Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Amy Gutmann publishes Democratic Education

When Amy Gutmann published Democratic Education in 1987, she received reviews praising her courage in tackling contentious issues (Kliebard 1987) and hailing her work as “the finest contribution to the literature on democracy in seventy years” (Yudof 1989: 440).

At the time of the publication of her book, Gutmann was a political philosopher working in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. Later, she became the founding director of the Princeton University Center for Human Values and from 2001 to 2004 acted as Provost of Princeton University. In 2004, she was appointed the President of the University of Pennsylvania.

In Democratic Education, Amy Gutmann begins by outlining various theories that give authority over education either to the state, the family or educational professionals. While each of these three groups have something substantial to offer to the education of young people, not one of them is sufficient in and of itself. She encourages participation from all three groups but notes that the state and families must have limits placed upon their contributions.

In her theory of democratic education, Guttman calls upon the education system to take responsibility for equipping students with the necessary knowledge and skills to uphold or even improve democracy:

A democratic state is therefore committed to allocating educational authority in such a way as to provide its members with an education adequate to participating in democratic politics, to choosing among (a limited range of) good lives, and to sharing in the several subcommunities, such as families, that impart identity to the lives of its citizens (42).

 Her theory shows the reciprocal relationship between education and democracy. Education shapes the citizens who will create the democracy of the future. That democracy will then promote educational practices to ensure the healthy continuation of the democracy:

Education in a great measure, forms the moral character of citizens, and moral character along with laws and institutions forms the basis of democratic government. Democratic government, in turn, shapes the education of future citizens, which, in a great measure, forms their moral character (49).

To achieve the conscious reproduction of society (which in Gutmann’s approach is the ultimate aim of education) she advocates two core principles that hold parents, the state and educational professionals in check: nonrepression and nondiscrimination. Nonrepression is the concept that does not allow for any group to curtail the “rational deliberation of competing conceptions of the good life and the good society. No one group can enforce its view of a good life on anyone else and therefore tolerance and respect for others are ensured (44). Nondiscrimination is the concept that states all educable children must be educated. No child or person, therefore, can be excluded from an education that will teach him or her tools for participating in democracy (45).

To enable citizen involvement in democratic politics, Gutmann stresses that education must cultivate “the virtues, knowledge and skills that are necessary for political participation” (287).  The most important of these skills is rational deliberation.  In her own words, “deliberation is connected, both by definition and practice, with the development of democracy (52).

Critical, independent thinking has implications for students, teachers and the boards who oversee them.  She recognizes the need for greater autonomy for teachers and states, “if primary school teachers cannot exercise intellectual independence in their classrooms, they cannot teach students to be intellectually independent.” (82). In addition, she proposes increased teacher participation in educational decision making and calls for “more participatory structures within which teachers can join administrators and members of school boards in shaping these policies” (84).

Gutmann also advocates for more opportunities for active student participation in the decisions that impact them. She argues that “permitting students to participate in determining aspects of their education generally serves to develop a commitment on their part to learning” (91). Taking part in decision making in schools not only creates a more committed learning environment for students but encourages self-efficacy and eventual political participation. “A participatory approach gives priority to cultivating self-esteem and social commitment over humility and order, a priority presumed by the democratic goal of educating citizens willing and able to participate in politics” (90).

Gutmann examines various issues including censorship of books, sex education and the teaching of creationism by asking whether or not the activity or learning contributes to democracy. In fact, she welcomes discussion of these and other controversial topics because the discussion itself creates a democratic exchange of ideas that instills the civic virtue of respect for opposing viewpoints. As Kliebard (1987:44) notes, Gutmann “makes virtue of disagreements that inevitably flow from the governance of schooling”.

In one part of the book, she criticizes the spending of public funds on a civics education program that has not demonstrated to be effective. She suggests that the program could have been more successful had critical thinking been encouraged. She asks: “how can a civics course legitimately teach teenagers to trust their government more without also teaching them to think about what kind of government is worth trusting?” (107). Gutmann also calls for more research into the effects of democratic schooling on the creation of civic virtues, efficacy and respect for alternative points of view.

Following in Dewey’s footsteps, Gutmann advocates that democracy is the core of education. She embraces deliberation, nonrepression, nondiscrimination and conscious social reproduction as necessary guiding principles in citizenship education. Her book has contributed to a better understanding of the relationships betweeen education and democracy, and her emphasis on participation and deliberation inspired many programs of citizenship education and school democracy that have developed subsequently in several parts of the world.


Gutmann, Amy. Democratic Education. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Macchiarola, Frank. “Democratic Education by Amy Gutmann.” Political Science Quarterly Vol. 102, No.4 (1988): 696-697.

Jaggar, Alison. “Democratic Education by Amy Gutmann.” Philosophical Review Vol.99, No.3 (1988): 468-472.

Kliebard, Herbert. “Democratic Education.” Academe v. 73 (1987): 44-45.

Strossen, Nadine. “Review of Democratic Education.” Journal of Law and Education Vol.19 (1990): 147-159.

Yudof, Mark. “Democratic Education.” Ethics Vol. 99, No. 2 (1989) : 439 – 441.


Prepared by Anne Wessels, OISE/University of Toronto, 2006


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