HAMPSHER-MONK &
J. STANYER (Eds) Contemporary Political Studies 1996, Vol. III, Proceedings of the
Annual Conference of the Political Studies Association (Exeter, PSA).
PAYNE, H.C. (1976) The Philosophers and the People (New Haven, CT, Yale University
PLANT, R. (1991) Modern Political Thought (Oxford, Blackwell).
PRIESTLEY, J. (1771) An Essay on the First Principles of Government and on the Nature of
Political, Civil and Religious Liberty, 2nd edn (London).
PRIESTLEY, J. (1780) Miscellaneous Observations Relating to Education. More especially, as
it respects the Conduct of the Mind. To which is Added, An Essay on a course of Liberal

Education for Civil and Active Life (Cork).

RAWLS, J. (1993) Political Liberalism (New York, Columbia University Press).
ROSENBLUM, N. (1994) Democratic character and community: the logic of congruence,
Journal of Political Philosophy, 2, pp. 67-97.
ROUSSEAU, J-J. (1971) Emile, or On Education (Ed. A. Bloom) (Harmondsworth,
ROUSSEAU, J-J. (1973) The Social Contract, Eds G.D.H. COLE, REv. J.H. BRUMFITT &
J.C. HALL (London, Everyman Library, Dent).
RYAN, A. (1995) John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (New York,

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms

38 Oxford Review of Education

SARTORI, G. (1987) The Theory of Democracy Revisited (Chatham, NJ, Chatham House
SCHUMPETER, J. (1943) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (London, Allen & Unwin).
STEINER, D. (1994) Rethinking Democratic Education: the politics of reform (Baltimore,
NJ, Johns Hopkins University Press).

THOMPSON, D. (1970) The Democratic Citizen (Cambridge, Cambridge University

TILES, J. (1988) Dewey (London, Routledge).
TURNER, R. (1960) Sponsored and contest mobility and the school system, American
Sociological Review, 25 (December) pp. 855-867.
VINCENT, A. & PLANT, R. (1984) Philosophy, Politics and Citizenship: the life and thought
of the British Idealists (Oxford, Blackwell).
WALZER, M. (1983) Spheres of Justice: a defence of pluralism and equality (Oxford, Martin

WHITE, P. (1996) Civic virtues and public schooling: educating citizens for a democratic society, Advances in Contemporary Educational Thought, Vol. 17 (New York,
Teachers College Press).
WILLIAMS, R. (1961) Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (Harmondsworth, Penguin).
WOOLDRIDGE, A. (1994) Measuring the Mind (Cambridge, Cambridge University
Correspondence: Professor Geraint Parry, Department of Government, University of
Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK.

This content downloaded from on Thu, 26 May 2016 17:24:16 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms