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Education, Autonomy and Critical Thinking

reviewed by Edward Sankowski - October 02, 2006

coverTitle: Education, Autonomy and Critical Thinking
Author(s): Christopher Winch
Publisher: Taylor & Francis, London
ISBN: 0415322375, Pages: 201, Year: 2006
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This book is a very valuable contribution to contemporary scholarly discussion in philosophy of education, ethics, and liberal democratic political theory. Winch writes, “This book seeks to assess the significance of our concern with critical rationality as a key intellectual component of a worthwhile life involving autonomy, and our often conflicting views as to what critical thinking is and how it can be cultivated” (pp. xi-xii). Autonomy, he says on page ix, is “the ability to chart one’s course in life. For Winch, autonomy is a “key educational aim” (p. 12), which is at the center of the author’s project. Debates about contested conceptions and implications of autonomy have indeed played a major role in contemporary Anglo-American and Western European normative discussions. Winch here shows a notable familiarity with Anglo-American philosophy and its antecedents, and an open-minded receptivity to some philosophical authors with other backgrounds, but less of a tendency to take account of the critical social sciences as resources in normative discussions of education and politics.

Critical rationality “is defined here as a settled disposition to subject authorities to evaluation so that the competence of an authority comes under independent assessment” (p. 32). Winch seems to think that written more than verbal expression has advantages in fostering logical rather than (merely) rhetorical persuasion (p. 35). While much of what he says on this score is interesting and plausible, perhaps he underestimates the potential for non-rational, irrational, or otherwise questionable persuasion in written expression, as well as largely neglecting other types and modes of communication and persuasion—such as movies, television, computers and the internet, and so on.

Winch discusses the relations among “critical rationality, critical thinking, and the study of logic” (p. 53). He discusses “critical thinking and context independence” (pp. 58 et seq.). He refers to the Toulmin account (in Toulmin’s book, The Uses of Argument), as well as other authors in the area. Winch delivers a mixed verdict about Toulmin’s views (p. 69) and those of certain other supposedly allied scholars. Thus Winch writes: “It seems…that the claims of the critical thinking movement concerning the desirability of teaching the context independence of reasoning are very far from being substantiated” (p. 70). While what he says about critical thinking, argumentation, rhetoric, etc. is interesting, for this reader, the book’s more extensive and intriguing parts are about rather general normative political and educational framework questions. Less detail is provided in the book about institutional particulars of schooling or other features of societal education.

The normative politics of the book pay considerable attention to Rawls (while rejecting Rawlsian “antiperfectionism”), some to Raz, and more briefly, to Gramsci. The author’s own view owes a good deal to the communitarian-leaning, perfectionist emphasis on autonomy of Joseph Raz in The Morality of Freedom. As Winch describes part of his own position, “It is concluded that some conception of the good at the level of the polity is unavoidable, even if it is in the form of a multiple telos” (p. 15). Critical rationality should, as mentioned above, “subject authorities to evaluation” (p. 45) on Winch’s (rather common) view. Another concern in the book is “the self-knowledge component to being autonomous” (which he plausibly argues is important for autonomy) (p. 75). Winch includes a discussion of “the self,” which is indebted, among others, to Charles Taylor in his book, Sources of the Self. In this respect, Winch sides with a communitarian over liberals of the Rawls sort. Thus Winch claims: “(N)o child can be brought up outside some particular conception of the good in political society, since even the doctrine that holds that a just polity is not founded on any specific conception of the good is implicitly founded on some such conception of the good” (p. 73). What he mainly means by “the good” here is a conception of “human flourishing and leading a worthwhile life” (p. 83).

Winch phrases some of his commitments in terms of his rejection of “strong autonomy” and an acceptance of “weak autonomy.” “Strong autonomists maintain that, within the constraints of some other-regarding limit of reasonableness, individuals should be able to make any choices concerning life-course and values” (p. 96). He refers to the John Stuart Mill of On Liberty as an example. “Weak autonomists maintain that the range of meaningful choice available to individuals should be one that is constrained by some conception of worthwhileness” (pp. 96-97). Even antiperfectionist liberals, however, in his view, are not necessarily “committed to the promotion of strong autonomy as an educational aim, and hence to the promotion of some non-worthwhile life-choices within the public school system” (p. 121).

“In a liberal society,” Winch writes, “education as preparation for life must involve, as a central component, education for autonomy. We have seen that, in a society like ours, such an education must centrally involve preparation for work, for bringing up a family, for civic participation, for leisure and for individual fulfillment, even if no individual makes all of these a central or even a minor part of their lives. Autonomy involves choice and if choice is to be amongst what is worthwhile, it must encompass the central dimensions of human life” (p. 107).

Possibly (though not entirely), Winch tends to frame educational issues with an emphasis on education in earlier stages of life, and with more of an emphasis on schooling than on other modes of societal education. However, this attribution of emphases to Winch must be qualified to some extent in view of other features of his exposition, such as his attention to education for a “balanced” life including, for example, family life and domesticity, as well as civic education (including the relevance of the possible options about autonomy in the workplace and “industrial democracy”). Nonetheless, consider a formulation such as this: “(L)iberal civic education does and should enable young people to engage with and defend particular conceptions among the plurality of those that are held within the society” (p. 143). And: “Liberal civic (i.e. citizenship) education is thus a complex matter and can only be properly pursued if its various elements are present in different areas of the curriculum as well as those that are formally devoted to civics. The civic education curriculum can, therefore, be partly accommodated in subjects as diverse as literature, history, geography and drama, as well as in elements of self-governance within the school” (p. 145). While this reader accepts Winch’s views about the ingredients of civic education for young people in schools, Winch appears to be de-emphasizing, in this account, other life-stages than that of young people and institutions other than the school.

Nonetheless, this reader is impressed by the breadth and humanity, as well as many of the argumentative positions of Winch’s book. Winch’s support of economic re-distribution for the sake of promoting equity in education for autonomy, though perhaps abstract and sketchy, is salutary and necessary. His questioning—although brief, oblique, and elliptical—of “neo-liberalism” (p. 87) has an element of recognition of a problem area in “liberalism” despite his remarks elsewhere in the book that associate without further comment the conditions of the ideal of autonomy with market economies. There are serious political difficulties in market economies in realizing even relatively modest re-distributive economic measures needed to further the equitable democratic fostering of education for autonomy. In the contemporary U.S., for example, increasingly higher education at public research universities, whether aiming at education for autonomy or not, is subject to a funding squeeze that results in both limiting equitable access to higher education in its more adequate forms (including manifestations of education for autonomy), and increased privatization of public higher educational operations (e.g., by diminishing state legislative appropriations, increasing reliance on raising tuition and fees, and growing dependence on fund-raising from non-governmental sources). These are problems which Winch would probably be willing to acknowledge, but it would be unfair to expect him to provide practical solutions to these and other problems. However, the problem of finding a workable political theory and institutional design for realizing the processes and goals of democratic education for autonomy is a challenge for many of us, not only for Winch.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 02, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12751, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 4:25:17 AM

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About the Author
  • Edward Sankowski
    University of Oklahoma
    E-mail Author
    EDWARD SANKOWSKI is a Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma. His areas of interest include Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Education (especially higher education), Philosophy of Social Science, and Aesthetics. He has many publications, including a recent essay about film studies in the last issue of The Journal of Aesthetic Education.
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