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date: 24 June 2018

Autonomy and Education

Summary and Keywords

Fostering self-direction in students has long been an aim for both educators and parents as they fear the potentially coercive influence of peer pressure and the many sources that compete to influence what we think and what we do. These fears have motivated educational philosophers to explore the contours of what such self-direction or autonomous thought and action entails on the demands of individual thinking and behavior but also on the types of educational environments needed to foster its emergence. Likewise, educational philosophers have also argued the merits of promoting autonomy in public schools out of fears that some forms of autonomy may limit the ranges of conceptions of the good life that are available to students; many are concerned that promoting autonomy may inspire students to reject family and community ways of life. Despite those concerns, drawing upon thought that traces back to the ancient Greeks, contemporary educational philosophers continue to debate the contours of and justifications for an autonomy promoting education.

Keywords: autonomy, liberalism, individuality, education, self-direction, rationality, critical thinking, philosophy of education


Autonomy has long been a theme in philosophy of education, and it builds upon a rich tradition in the wider history of philosophy. Coming from the Greek, autonomy means “auto,” which means “self,” and “nomos,” which means law or rule: thus, most broadly, autonomy entails a focus on self-rule or self-direction. Educational thinkers have taken up these themes in various ways because they appeal to wide-ranging viewpoints on the nature and purpose of education.

For many, the aim of education is synonymous with helping students to become self-directed. Although as this article will explore, there is disagreement over the contours of what self-direction entails and how best to promote it. Broadly conceived, autonomy-directed education involves helping students become people who reject uncritical reliance upon others’ opinions as they make decisions. Once we begin to explore deeper, however, we find debates about what it means to hold beliefs and to make decisions that may be characterized as “one’s own.” Resisting the urge to make judgments about the content of individual beliefs and decisions, most philosophers who focus on autonomy tie the notion to some set of critical reasoning skills that they deem necessary to facilitate rational reflection and choice. This leads to visions of education focused on helping students develop the rational capacities and desires for self-choice, regardless of the content of those choices.

Within the larger context of autonomy discussed within philosophy in general, we find three broad and often overlapping categories: moral autonomy, political autonomy, and personal autonomy. While these remain useful ways to approach understanding the philosophical history and scope of accounts of autonomy, educational philosophers often draw upon different aspects of these three broad categories of philosophy in their work. After an initial section where we briefly survey autonomy’s roots in philosophy, then we turn to the literature in philosophy of education through three themes: (1) self-direction and the fear of indoctrination, (2) political versus individual autonomy, and (3) strong versus modest conceptions of autonomy. The final section, “Critiques of Autonomy,” engages with some of the most significant challenges to autonomy as an educational aim.

Autonomy’s Roots in Philosophy

We can trace the roots of autonomy to ancient Greek philosophy; both Plato and Aristotle praise rationality as being fundamentally important to living the good life. For example, in the Republic, Plato argues that virtuous people choose justice because it is rational to do so; he thus places rationality as part of the soul and the seat of self-governance (Plato, 1987). This is vividly illustrated in his describing the rational human part of the tripartite soul as ruling over the many-headed monster (uncontrolled appetites) and lion (emotion). Likewise, Aristotle focuses on the importance of the rational part of the soul in Aristotle (1985), where he grounds happiness on rationality and self-rule.

We also find self-direction developed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s focus on creating a social context that encourages the autonomy of citizens. His articulation of the social contract is grounded in a conception of autonomous individuals who are motivated to use their rational capacities to join to together to make laws that originate from their collective and rational understanding of the common good. While this requires a certain surrendering of individual choice, freedom is enhanced by social cooperation, especially because citizens should act on principles they take to be their own, to have “obedience to a law we prescribe for ourselves is liberty” (Rousseau & Johnston, 2014). This leads to his discussion of education in Emile, where Rousseau proposes an educational context in which children are encouraged to embrace a form of autonomy that eschews selfishness.

The philosopher who has had perhaps the most profound impact on the notion of autonomy within educational thought is Kant (Kant & Gregor, 1996). He distinguished between autonomy, or being self-driven, with heteronomy, having reasons for one’s actions being dictated from outside of oneself. His focus on autonomy was revolutionary and came in response to dominant conceptions of morality at the time that linked morality with obedience. At the end of the 18th century, we find challenges to the primacy of God’s will being handed down to clergy; thus rather than acquiescence being a sign of morality, we find movement toward self-rule and taking responsibility for one’s moral judgments and actions. Kant’s original contribution was to turn moral philosophy on its head and argue that our self-governing capacities are based on our autonomy. He combined a view of the will with that of rationality to suggest that we legislate moral laws for ourselves and that this is what also drives others to be lawful. Kant argued that we are free to the degree that we are rational, and our morality is grounded in a respect for moral laws because they bind us all equally. Our moral laws, then, must stem from human rationality. For Kant, then, autonomous beings use their rationality to give themselves laws. We are not heteronomous because the laws we bind ourselves to are ones that we adopt and rationally accept for ourselves—not because someone required us to do so. Moreover, we are seeking to bind ourselves to universalizing maxims that any rational person would also adopt. This also leads him to conclude that we owe others the respect of treating them as ends unto themselves because they are also self-law givers. Kant distrusted emotions and habits that were not directly related to rational control because these forces bypass rational decision making and signals lack of self-direction. While there are significant differences between Kant’s moral autonomy and the notions of personal autonomy that dominate the contemporary philosophical tradition, the roots in Kantian thinking remain strong. While most contemporary accounts are morally content neutral (i.e., they are not concerned with whether autonomous agents are observing moral laws), many remain indebted to the Kantian tradition (Kant & Gregor, 1996).

Self-Direction and the Fear of Indoctrination

At its most fundamental of levels, autonomy has an intuitive appeal to most educators and parents. It is the impulse that motivates adults to urge children to think for themselves. One of the primary concerns is that kids will follow their peers into dangerous situations where rational thinking is jettisoned and bad decisions are made. Beyond fears that kids will make unsafe choices, we also worry that they will make choices that betray their own (or perhaps our own at times) values and make decisions that reflect others’ values. And again, many of us want our students and children to make choices that align with their own commitments, ones that they adopt through reflection and not mere peer pressure. These are the concerns that underwrite a large focus of the literature on autonomy. We find questions such as: What does thinking for oneself entail? What is the relationship between education for autonomy and indoctrination? Does all education in some way promote autonomy, or might there be limits?

These types of questions remain salient in contemporary accounts, but they emerged most clearly within the works of educational philosophers writing in the 1960s and 1970s. The motivation to help young people think for themselves was captured both in the literature on autonomy as well as a parallel literature on indoctrination (Kazepides, 1982; Peterson, 2010; Snook, 1970, 1973). While the focus of the indoctrination literature is often on how to recognize what indoctrination is, as well as to explore the conditions that give rise to it, focusing on autonomy leads to an exploration of what thinking for oneself truly entails, especially within the context of schooling the young. One concern is that we are not naturally independent thinkers and that autonomy understood as self-direction involves a host of reasoning skills that teachers must teach. This leads to concerns about how to teach someone to be autonomous if part of the process requires instruction that may be construed or experienced as requiring conformity, especially if children are not developmentally ready to critique the viewpoints of the adults around them. At the extreme end, then, we come to the concern that our efforts to help students to become independent thinkers may themselves be flirting with indoctrination. We thus find discussions from theorists such as Robert Dearden, Eamonn Callan, and Robert Reich carefully articulating versions of autonomy that are concerned with developing rational thinking skills that are cognizant of the influence of others and the social circumstances in which we find ourselves (Callan, 1988, 1997, 2004; Dearden, 1972, 1975, 1984a, 1984b; Reich, 2002). In seeking to understand whether or not an individual is thinking and acting autonomously, then, we find them exploring what some describe as “procedural requirements” (Christman, 2018) about how our decisions to act were made. This means that we may consider people to be exhibiting autonomous behaviors if we can determine that their decisions and desires arose through processes free from excess manipulation—even if the reasons for their choices are suspect. As long as the process is free from coercion, they have met a procedural standard of autonomy. For example, a person may choose to conform to the latest clothing fads and not be demonstrating a lack of autonomy if we can determine that the person is using some set of rational thinking skills in those choices. This somewhat trivial example helps push the point that many autonomy theorists accept: As social beings we cannot escape the influence of others around us; and these philosophers attempt to carve out space for us to claim autonomy within lives that are always socially embedded. Many argue that we are best served by a notion of autonomy that acknowledges that not all of our decisions can be completely autonomous and associates autonomy with both an absence of and the existence of critical thinking skills.

Those who explore these procedural evaluations of the conditions surrounding reasoning often do so because of a fundamental concern that rational reflection is difficult, and they want to understand how best to help educators think about teaching critical thinking skills necessary for autonomy as self-direction. A central question that emerges here, then, is a question about origins: Why do we believe or value what we do? Why are we motivated to make certain decisions and not others? For example, why do many females wear dresses in our society while most males do not? Were these preferences to adhere to gender norms formed in autonomous ways: that is, in ways that reflect rational decision making based on our individual tastes and preferences? Perhaps many of us have been nurtured by gendered social systems that have affected us so deeply that we have not engaged in critical reflection and decision-making processes that others would recognize as leading to our being self-directed. How do we know, then, whether our fundamental tastes and desires (e.g., what we choose to wear) are autonomous? Different philosophers use different definitions that would lead us in different directions and thus to different sorts of educational implications should we be interested in developing autonomy in our students.

In order to explore these differences in definitions about the nature autonomy, theorists have explored a range of borderline cases to explore the boundaries of what sorts of conditions could count for or against autonomy. These include a life characterized by a slavish and uncritical devotion to people or institutions, addiction, and especially the experiences of oppressed housewives who embrace their subjectivity “in order to make their oppressed lives bearable” (Brighouse, 2000). There are differences in how such circumstances are interpreted and their relationships to conceptions of autonomy. Exploring these sorts of borderline cases is particularly educationally relevant because they offer us opportunities to think through conditions we sometimes take for granted. For example, there is much literature on the issue of whether or not someone can give up their decision-making powers and remain autonomous: Can one autonomously give up autonomy? We find this in Mariana Oshana’s discussion of voluntary slavery: the happy and traditional housewife and the religious follower who dedicates her life to external control by a religious order (Oshana, 2005, 2006). Oshana uses such examples to argue that autonomy only holds when the social conditions surrounding an agent support the development of specific reflective capacities, whereas Susan Wolff argues that these sorts of cases describe conditions that render individuals incapable of autonomy (Wolf, 1990). These discussions parallel educational contexts in which we may demand that students apprentice themselves to learn from teachers. If our educational aim, then, is to help students develop self-direction (or autonomy), then, again, we should worry about how much control educators retain in the educational relationship in order to help students develop those skills of self-direction.

While the focus on indoctrination may lead some to conclude that developing autonomy is impossible, some educational thinkers focus on autonomy because of their concerns for the power and pervasiveness of coercive circumstances. They argue that autonomy is valuable just because it may guide and sustain us in the face of overwhelming oppressive coercion. It is the autonomy theorist’s hope that autonomous individuals can develop the capacities to choose their own beliefs and to arrive at their own conclusions at the end of some sort of rational reflective process. As I noted above, it also opens conversations about autonomy as being a matter of degrees rather than being some sort of categorical notion. Most philosophers argue that we cannot sustain autonomy in all our decisions, and perhaps we should not be worried about doing so in most instances. For example, some argue that we do not need to engage in some exacting thought process in order to determine our most fundamental of beliefs about most daily decisions. R.S. Peters remarks that while we should generally reflect critically upon important issues, we cannot do so in all cases. According to Peters, someone who tried this “would be a moral imbecile” (Peters, 1973).

While many thinkers agree that autonomy is a matter of degrees, we also find debate about the depth to which autonomy requires our reflective processes to go. It leads to another question: Where do we stop in our critical analysis of our underlying desires and beliefs? The origins of this question emerge in Benn’s (1976) discussion of the importance of our rationally examining and rank ordering of what he calls our preferences, especially if two are competing. For example, consider dairy-loving vegans who have espoused ethical commitments not to consume animal products. While our vegan’s love of cheese may be an initial or first-order preference, they have decided to prioritize not harming animals as a deeper, or second-order, commitment, which then leads them to eschew cheese despite its attraction. Many autonomy theorists, then, argue that autonomous individuals are those who are not governed by external control through oppressive circumstances such as brainwashing, not driven by uncontrollable psychoses or neuroses, nor moved by uncontrollable urges such as the ones associated with addictions (even to cheese). Instead, we find that autonomous people attend to the rational choosing of what desires and goals they want to endorse. We find this rank ordering of preferences within the writing of contemporary theorists such as Rob Reich (Reich, 2002) and Harry Brighouse (Brighouse, 1998). While agents have initial desires and wants that may originate in any number of places including social relationships, autonomous people who reflect upon these initial desires differentiate themselves from those who are not autonomous because they choose whether or not to continue to identify with them. We will revisit Brighouse’s work in the next section, but for now, he posits that everyone suffers in varying degrees to having desires and beliefs that are not their own and ones that are socially learned instead. For him, this seemingly daunting fact does not mean that autonomy is a fiction. Instead, Brighouse argues that agents can learn the skills to avoid or resist these initial attractions to desires and beliefs that others hold through developing critical-thinking skills.

Because rational reflection alone does not guarantee that agents will accept the results of their deliberations, we find one important and final feature associated with discussions of autonomy aimed at resisting coercion: the need to develop a host of “non-rational” attributes that will help us have the courage to follow through with our deliberations. We find this most clearly articulated in the concerns of educational philosophers working in the 1960s and 1970s, most clearly exemplified in R. F. Deaden’s work (Dearden 1972, 1975, 1984a, 1984b). As he put it, being autonomous is associated, then, with “some firmness in adhering to the judgements and criteria which one does acknowledge as one’s own” (Dearden, 1975). Put another way, autonomy for these theorists involves some measure of duty and of responsibility of linking our actions with processes of rational thinking. Within the context of schooling, this may make some intuitive sense: We may want kids to think critically, to discover what they believe they should think and do within a particularly difficult situation; what’s more, we want them to act on the results of their deliberations. Many worry that a notion of autonomy that stops at mere reflection and is not visible in one’s actions is not a helpful guide, especially for thinking about educational contexts. There’s a clear Kantian deposit in this line of analysis. For example, Dearden argues that there is a corresponding “duty to oneself” to follow the burdens of one’s judgment in a Kantian way, but there is one more step that echoes the previous description of thinking about our reasoning as we rank order our desires and beliefs. Because we often make mistakes in reasoning, we must be careful and attend to the process we use to engage in rational deliberation. The conclusion here is that we need to reflect critically on our thinking process itself. We not only need to understand what we believe but why we believe those things as well.

The focus here on meta-thinking—determining what we believe and how we have come to hold those beliefs—are susceptible to “infinite regress” critique: There may be no final resting place we can stand upon that truly represents our own beliefs as determined by some infallible process of self-reflection. Thus, theorists such as Dearden offer a way out that adheres well with classical notions of education grounded in the liberal arts: the tested methods associated with the academic disciplines will lead to greater reliability. Thus, he concludes that autonomy is strengthened by adhering to external resources: “The criteria that one ought to employ are determined independently of one’s wishes by the nature of the case, and if the reasons identified by reference to such criteria may even be compelling, where then is the autonomy?” (Dearden, 1972). Here again we see a Kantian move made explicit. Dearden continues to argue that it is the acceptance of these rational, externally verified standards of analysis that leads to individual autonomy. He argues that although reflective criteria we use may exist independently of our reasoning, those criteria and reasons cannot independently dictate what we should believe. If that were the case, Dearden argues, we would be “no more than the passive onlookers of self-propelled reasonings or unfolding implications. It is we who determine what to think or do, even if we determine it by reference to independent criteria” (Dearden, 1972). Thus, while our rational considerations of a situation may demand that we make choice A, if we choose to use non-logically relevant criteria to make our choices and choose B, then we are not necessarily losing our autonomy. For Dearden, this moment of choosing which relevant criteria to use is itself the moment of autonomy’s true emergence. It “is in this self-government that . . . autonomy lies” (Dearden, 1972).

Others disagree with Dearden, worrying that this escape clause he seems to offer may allow us to avoid the results of our reasoned analysis, and they worry that this will lead to being manipulated. Another group of autonomy theorists thus link the development of a set of virtues with being autonomous (Callan, 1997; Levinson, 1999). We turn to their work in detail in what follows; however, for now it is important to note that the debate about the nature of critical thinking skills needed for autonomy turns on a fear of the overwhelming prevalence and power of social manipulation. These fears lead to a focus on education and critical thinking skills through the liberal arts disciplines that may be considered by some to involve indoctrination. The distinction is that the liberal arts can help promote autonomy when they provide students with knowledge and skills to help them make critical decisions for themselves—not to supply them with ready-made answers. These points are driven home repeatedly by thinkers who are concerned with the moral impact of our decisions. They write about a corresponding moral responsibility to provide students with sets of skills and knowledge that they can draw upon because they are responsible for their actions in the world. We find this in Kenneth Strike’s observations:

Human beings are ends in themselves and are moral agents who are responsible to choose wisely on their own behalf and act justly with respect to others. They are morally responsible for what they choose and what they do . . . A moral agent who is responsible for his choices must demand both the opportunity and the resources to choose wisely.

(Strike, 1982)

Similarly, White (1982, 1991) argues that the central aim of education is to help students become morally autonomous, and again, a liberal arts education will provide students with the knowledge and skills to engage in self-directed reasoning to make moral decisions and then to act on them.

While the worry about coercion and providing students with the resources to think critically about the world around them, their beliefs, and the processes through which they came to hold them remain alive in other discussions of autonomy, we also find two other main areas of exploration also concerned with both the demands autonomy makes on individuals and the impact of an education for autonomy on the relationships between students and their parents and/or communities. As we shall explore, rather than focusing primarily on the specter of indoctrination, these thinkers are worried about public schooling making demands of students as both developing citizens and members of families and communities.

Political Versus Individual Autonomy

While our focus so far has been on the nature of autonomy within the context of socialization in a variety of contexts, autonomy has also been a resource for thinking through the limits and challenges of education within a pluralistic and democratic society. Some worry about how an education for autonomy may impact students’ relationships to their families and communities, and so they ask questions about those limits: Should public schools encourage students to question the values and practices that their families and communities endorse? Might there be limits to the types of autonomy that schools should teach? Might autonomy be a fundamental aspect of democratic education—an aim that the state owes its future citizens even if it inspires some students to reject familial and community beliefs? For example, an education that offers students information about diverse sexual and gender identities can be justified through a notion of autonomy because future citizens in a pluralistic society need access to information about both themselves and other citizens. Of course, an objection immediately arises: Many parents and religious communities will object to public schools helping students understand the dynamics of sexual and gender identities because they want to control both the information offered and the way that it is presented. Learning to appreciate and value diverse sexual and gender identities may then inspire students to level challenging questions and objections to parents and faith communities who reject those identities as being natural and positive. As a result of such learning in schools, some students will reject the beliefs their parents and faith traditions advocate, and many worry that this is a boundary that public schooling should not cross. Or they worry that schools should be at least wary of engaging in educational practices that may cause the breakdown of familial and community attachments. Thus, we come to a challenge. Is autonomy (as thinking for oneself) too substantive of an educational aim?

One productive place to begin thinking about that question is Amy Gutmann’s argument that the liberal democratic state has an interest in helping children develop the capacities and virtues associated with becoming democratic citizens. Gutmann grounds these in classic liberal arts education, especially when geared toward developing the capacities “to choose rationally (some would say ‘autonomously’) among different ways of life” (Gutmann, 1987 [1999]). This sort of education should inspire students to want to engage in collective deliberation about what constitutes the public good. To do this, Gutmann argues that students should be exposed to a wide range of political views and that they should be equipped with the skills associated with rational reflection. Furthermore, Gutmann draws upon a distinction between education in the public and private spheres to charge schools with the responsibility of educating students for a “civic” autonomy rather than a personal one. This means that the skills are focused on public reasoning and deliberation. Gutmann is critiqued by a range of educational philosophers such as Harry Brighouse (Brighouse, 2000), Stephen Macedo (Macedo, 1995) and William Galston (Galston, 1991) who charge that her civic distinction is more substantive than she allows. They worry that it will stifle diversity because the seeming neutrality of her public versus private conception of autonomy is actually much more substantive than she allows: An education for civic autonomy will necessarily influence private beliefs and opinions, thereby the theoretical wall between the two crumbles. In response Gutmann (1995) argues, as does Callan (1997), that public schooling does not need to remain politically neutral; some forms of life and some beliefs do not align with our civic values and should not be endorsed in schools. By extension, then, an education for autonomy that helps students develop critical perspectives that suit their respective lives and is in keeping with our democratic aims. In making this case, Gutmann (1995) acknowledges that an education for autonomous citizenship and “political reflection cannot be neatly differentiated from the skills of evaluating one’s own way of life.” Thus, she concedes that the development of personal autonomy is an uncontrollable by-product of an education that seeks to promote civic autonomy in citizens. Kymlicka (2001) is even more comfortable with this outcome, arguing that our conceptions of what it means to live good lives may be flawed, and it is important for citizens to think carefully through their ideas about how to live.

The underlying conflict within these arguments is a debate about the role of public schooling within the lives of students as members of families and communities. Should schools engage in educational practices that teach children to question beliefs and ways of life that their parents and communities value? While many disagree, for some, the answer is a resounding yes. This inspires Kymlicka (2001) to add an additional detail: a “right of exit” clause: One must be able to sever oneself from primary attachments that inhibit one’s autonomy. While he acknowledges that individuals’ conceptions of the good are influenced by their particular social origins (and similar to Dearden’s argument), Kymlicka stresses that being historically situated does not require one to accept one’s socially inherited beliefs. This has led to a line of critique, most clearly articulated by Michael Sandel, for example, that autonomy theorists harbor a view that we are radically unsituated individuals. In response, Kymlicka stresses that being radically embedded within a community is a prerequisite for, not a by-product of autonomy. It is only within the context of specific cultures that children develop their beliefs, learn about the range of life choice options, grapple with value systems, and come to see themselves as individuals. For Kymlicka, the cultural structures we inherit are not valuable just because they exist but because, “it’s only through having a rich and secure cultural structure that people can become aware, in a vivid way, of the options available to them . . . Without a cultural structure, children and adolescents lack adequate role models, which leads to despondency and escapism” (Kymlicka, 2001). Furthermore, Kymlicka argues that even though our notions about how to live and what makes a life worth living are formed principally within social systems. We do not have to accept them as chosen for us: “However we originally acquire our ends, we are capable of rationally evaluating and potentially revising them” (Kymlicka, 2001). He thus rejects the notion that autonomy requires us to reject our primary attachments to our families and communities, even if we find ourselves disagreeing with important details of their belief structures. He argues that challenge and disagreement do not necessarily lead to an outright rejection of or alienation from a group. We can remain connected to our group memberships while making change from within. He thus argues that “the state should make possible the development and exercise of this capacity for rational revisability” (Kymlicka, 2001).

Educational philosophers Meira Levinson and Rob Reich agree with Kymlicka and posit that schooling can offer contexts in which students develop the rational capacities for such revision. For example, Levinson (1999) argues that significant cultural attachments comprise necessary preconditions for autonomy. These include “the possession of a well-developed personality and cultural coherence” (Levinson, 1999). Furthermore, individuals must have developed deep aspects of their identities: “emotional, intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic . . ., and moral” before they are able to make autonomous decisions about their life plans (Levinson, 1999). Levinson assumes that before developing autonomy-related skills and dispositions, individuals find themselves already embedded within rich cultural networks and possessing the resultant significant attachments and commitments to others. She concludes that these embedded identities are important because they provide us with psychologically important cultural coherence. Levinson and Reich both disagree with Kymlicka, though, about who should govern schooling and thus have an influence on the development of autonomy. Kymlicka defends the rights of national minorities as offering cultural coherence needed in the development of autonomy, so he argues for groups having more say over the content of schooling. Levinson, in contrast, argues against such group influences, desiring to carve out a civic space to promote a new, civic identity to which students develop a new allegiance.

Strong Versus Modest Conceptions of Autonomy

While the preceding discussion largely frames the challenge of promoting autonomy within public schooling as a choice between teaching students critical analysis skills that may or may not disrupt their family memberships, that frame does not quite capture the complexity of the conversation as it progressed over time. Others reframed the issues involved so that we are challenged to consider autonomy less as an all-or-nothing sort of set of critical thinking skills and as instead as more of a limited set of skills and virtues. As we shall explore, some argue that we should embrace a robust notion of autonomy, while others champion more modest, scaled-down versions because they worry that educating for a strong conception of autonomy will promote certain types of lives over others (especially ones that value adhering to traditional ways of life over innovation). While these theorists may agree on the broad outlines of what autonomy entails, they mainly respond in roughly three broad ways to how deep an incursion they are willing to take autonomy into the lives of citizens—what I describe in what follows as “strong” and “weak” autonomy.

Strong Autonomy

Eamonn Callan (1988, 1997, 2002, 2004) and Levinson (1999) differentiate themselves from other autonomy theorists because they advocate for strong conceptions of autonomy—conceptions grounded in both developing rational critical thinking skills as well as virtues needed to sustain them. For example, similar to the argument Dearden made in the 1960s and 1970s, Callan stresses the ability to detach oneself objectively from one’s desires and rationally assess them in a “spirit of truthfulness” (Callan, 1988). Callan explains that by “realistic” rationality, the autonomous person embraces “a persistent orientation of the mind towards reality and a corresponding suppression of the various ways human beings are apt to evade reality” (Callan, 1988). Furthermore, Callan argues that in the face of strong social forces tempting us, especially the young, at every twist and turn, certain character traits are needed to resist the pressures that press against the development and sustaining of self-direction. Callan argues that our praise for children who remain self-directed amidst strong social forces also suggests a disapproval for those who do conform and who exhibit a weakness of will. He concludes that autonomy is “an amalgam of capacity, desire, and emotional susceptibility” (Callan, 2002). As such it is a character trait, one that enables “us to live as we should under conditions of countervailing desire and emotion” (Callan, 2002). Callan suggests that the “strongly autonomous self is to be distinguished from others partly by a level of rationality at which the motivational structure is developed in a realistic fashion and occurrent desires are regulated in the same manner” (Callan, 1988). As with others who proceed him, Callan attempts to reconcile the inability to specify how much rational reflection is necessary for autonomy by arguing for attitudes and virtues associated with a general disposition toward critical reasoning. Furthermore, he grounds healthy democratic life with an autonomous citizenry: “Like Gutmann, I think the value of autonomy or reasoned self-rule is the key to understanding what rightly holds together liberal and democratic principles” (Callan, 1997).

Similar to Callan, Meira Levinson argues that our deeply pluralistic democratic society can only function if its citizens can work through the moral tensions that arise in our debates about what our society should value. And those deliberations turn on the development of the rational capacities associated with autonomy as well as a set of dispositional virtues to follow through with the results of such reasoning. She argues that in order for the liberal government to legitimate a constitutional democracy, its citizens must adopt what John Rawls describes as the “burden of judgment”—a burden that requires citizens to adopt guiding principles to help them negotiate the impasses associated with “hard cases” (Levinson, 1999). While he eschews autonomy, Rawls does argue for the value of reasonable discourse in the face of deeply divided sentiments about what constitutes either the good or moral justifications for our various choices. The burden of judgment requires citizens to acknowledge that reasonable people can differ over conceptions of the good for intractable yet reasonable differences. As Levinsion concludes: “Accepting the burdens of judgment requires individuals to gain sufficiently critical distance from their own conception of the good to realize that theirs is not the only reasonable way of life” (Levinson, 1999). She argues that as state institutions, public schools should ensure that students (as future citizens) should be able to exercise the capacities to “form, revise, and pursue a conception of the good” (Levinson, 1999).

Thus, like Callan, Levinson’s conception of autonomy turns on a combination of rationality and virtue. She builds upon Gutmann’s notion of a loosely liberal public religion metaphor to argue that schools should create spheres where children develop public identities. Schools would then promote virtues of character necessary for the development and maintenance of the sort of autonomy grounded in reasonable and rational discussion. She envisions a specific type of public sphere that is not bound by the particular commitments to a single way of life or moral outlook as a family might be.

Modest Autonomy

Not all autonomy theorists are willing to go as far as Callan and Levinson to endorse strong incursions into the individual characters of students by linking autonomy with virtue.

For example, Brighouse (2000) refrains from endorsing the virtue-enhancing projects associated with people such as Gutmann, Callan, and Levinson because he considers them to be too demanding and corrosive when it comes to individual rights. Brighouse worries that educating for autonomy in such a way that promotes the inculcation of strong critical thinking skills leaves little room for those who would wish to reject it. As Gutmann acknowledges, educating for a civic autonomy would necessarily also lead to students questioning the values they may learn from their parents and/or local communities, thereby potentially diminishing their likelihood of choosing certain ways of life over others. This puts the school in the role of educating students to think critically about their parents’ values and way of life, and that process may result in children rejecting what their parents value. Schooling, then, can be understood as a threat to certain ways of life and the maintenance of the ongoing family unit. Brighouse responds that Gutmann’s notion of autonomy, then, “privileges democratic participation as something which should be regarded not only as a fundamental right of all citizens but as a political duty. This is controversial and, in my view false” (Brighouse, 2000). As a corrective, Brighouse advocates the teaching of knowledge, not virtues. He argues that students can be taught about alternative conceptions of the good but that educators should stop short of endorsing any. He likens autonomy to the topic of diversity. While we can educate students about different conceptions of the good, we stop short of promoting any. Similarly, Brighouse argues that we can help students develop autonomy-related skills without encouraging them to use and/or embrace them:

The education does not try to ensure that students employ autonomy in their lives, any more than Latin classes are aimed at ensuring that students employ Latin in their lives. Rather it aims to enable to them to live autonomously should they wish to, rather as we aim to enable them to criticize poetry, do algebra, etc. without trying to ensure that they do so. The argument suggests that, other things being equal, people’s live go better when they deploy the skills associated with autonomy, but does not yield any obligation to persuade them to deploy them: autonomy must be facilitated, not necessarily promoted.

(Brighouse, 2000)

Brighouse argues that rather than being useful because it enables students to participate in democratic society as citizens, the skills associated with autonomy are useful so that citizens can reflect upon and choose what constitutes good lives for themselves. While suggesting that the state must remain as much as possible out of the conversation about these various substantive ends, he does also open the door for helping students reject their parents’ and/or communities’ values. In the process of helping develop “epistemically reliable ways of evaluating different ways of life,” they may make choices that differ from ones their parents would choose (Brighouse, 2000). But there’s no requirement that schools push students to use those skills in those particular ways. Instead, it is enough to adopt the aim to develop the capacities to resist servility, nothing more: “Adopting ends simply as a result of environmental influence may, if one lacks the skills associated with autonomy, be non-autonomous, but it is not servile, and that is all that matters” (Brighouse, 2000).

Brighouse’s definition also coheres with what Rob Reich calls a “minimalist” autonomy, a definition that seeks to carve out the least demanding notion possible in order to make autonomy something that would be both operational within our daily lives and something that could guide educational practice in schools (Reich, 2002). He suggests that this minimalist notion, “refers to the ability of persons to examine and evaluate their underlying commitments, values, desires, motivations, and beliefs. Humans are capable, that is, of forming second-order volitions about their first-order desires; they form preferences about their preferences” (Reich, 2002). Reich justifies its promotion as falling within the state’s interest in securing legitimacy and principles of justice. Again, in a deeply divided society that values pluralism, the resulting chasms between opinions about social justice demands that citizens be able to arrive at consenting to a state’s governing them because they have autonomously considered diverse viewpoints.

Critiques of Autonomy

While autonomy remains a central notion that underwrites many discussions in philosophy of education, there are many who critique its theoretical usefulness. Some question some of its grounding notions, and others reject it as ethically and/or conceptually sound. While one key critique is an education for autonomy’s impact on families and cultural membership, others also worry about the notion of individuality that infuses much of the writing on autonomy. For example, Michael Sandel argues that those who focus on autonomy often get individuality wrong, describing the underlying notion as that of radically unsituated beings (Sandel, 1998). This critique suggests that relationships like the ones formed with parents, friends, and community members fundamentally constitute self-identity and that autonomy over-emphasizes the role of individuality within those relations. Charles Taylor, for example, argues that individuals do not have identities that exist prior to their communal membership, and a focus on autonomy conflicts with our deepest self-understanding (Taylor, 1989). John Kleinig also argues that Dearden mischaracterizes autonomy by emphasizing individual rationality: “Autonomy, after all, is not a natural endowment with which socialization (in a broad sense) interferes. It is a social product intelligible only within a social framework, and dependent upon it” (Kleinig, 1982).

Another line of critique suggests that autonomy is impossible because our wants, ideas, and opinions are wholly socially determined. If that is true, then autonomy is an illusion. Even though we believe we are independently choosing our courses of action, our tastes, desires, and opinions are mostly determined by our environments. A second, weaker claim holds that successful understanding of our socialization is a matter of degree. Autonomy, then, is a matter of understanding and critically assessing our commitments to socially constructed desires and opinions. While this line of theorizing does not necessarily reject the concept of autonomy, it sets a higher threshold of competency regarding self-analysis of socialization than the positions surveyed thus far (Barclay, 2000). Autonomy would require us to truly understand how power and oppressive socialization influences our beliefs, emotions, thinking processes, and choices before we decide to proceed on a course of action.

Michael Hand (2006) argues that while autonomy is a laudable human aim, it is not a coherent educational one because it both cannot and should not be taught. He argues that autonomy is not necessarily the most important value in a given situation as there are many in which others are in better positions to evaluate what is best for us; and as others have pointed out, we are often in situations where we have desires that we choose not to follow, especially moral ones. He suggests that the process that others describe—the rank ordering of desires—is not truly part of most people’s lives: “Desire evaluation does not play a significant part in most of our lives. We do not go in very much for the business of evaluating desires, and it is far from clear that our lives would be improved if we did” (Hand, 2006). Moreover, Hand details multiple ways in which we are not in the best positions to have the expertise to evaluate what is best for us in many situations, so the pull of autonomy may erode other, better-developed dispositions associated with listening to and following the advice of others in better positions to help us make better-informed decisions (Hand, 2006).

Postmodern theory also challenges the notion of the self that underwrites many conceptions of autonomy. A complete handling of the postmodern view of the self is too complex to consider here in anything but a superficial way, but any philosophical position that either significantly challenges or outright rejects the notion of a self also rejects autonomy as well: “Postmodernism views the subject as contradictory and multilayered, and rejects the notion that individual consciousness and reason are the most important determinants in shaping human history” (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1991). Likewise, if there is no deep authentic self, then we cannot point to a set of deeply held convictions that can help us rank order our beliefs and values if they come into conflict. Watson (1975) observes that this opens up the danger of an infinite regress. What determines that our second-order desires themselves are autonomous? When should analysis stop? The threatening infinite regress makes analyzing the contexts within which we formulate our authentic desires seemingly impossible. Furthermore, if we accept a postmodern interpretation about the power of socialization, we are forced to consider that there is no deep authentic self free from socialization to discover. Such a criticism makes basing autonomy upon increasingly sophisticated self-analysis difficult to establish. The opposite move, a rejection of the force of social determinism upon an authentic core self also challenges autonomy. Susan Wolf (1987) observes that if we reject the determined view, the result is that we, ourselves, might not be able to control deep-selves either: “Whether I am a product of carefully controlled forces or a result of random mutations, whether there is a complete explanation of my origin or no explanation at all, I am not, in any case, responsible for my existence; I am not in control of my deepest self.” For some postmodernist philosophers, then, autonomy is a dangerous concept because it promotes a fictitious self that obfuscates the myriad ways oppression and domination work in social structures (e.g., gender, race, sexual identity, and class). Ultimately, this criticism concerned that the unified and individualistic view of the autonomous agent pathologizes relational values and social practices, supporting the conditions for continued exploitation of marginalized groups (Mackenzie & Stoljar, 2000b).

Along these lines many feminist scholars have challenged the very notion of autonomy for its seeming predication upon masculine and/or atomistic conceptions of personhood (Code, 2000; Friedman, 2000). Marilyn Friedman’s (1997) critique is particularly salient: autonomy “presupposes that selves are social atoms, ignores the importance of social relationships, and promotes the sort of independence that involves disconnection from close interpersonal involvement with others.” Likewise, Code (2000) observes that the individualistic notion of the self has historically benefited white males and privileges radical independence over all other values. Code argues that autonomy theories have promoted notions of individuals, primarily males, as being the solitary bearers of rights. Perhaps most damning, though, is the argument that the underlying notion of individuality is one that obscures or even pathologizes significant ties to others, including familial and communal relationships. Such a notion of autonomy, then, supports sexist and racist dynamics where individual white males are deemed as autonomous in as much as they hide their dependence upon exploited others that make their seeming independent emergence in the world appear natural. These criticisms conclude that the individualistic view of the autonomous agent pathologizes relational values and social practices, supporting the conditions for continued exploitation of marginalized groups by obfuscating the ways that privilege is sustained by dependence on oppressed others.

In response, feminist scholars have explored “relational” approaches to autonomy, ones that consider social relationships and being radically situated in communities to be a fundamental part of autonomy (Mackenzie & Stoljar, 2000a, 2000b). These explicitly engage with how aspects of identities such as race, class, gender, and sexuality are socially embedded and play a role in both autonomy’s conceptual roots as well as its development. Benson (1987, 1991, 1994, 2005) illustrates the general approaches in this area. Benson’s work links autonomy with being in a position to answer for one’s normative decisions to a community of others. He illustrates that psychological oppression damages an individual’s sense of self-worth, self-trust, or self-respect. The lack of these attributes prevents an individual from being able to revise self-formulated plans due to lack of confidence. Thus, Benson argues that being autonomous is inextricably linked with “regarding oneself as being competent to answer for one’s conduct in light of normative demands, that, from one’s point of view, others might appropriately apply to one’s actions” (Benson, 1994). Benson is careful to clarify that his argument does not commit individuals only to hold conventional social norms to which their communities might ascribe importance. Instead, he argues for a subjective sense of competence that the agent himself or herself must embody. It does not assure that individuals are actually capable of doing so, only that they possess the impression that they could articulate the reasons for their commitments if so asked.

Benson’s specific approach and relational ones like it focus upon describing the social contexts necessary for the promotion of autonomy’s growth. Benson’s position is important because it focuses attention on the ways that the social context of schooling, for example, greatly influences whether students are able to critically reflect upon their aims and beliefs. Such analysis is necessary but not sufficient because it leaves the question of the influence of oppression on belief formation and adjudication unaddressed. In a similar fashion to Benson, Mariana Oshana (2006) argues that autonomy depends upon certain types of social conditions surrounding an agent’s process of reasoning in order to support the development of the reflective capacities required for self-legislation. While she similarly grounds her conception of relational autonomy within substantive descriptions of the psychological capacities necessary for autonomy, her discussion of psychologically focused criteria does not address the concerns associated with judgment being socially influenced in pernicious yet not coercive or clearly manipulative ways. She comes close, though, for she draws upon hypothetical cases such as voluntary slavery, “happy housewives,” and devout religious followers who dedicate their lives to external control by religious orders to argue that choosing servitude may be evidence of the absence of autonomy. This is ground that is right on the mark with regard to social oppression and student choices in school. For example, in her discussion of housewives who choose lives of deference, she grounds such choices within the psychological impediment of inadequacy, arguing that autonomy is impossible if one regards one’s choices as lacking worth (Oshana, 2005, 2006).


Autonomy continues to be an important concept within philosophy of education. And while many have weighed in on important tensions that have arisen as educational philosophers have explored both how to define autonomy as well as the ethical tensions that arise when adopted as an educational aim, important questions remain to be explored more fully. For example, while many posit that autonomy as self-direction is worth promoting in public schooling, especially within the context of attempting to realize democratic educational aims, understanding what being self-directed means within the context of oppression and oppressive socialization remains under-examined. What does it mean to educate for autonomy within a school and social structures that are saturated with racist, sexist, heteronormative, and classist dynamics? Does autonomy demand that we understand how our notions of self, our wants, our beliefs, our life plans, have been influenced by our social circumstances and the dominant ideologies associated with oppressive circumstances such as racism and sexism? Along those lines, might the very content of our choices call our autonomy in to question? For example, is holding racist ideas and supporting racist practices compatible with autonomy? Or is autonomy so morally neutral a notion, that any choice, any position, belief, want, or desire, counts for autonomous action as long as the agent endorses it? If so, is autonomy a defensible educational aim within the context of the current state of public schooling?


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