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Education and the Democratic Person: Towards a Political Conception of Democratic Education

by Gert Biesta - 2007


Ever since the Enlightenment, there has been a strong tendency in educational theory and practice to think of education as the “production” of a subject with particular qualities, most notably the quality of rationality. This way of thinking has deeply influenced the theory and practice of democratic education and has led to an approach that is both instrumentalistic (it sees education as the instrument for the production of the democratic person) and individualistic (it conceives of the democratic person as an isolated individual with a pre-defined set of knowledge, skills and dispositions).

Focus of Study:

In this article, I argue that the way in which we understand democratic education has everything to do with our conception of the democratic person. Through a discussion of the work of Immanuel Kant, John Dewey, and Hannah Arendt I present three different answers to the question as to what it means to be a democratic person. I refer to these as an individualistic, a social, and a political conception of democratic subjectivity, respectively. I argue that each provides a different rationale for democratic education. While the individualistic and the social conception are closely connected to ideas about democratic education as the production of the democratic individual (either by educational strategies directed at this individual, or by creating opportunities for individuals to participate in democratic life), I suggest, using ideas from Hannah Arendt, that there is a different way to articulate what it means to be a democratic subject. This way of understanding what it means to be a democratic subject, to which I refer to as a political understanding of the democratic person, no longer focuses on the production of democratic individuals and no longer thinks of itself as having to prepare individuals for future democratic action. Instead, it focuses on opportunities for democratic action and democratic “learning-in-action.”


What schools can do—or at least should try to do—is to make democratic action possible. This involves creating conditions for children and students to be subjects and to experience what it is and means to be a subject. The learning related to this is not something that comes before democratic subjectivity. It rather follows from having been or not having been a subject. It is learning about the fragile conditions under which action and subjectivity are possible. Because subjectivity is no longer something that only occurs or is created in schools, the approach to democratic education that follows from my considerations puts the question about the responsibility for democratic education back where it actually belongs, namely, in society at large. I argue that it is an illusion to think that schools alone can produce democratic citizens. In so far as action and subjectivity are possible in schools and society, schools can perform the more modest and more realistic task of helping children and students to learn about and reflect upon the fragile conditions under which all people can act, under which all people can be a subject. A society in which individuals are not able or not allowed to act, cannot expect from its schools to produce its democratic citizens for it. I therefore conclude that schools can neither create nor save democracy—they can only support societies in which action and subjectivity are real possibilities.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 3, 2007, p. 740-769
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12830, Date Accessed: 5/14/2021 9:57:00 AM

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About the Author
  • Gert Biesta
    University of Exeter/Örebro University
    E-mail Author
    GERT BIESTA is Professor of Educational Theory and Director of Research in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of Exeter, and Visiting Professor for Education and Democratic Citizenship at the Department of Education, Örebro University, Sweden. He conducts theoretical and empirical research on the relationships between education and democracy, with particular attention to the role of communication in education. He takes inspiration from pragmatism and post-structural philosophy. Recent books include Derrida & Education (Routledge, 2001, co-edited with Denise Egéa-Kuehne), Pragmatism and Educational Research (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, co-authored with Nicholas C. Burbules), and Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future (Paradigm Publishers, 2006).
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