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Education in Democracy: Education's Moral Role in the Democratic State

reviewed by Rene Vincente Arcilla - 1991

coverTitle: Education in Democracy: Education's Moral Role in the Democratic State
Author(s): Robert D. Heslep
Publisher: Iowa State University Press, Ames
ISBN: 0813801710, Pages: , Year:
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Philosophers are notorious for disturbing the peace over definitions; this practice lives on in the latest book by the philosopher of education Robert D. Heslep. As its subtitle indicates, it addresses the question “What is education’s moral role in the democratic state?” Although this may look like a question that is bound to occur to virtually every educator worth his or her chalk, and that thus should have already inspired a whole library of responses, Heslep finds that with respect to the question there is a gap in recent educational literature. What is missing is any significant attempt to work out an answer that proceeds from a sufficiently developed theoretical framework, one that contains and coordinates theories of what morality, democracy, and education mean for each other. Without such a framework, modern educators who have tried to tackle the question have stumbled over their vague terminology. To clear away such stumbling-blocks, then, is the task that Heslep takes on.

As mentioned, there are three components to the framework, three principal terms that need clear definitions supported by argument, which together will form the basis for a coherent language we can use to respond to the question. Heslep begins by elaborating a theory of morality. Following the lead of Alan Gewirth in Reason and Morality,1 Heslep analyzes the concept of voluntary action and elucidates how our valuing of the essential traits and conditions of such action commits us to associated moral values. These values comprise rights and obligations possessed by every agent, including agents who are the recipients of each of our voluntary actions. According to Gewirth,

negatively, he [any agent] ought to refrain from coercing and from harming his recipients; positively, he ought to assist them to have freedom and well-being whenever they cannot otherwise have these necessary goods and he can help them at no comparable cost to himself. (quoted by Heslep, p. 21)

Heslep affirms that this supreme principle of our rights and obligations ought to guide all our actions, though he adds that we should also consider the relative superiority and inferiority of these rights. To guide us in these considerations, he joins the principle to another principle that he adopts from Gewirth.

When some quality Q justifies having certain rights R, and the possession of Q varies in the respect that is relevant to Q’s justifying the having of R, the degree to which R is had is proportional to or varies with the degree to which Q is had. (quoted by Heslep, p. 31)

These two principles, derived from the generic, prized properties of voluntary action, establish the fundamentals of what we need to know in order to act as moral agents. What remains to be determined, then, is first, whether and how the democratic state constitutes a climate favorable to moral action thus understood, and second, whether and how education can encourage moral action in the democratic state.

Turning to the first question, Heslep, after criticizing some current theories of democracy, settles for a theory that defines the democratic state as one that is self-governed by its citizens. Accordingly, citizens should make certain decisions that uphold certain ideals in order to keep the state thriving: “A democratic state, consequently, if it is to have members who will participate in self-government, must have the ideals of preventing and removing the negative constraints of members and decide upon arrangements that will realize these ideals” (p. 66). These constraints amount to the constraints on voluntary action proscribed by Heslep’s moral principles; he claims, therefore, that for a democracy to work, it must respect those principles, it must be a moral state. This is a large claim, but he tries to back it up by explaining how essential democratic rules and institutions can function only by meeting the concerns expressed by the principles.

At last Heslep is in a position to consider how constraints on a democratic citizenry’s voluntary action can be prevented and removed by education. He defines education as primarily a practice that enables a person to acquire a “cognitive perspective based upon the theoretical disciplines” (p. 103), that is, to support belief that propositions in a theoretical discipline are true, and to comprehend what such propositions would mean for other beliefs that one might hold. This latter aspect of education is particularly important, for it links education to intelligent action. He develops this link by discussing why and how the rationales for key components of education—activities such as teaching different kinds of knowledge; planning a coherent curriculum; facilitating equal access to jobs, services, and offices; and fostering moral growth—all reinforce and are reinforced by the moral principles of voluntary action and of democracy. The book concludes with an argument that this way of understanding the moral role of education in the democratic state implies that our educational institutions should themselves be run democratically.

I hope that this outline conveys an idea of the scope of the book’s aspirations. Unfortunately, it cannot do justice to the meticulous precision of Heslep’s reasoning. Although the less patient reader may occasionally cry uncle in some of the denser thickets of hair-splitting, those who respect scrupulous definition and explanation without mirrors will appreciate the craft that went into his theoretical framework. To be sure, there are details to pick at, but I am confident that critical readers of analytic philosophy who are interested in his topic will find the book rewarding. Other readers may have more trouble, however, and I shall conclude with caveats to two kinds of readers.

Many philosophers today are dubious about the value of rationalist conceptual analysis; they fear that the fuss over definitions may have taken their discipline down the road toward cultural irrelevance. In reaction, they have steered their work in a hermeneutic direction by concerning themselves with the differences between historical languages as a whole, and with how those differences may be usefully interpreted. They worry less about how to assemble correctly defined essential terms into a theory of what we should believe according to reason, and more about what they can glean about the contingent forces shaping our beliefs from a sense of the road separating us from our precursors and from other traditions. Because Heslep confines his analysis of concepts to the language of contemporary common sense, such philosophers may find that his theoretical framework fails to illuminate much of what our moral, democratic, and educational beliefs are actually responding to.

Other disappointed readers may include educators who find that Heslep’s theories stray too far from practical issues. Unconvinced that the exact definition of terms is a matter of life and death for a practice, they may feel that his discourse is driven too much by the needs of the emerging framework, and not enough by the all-too-familiar problems that frustrate educators daily. Although it is a shame that Heslep did not do more to allay the concerns and capture the interests of these two kinds of readers, his book is nevertheless a stimulating contribution to an established genre of philosophy of education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 3, 1991, p. 501-503
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 357, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 1:41:40 AM

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  • Rene Arcilla
    Teachers College, Columbia University

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