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Democracy, Education and the Need for Politics


Even though the interrelationship between education and democratic politics is as old as democracy itself, it is seldom explicitly formulated in the literature. Most of the time, the political system is taken as a given, and education conceptualized as an instrument for stability and social integration. Many contemporary discussions about citizenship education and democracy in the Western world mirror this tendency. In the paper, I argue that, in order to conceptualise the socio-political potential of education we need to understand democracy in more political terms. This means that democracy can neither be seen primarily as a mode of associated living (Dewey), nor a model for handling different life-views (political liberalism à la Rawls and Gutmann). A third alternative is Gert Biesta’s notion of democratic subjectification. Even though Biesta identifies depoliticising trends in citizenship education policies, I argue that his alternative still fails to be a sufficiently political alternative. What is lacking in Biesta is the explicit attention to political causes and the kind of collective activities that define a democracy: the creation of one’s own laws, norms and institutions. This capacity of the collective to question and govern itself is put in relief by Cornelius Castoriadis’s notion of “the project of autonomy”.

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  1. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers, whose rich and constructive comments were of great help in improving the manuscript.

  2. Notwithstanding the fact that women and slaves were not acknowledged as citizens, Greek democracies were highly inclusive compared to other polities at the time. See, e.g., Hansen (1991).

  3. This idea was splendidly formulated by Pericles in his funeral oration for the Athenians who fell in the Peloponnesian war (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, book II, 34–46).

  4. The belief in the ability to change society also has anthropological underpinnings, as discussed by Papastephanou (2014).

  5. The present discussion is complicated by the fact that the distinction is described in varying terminology, and that scholars sometimes use the terms politics/the political with almost opposite meanings. Chantal Mouffe, for example, uses the terms in a rather different way than I do here. In order to avoid misunderstandings, the term ‘politics proper’ is introduced.

  6. Papastephanou (2008) provides an eclatant analysis of this phenomenon seen through the lens of educational theory. Through an immanent critique, Papastephanou shows how Rawls’ political liberalism can be accused of harbouring comprehensive presuppositions that build on ‘particular’ presuppositions, thus drawing invalid conclusions.

  7. This is clearly a strongly politicized, even radical notion of democracy that is rarely found in real life. However, according to Castoriadis, the Greeks, and especially Athens in the sixth and fifth century BCE were driven by this kind of self-questioning and self-institution. The impulse for autonomy reemerged in early European modernity in the city states of Northern Italy and in the institutionalisation of Western liberal democracies (Castoriadis 1991a, 1997).

  8. The how-approach is especially close at hand for theories of deliberative and procedural democracy.

  9. Dewey's thought has traditionally had a strong position in the Nordic nations, who are often thought to be fairly advanced in democratic understanding, with high scores in the Civic Education study of the IEA

  10. A key concept in this context is participation, where different forms of participation are treated as so many manifestations of ‘democracy’. As pointed out by Pérez Expósito, the result of mixing together different conceptions of participation in one and the same theory—as in most theories of citizenship education—is a muddled, apolitical conception of democracy (Pérez Expósito 2014).

  11. Confer footnote 5.

  12. Political processes and policy reforms are of course extremely important as well, but beyond the scope of the present discussion.

  13. Gutmann also acknowledges the deliberative democracy of Jürgen Habermas.

  14. A pregnant example is the creationist movement, claiming that the theory of evolution is just another belief system that should be taught as such. Climate change deniers represent another example.

  15. In her analysis of citizenship theory, Papastephanou criticizes Rawlsian political liberalism and even draws the conclusion that: “… the Rawlsian conception of education would produce an institutional apparatus for the perpetuation of inequality, unconscious of its role in social reproduction […] So the educational dilemma is either to cling to liberalism or to contribute to its reformulation” (Papastephanou 2008, p. 48).

  16. Indeed, Gutmann’s next major work was called Identity in Democracy.

  17. Questions about inclusion, exclusion etc. based on the category of identity are of course far from unimportant, but compared to the debates of the 1970s, attention to economic structures and political causes are curiously lacking. A similar concern, which is also not discussed here, is the conflation of politics and (legal and political) rights (see the works of Chantal Mouffe 2005, 2006).

  18. The terms vary slightly: in earlier policy literature it was knowledge, skills and values or attitudes, whereas competencies now seems to have taken the place of the latter.

  19. I have made a similar analysis in Straume(2010).

  20. Also printed in Biesta (2006), p. 122–123.

  21. I am not talking here about Deweyan instrumentalism.

  22. Rancière, on the other hand, approaches the notion of subjectivity through the category of equality, which he sees as a presupposition in all politico-social affairs, and for democracy in particular (Rancière 2006).

  23. In contrast, Pérez Expósito (2014) has brought a thorough criticism of depoliticising trends in citizenship education and set forth a politicised alternative with various examples of how students can be politically active in a school setting.

  24. Some contemporary examples would be injustice, poverty, wars, climate injustice, and a growing, neoliberal plutocracy.


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Correspondence to Ingerid S. Straume.

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Straume, I.S. Democracy, Education and the Need for Politics. Stud Philos Educ 35, 29–45 (2016).

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  • Democracy
  • Educational theory
  • Politics/the political
  • Project of autonomy
  • Gert Biesta
  • Cornelius Castoriadis