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Formative Justice: The Regulative Principle of Education

by Robert McClintock - 2016

Background/Context: Concepts of justice relevant to making personal and public decisions about education.

Purpose: To clarify a concept of formative justice that persons and the public often ignore in making decisions about educational effort.

Setting: “The windmills of your mind”

Research Design: Reflective essay.


  • Problems of justice arise whenever persons and polities cannot have it all, whenever they must choose between competing “goods,” positive or negative.
  • Different types of justice arise because persons and polities have to make constrained choices between different types of goods—with distributive justice, they allocate scarce material goods and benefits among many claimants; with social justice, they reconcile conflicting rights and responsibilities; with retributive justice, they determine sanctions and punishments; and with formative justice, they channel effort to pursuing particular possibilities out of the many open to them.
  • Problems of formative justice arise because persons and polities always face the future and find more potentialities unfolding before them than they have the energy, time, ability, and wherewithal to fulfill. They must choose among their purposes and allocate effort and attention to pursuing their potentials. In doing so, they form their unfolding lives.
  • Conceptions of formative justice concern principles with which persons and polities choose their controlling aspirations and allocate effort towards their fulfillment.
  • Formative justice is difficult because persons and polities always face an indeterminate future, one fraught with uncertainties. In the face of indeterminacy, they must irrevocably make their formative choices, hoping these will prove both successful and sustainable.
  • Formative justice is important because persons and polities will suffer or enjoy, as the case may be, the capacities for feeling, thought, and action by which they live.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 10, 2016, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21622, Date Accessed: 6/23/2021 10:03:36 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert McClintock
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT McCLINTOCK is a freelancer, living in Mexico, writing books and articles to further understanding of education and formative experience. Formerly, he studied and taught for 50 years at Columbia University, retiring from the Teachers College faculty in 2011. You can learn more about his writing, teaching, and educational work with technology at www.columbia.edu/~rom2.
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