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The Democratic Principle in Education

As higher ed makes it way out of the disruption the pandemic caused, it’s critical to reflect on current processes to create a more purposeful future. 

Given the ongoing discourse about present and impending disruptions and innovations affecting higher education institutions, it is perhaps timely for them to step back and reflect on their larger purpose and the forces at play in higher education. My intention in this article is to speak of the foundations upon which higher education is not only based, but which critically inform and drive educational innovation and interest in system reform—two themes that I hope to address in future articles. 

There are many different systems of government, democracy being only one form. Even democracy itself can range from the version that existed in the city-states of ancient Greece, frequently referred to as “direct democracy,” where the right to make political decisions is exercised by all citizens, to the modern systems of representative and constitutional democracies. Allan Bloom (1987) reminds us in The Closing of the American Mind that the approach to education is deeply conditioned by the political system, “which needs citizens who are in accord with its fundamental principle. Aristocracies want gentlemen, oligarchies men who respect and pursue money, and democracies lovers of equality” (page 26).  We may choose to take issue with Bloom’s exact descriptions of ideal educational outcomes and characteristics espoused by political regimes, since pursuing wealth is almost a universal tendency in the current age—apparent also in democracies—but this is perhaps a result of human psychology and the intertwining of democracy and capitalism. In fact, fallout from the Cold War and the fight against communism has caused the popular mind to consider “democracy” and “capitalism” as nearly synonymous, particularly in the United States, where even the term “socialism” echoes as a dangerous slide towards communist ideology, which threatens free enterprise and the drive for innovation.       

But Bloom was not the first to note this profound connection between political systems and education. Some seventy years earlier, John Dewey had also recognized this important distinction between principle and goals of education based on the type of society, and he makes “explicit the differences in the spirit, material, and method of education as it operates in different types of community life” (1916/2008, page 87). Thinking along this line of political and educational philosophy, I hope to show that the central characteristics and principles operating within democracy are those of equality and freedom of choice. 

To fully grasp the dynamics at play, I want to focus on some of the ideas in Rousseau’s political and educational philosophy. The fundamentals of how society operates, as he shows them to be, are extremely complex, and the forces within it are often inherently in opposition with each other. Reflecting on this intrinsic antithetical tension, Rousseau (1762/2002) famously wrote in The Social Contract that “[m]an was born free, but everywhere he is in chains” (page 156), asserting that humans are born for freedom that is unavailable to them in society (he knew, of course, that not every individual was literally born free, as slavery was common practice at the time).  In fact, this tension between the need for and right to freedom and the restrictions that society places upon individuals form the centerpiece of Rousseau’s concern, being expressed also quite forcefully, even stridently, in Emile, or On Education, where he speaks not only of the difference between “natural man” and a “citizen,” but also calls out the intellectual “chains” that tie down individuals in society: “All our wisdom consists in servile prejudices. All our practices are only subjection, impediments, and constraint. Civil man [i.e., man in society] is born, lives, and dies in slavery. At his birth he is sewed in swaddling clothes; at his death he is nailed in a coffin. So long as he keeps his human shape, he is enchained by our institutions” (1762/1979, pages 42-43). 

Rousseau’s great enterprise was to find a solution to this human dilemma between our state of nature (where we are free) and our condition in civil society (where we are unnaturally restrained). In The Social Contract, he offers a political solution with the complex, somewhat ambiguous, often tortured and contradictory idea of the general will, under which a citizen may even be forced to be free (1762/2002, page 166). In Emile, he approaches this tension from the perspective of educating individuals, so they can retain their freedom in society, developing the important sentiment of compassion (pitié), while following their natural inclinations. Rousseau, it should be noted, is notoriously inconsistent and not always specific in his views and expressions. He recognized, for instance, that “man left to himself among others from his birth would be the most deformed among them all” (Emile, 1762/1979, page 37), which essentially undercuts the entire notion of the human virtue in the natural condition, but which also emphasizes the importance of proper education.

I do not claim that Rousseau’s concern with the “state of nature” is new, but his depiction of the human condition in nature is very different from Hobbes’ assertion in Leviathan (1651/1985) that human life in the natural state is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (page 186). The concept of a social contract or “covenant,” which is the foundation of every society and political entity, appears very forcefully and centrally in Hobbes’ political philosophy, but the idea can be traced back in the Western tradition all the way to Plato’s The Republic (c. 375 BCE).

I do not intend here to enter into a disquisition on the thorny question of the human condition in the state of nature. Instead, I raise the notions of state of nature and social contract because they form the fundamental antithetical forces that condition democracy.  Democracy promises at once both unfettered individual freedom (state of nature) and the restraining rule of law (social contract); it provides a delicate, and often threatened, balance and calibration between the right to exercise personal freedom and the legal (and social) framework within which this freedom must operate.  In fact, as many have noted, when the United States’ Declaration of Independence (1776) refers to the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” the concept was in all likelihood heavily indebted to John Locke’s (1689/n.d.) formulation in his Two Treatises of Government, in which he argues: “Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of Nature, …[he] hath by nature a power…to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty, and estate” (page 141). Locke, in effect, refines and corrects Hobbes’ political thought derived from the state of nature, which leads to the primacy of equality and liberty.

There is much evidence to suggest that these foundational dynamics of equality and liberty reflect a democratic society that has not yet been fully realized in higher education. Equal opportunity to access learning and freedom of educational choice is still not always a reality for all citizens in Western democracies, and I aim to address both the current educational climate and some potential solutions in my next article, particularly as it crystallizes around calls for system reforms and development of educational innovations.


Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Dewey, J. (2008). Democracy and education in J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The middle works of John Dewey, 1899-1924. Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1916)

Hobbes, T. (1985). Leviathan (C.B.Macpherson, Ed.). Penguin Classics. (Original work published 1651)

Jefferson, T. (1776). The Declaration of Independence

Locke, J. (n.d.). Two treatises of government  (Original work published 1689)

Rousseau, J.-J. (2002). The social contract and the first and second discourses (S. Dunn, Trans. & Ed.). Yale University Press. (Original work published 1762)

Rousseau, J.-J. (1979). Emile, or On education (A. Bloom, Trans.). Basic Books. (Original work published 1762)

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