Review: Education, Justice, and Democracy

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Education, Justice, and Democracy. Edited by Danielle S. Allen and Rob Reich. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 368. Pb. $26.13

Reviewed by Andrée-Anne Cormier, Department of Philosophy, University of Montreal


Education, Justice, and Democracy is a collection of twelve high-quality essays. It pulls together a diverse group of well-established scholars from different disciplines, including education, sociology, political science, economics, and philosophy. The general aim of the book is to bring clarity and substance to the debate about the purpose, content, and practice of schooling in today’s United States (and, we may add, many other liberal democracies). More specifically, this volume pursues two distinct goals. The first is to clarify the meaning and relationship among three key ideals that, as Danielle Allen and Rob Reich note in their introduction, underlie almost every discussion on the topic: education, justice and democracy. The second is to deepen our understanding of the social and political context in which these ideals are to be realized, and relatedly, of the constraints on their realization.

The joint pursuit of these two goals is itself innovative since it demands a closer collaboration between philosophers and social scientists and, thus, favours the adoption of a broader and more integrated perspective. This is especially significant if one considers that interdisciplinary dialogue is perhaps less common in education than in other fields of public policy or applied ethics (such as health). Yet, such an interdisciplinary exchange is necessary for research in education to truly serve the realization of educational justice in a non-ideal and empirically complex world. Indeed, empirical facts of all sorts impose limits and costs on the realization of our ideals and this cannot but have a significant impact on the content of our actual obligations. Thus, by providing an example of a fruitful conversation between philosophers and social scientists, the book offers a new methodological framework for thinking about issues of educational justice. To those who think that political philosophy and philosophy of education should guide action, this paradigm-shifting framework itself will appear to be one of the book’s most significant contributions.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the volume, however, it is difficult to provide a systematic review of it as a whole – although the book is certainly worth reading in its entirety. Thus, rather than presenting a short summary of each article in the volume, in what follows I shall focus simply on two of the most philosophically (and, in the first case, methodologically) rich contributions, namely Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift’s ‘Family Values and School Policy’ and Anthony Simon Laden’s ‘Learning to Be Equal: Just Schools as Schools of Justice’.

Brighouse and Swift’s essay examines a crucial issue for any account of educational justice, namely, the limits of parental rights. Before exploring this issue and its potential policy implications, however, they provide a detailed methodological account of the role of philosophy in evaluating educational policies (and public policies, more generally). Needless to say, this account is highly relevant and valuable in the context of the interdisciplinary approach promoted in this volume.

The account that they propose requires, first, that we identify all the values at stake with respect to a particular issue and their relative weight; second, that we examine how the world currently realizes, or fails to realize, these values; third, that we determine which changes are feasible in the present context; and, finally, that we assess which policies, within the feasible set, are most desirable, all things considered. The ultimate goal is to translate all the relevant values at stake into action-guiding principles for the design and evaluation of institutions and policies in the real world. While the first step requires ‘only’ good philosophizing, the other three demand a significant amount of empirical information. Hence, the urgent need for philosophers to collaborate with empirical scientists.

In the remaining sections of their essay, Brighouse and Swift put this methodology to work. They first defend an account of the value of the family, based on the idea of ‘familial relationship goods’, and a corresponding theory of parental rights. Then, they set out the implications of their view, particularly with regard to the limits of the right to shape one’s own children’s values and to confer advantages on them. Finally, they consider how their theory can be used to inform policy-making in non-ideal circumstances.

They argue that what makes the family valuable in a way that grounds parental rights is the fact that it is a distinctively ideal arrangement for the realization of highly valuable goods, for both children and adults. For children, these include the special love, care, attention and security that are in many ways essential to their development and flourishing. For adults, these include an intimate relationship of a special and irreplaceable kind, characterized by asymmetry and special duties of care. These familial relationship goods justify parental rights, the most essential being the right to an intimate relationship with one’s children.

Importantly, however, this right does not include an extensive right either to confer any kind of advantage or to fully shape one’s children’s values. Parents have a derivative right to do so only when necessary to sustain a good relationship with their children, in the sense specified above. As a consequence, they possess a right to (for example) bring their children to church or to a music concert, and to read them bedtime stories. But they have no right to send their children to an elite school or to a school that forecloses certain conceptions of the good, at least when doing so undermines other values, such as equality of opportunity or their children’s autonomy.

Assuming that Brighouse and Swift’s compelling theory of family values and parental rights is correct, the next question is: What follows for real public policies? Should we conclude, for instance, that elite schools in the United States ought to be banned, regardless of the consequences? The authors’ proposed methodology for evaluating public policies already tells us that this would be a premature conclusion to draw. To begin with, banning elite schools is probably not even an option for most policy-makers in many countries. But even if it were, it could have the effect of actually undermining other important values, e.g., equality of opportunity, under non-ideal circumstances. For example, this would be the case if it increased the probability that privileged parents spend their resources in even less ‘socially productive’ ways.  This is why we need to subject all the feasible options to a close scrutiny before jumping to any conclusions about policy recommendations.

Despite the authors’ brief discussion of some specific policy proposals, including one discussed by Richard Rothstein in his contribution to this volume, there is no doubt that much more work, especially empirical work, needs to be done before arriving at policy proposals that reach the best balance between the protection of parental rights and the promotion of other values. Nonetheless, this essay makes an important move towards the achievement of this goal, most notably, by specifying the role and limits of philosophy in that process. One interesting question that may be asked with respect to Brighouse and Swift’s procedure is to what extent it should be used to think about individual morality: What choices are permissible for parents, for example, as opposed to policy-makers, under non-ideal circumstances? The authors do raise this question in the essay (and have explored it elsewhere), yet the methodology that they defend here is explicitly presented as one for evaluating public policies, not individual choices.

Let us now turn to Laden’s very different contribution. Laden’s primary aim is to bring to our attention an issue that, in his view, is currently underexplored in the literature on civic education. As he notes in the introduction, discussions of civic education tend to focus on the specific knowledge and skills required for good citizenship in a pluralistic society, in particular the knowledge and skills of government, political participation, deliberation and tolerance. However, citizenship is also, and perhaps more fundamentally, about being equals. This too has implications for citizenship education. Indeed, as a basic moral and political value, equality requires not only to know that others are equal, but also to treat and to relate to them as such. Since schools have a role to play in forming citizens, they must teach children how to be equals. Failing to do so is failing to adequately prepare them for democratic citizenship. Thus, according to Laden, there is a gap in debates about civic education that needs to be filled. We must think more systematically about how schools can be just, in the sense of being spaces where children can actually learn to be, and to behave like, equals.

In the first part of his essay, Laden offers an explanation as to why this issue has been neglected by philosophers of education and political philosophers. He argues that the picture of justice that dominates the current political philosophy’s landscape is one of distributive justice, as opposed to relational justice. While the former involves the non-arbitrary distribution of a certain list of goods among the subjects of justice, the latter involves the non-arbitrary ruling of anyone over anyone else, where ruling is non-arbitrary if it can be justified to those that are subject to it. Thus, relational justice, as Laden understands it, requires intersubjective justification and reciprocity. In other words, it involves being in a relationship of equality with others, in the sense of reciprocal accountability.

In the second part of his essay, Laden tackles the question of the implications of relational justice for schools. His central claim is that schools need to initiate children into the ‘habits of equality’ by promoting ‘reasonableness’. According to him, reasonableness crucially involves an ability and a disposition to justify one’s point of view to others in a way that is respectful and properly responsive to others’ concerns and points of view. This is one of Laden’s main contributions to the current debate. Indeed, his characterization of ‘reasonableness’ adds substance and clarity to a notion that, although widely employed, is relatively vague and undertheorized in political philosophy and philosophy of education. The next question to be addressed is, then, and once again, a practical one: What kind of institutional arrangements and educational practices are most likely to effectively teach students to become reasonable? While making some tentative suggestions, Laden claims that this question goes beyond the scope of his present essay. There thus remains room for empirically informed philosophical contributions about this issue.

In conclusion, as this little sample is meant to show, the articles in the volume highlight novel and interesting possibilities of collaboration between philosophers and social scientists. Because of the heterogeneity of the contributions in this volume, it could have perhaps been helpful for certain readers, i.e., those less familiar with empirical research, to make even more explicit the connections between some of the most empirical and the most philosophical essays in the book. Despite this, Education, Justice, and Democracy makes an important step towards a deeper and more fruitful interdisciplinary approach in philosophy of education.


Andrée-Anne Cormier, Department of Philosophy, University of Montreal, Pavillon 2910, Édouard-Montpetit, Montreal, Quebec, CANADA, H3C 3J7. Email:



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