Supplement for Seventh Class: Critical Considerations


Copyright © 2023 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Problems with the democratic standard:


On p. 263 Gutmann contrasts the “democratic” and the “market” standards:


…like all humanly designed tests, the market only partially measures what matters to us. 

  Democratic debate and deliberation are a different test, also a partial and imperfect one, of whether cultural institutions should be supported.  Because democratic processes ideally complement rather than compete with the market, the standards of value employed within democratic deliberations need not and preferably should not be market standards. 


Throughout the work she advocates using the “democratic test or standard” to determine the character, funding, distribution, etc. of democratic education. 


She also contends that we are not succeeding in providing democratic education to future citizens, and that doing so will require skilled professional educators—so shouldn’t that mean we need to dramatically increase funding.  But we find citizens generally willing to maintain (let alone increase) funding for primary schooling.  Does this unwillingness mean we can’t have a democracy? 


Moreover, she contends that the virtue of “democratic deliberation” is that it allows for us to democratically address significant differences in our values in a manner that promotes mutual understanding, toleration, and respect:


47 the distinctive virtue of a democratic theory of education is that its principles and conclusion are compatible with our commitment to share the rights and the obligations of citizenship with people who do not share our complete conception of the good life.  To the extent that Americans share (or insist on living in a way that requires us to share) this commitment, a democratic theory of education commands our allegiance. 


But are we actually able (and or willing) to be so understanding, tolerant, and respectful? 


2. Who are her “we?”  


39 “We disagree over the relative value of freedom and virtue, the nature of the good life, and the elements of moral character.  But our desire to search for a more inclusive ground presupposes a common commitment that is, broadly speaking, political.  We are committed to collectively re-creating the society that we share.  Although we are not collectively committed to any particular set of educational aims, we are committed to arriving at an agreement on our educational aims (an agreement that could take the form of justifying a diverse set of educational aims and authorities).” 


Who is included in her ‘we’?  She wrote in 1987 and 1999, and I think she clearly believe it applies today—but is this true of all of us, most of us, a majority of us, …?  The importance of this question needs to be emphasized, as is evidenced by the current situation in our country. 


3. All, most, or some?  


xii-xiii A democracy is deliberative to the extent that citizens and their accountable representatives offer one another morally defensible reasons for mutually binding laws in an ongoing process of mutual justification.  To the extent that a democracy is not deliberative, it treats people as objects of legislation, as passive subjects to be ruled, rather than as citizens who take part in governance by accepting or rejecting the reasons they and their accountable representatives offer for the laws and policies that mutually bind them. 

  Deliberative democracy underscores the importance of publicly supported education that develops the capacity to deliberate among all children as future free and equal citizens.  The most justifiable way of making mutually binding decisions in a representative democracy—including decisions not to deliberate about some matters—is by deliberative decision making, where the decision makers are accountable to the people who are most affected by their decisions. 


Well, must she insist on “all students?  Should she?  Do parents, perhaps even “groups,” “have a right” to offer an alternative education.  Here we will also have to wonder whether a “competing” [democratic] responsibility outweighs such a right. 


4. Wholly deliberative, or “to a degree?” 


Also In the above citation Gutmann talks about a democracy being deliberative “to the extent that,” but the subsequent “universality “of the requirements for a democratic education for all children and that all citizens have “a deliberative character” are seemingly extreme if “deliberative democracy can be a “matter of degree.”  What proportion of the citizens is sufficient for a democracy to be “deliberative”—all, most, many, a majority, a sizable minority? 


We will also have to ask whether she is describing “an ideal,” or whether she is offering a “practical proposal.  


5. Is “democratic education” necessary for citizenship?


Remember that Gutmann said that our compulsory primary education fails to provide functional democratic literacy, though it clearly provides functional economic literacy (147-148).  


Democratic education doesn’t succeed in education most future citizens, but adults can’t be subject to compulsory education


279 democracy is educationally demanding, but its first and foremost demand is that adults be treated as sovereign citizens not a students of philosophers or the subjects of kings.  This is why we encounter no paradox, only a serious problem, when we acknowledge that democratic states have the authority to make schooling compulsory for children but not for adults who fall below the democratic threshold of education.  Since the threshold defines not a fully but an adequately educated citizen, this constraint on democratic authority may leave many adults less that adequately educated. 


However, on pp. 278-279 she notes that many capable citizens do not seem to be able to meet conditions (4) and (5).  She also contends that adults who cannot read or write can stay informed and be politically active.  She concludes this speaks against the wisdom of trying to come up with a simple characterization of the necessary and sufficient characteristics of a democratic education, but this does seem to leave us in a serious situation. 


So, how do some adults become functionally adequate citizens without receiving a successful democratic education? 


6. A “reciprocal relation” or a paradox? 


Her discussion throughout focuses upon democracy as concerned with developing future citizens who can be appropriately deliberative in order to continue as a democracy:


289 …an ideal of citizens sharing in deliberatively determining the future shape of their society.  If democratic society is the “self” that citizens determine, it is a self that does not define their best interests.  There remain independent standards for defining the best interests of individuals and reasons for thinking that individuals, rather than collectivities, are often the best judges of their own interests.  To avoid the misleading metaphysical connotations of the concept of collective self-determination, we might better understand the democratic ideal as that of conscious social reproduction, the same ideal that guided democratic education. 


Gutmann emphasizes that democratic education provides the foundation upon which democratic society.  But the “dependency is reciprocal.”  If the participants in the education of future citizens are not democratically inclined, the education provided may not yield citizens who are democratic.  But doesn’t this raise “the chicken and egg problem”: if deliberative democratic citizens are needed for democratic education, and democratic education is necessary if we are to have democratic education, isn’t democracy impossible? 


7. Solutions, or what?  


11 The primary aim of a democratic theory of education is not to offer solutions to all the problems plaguing our educational institutions, but to consider ways of resolving those problems that are compatible with a commitment to democratic values…. 

  we cannot simply translate our own moral ideals of education, however objective they are, in to public policy.  Only in a society in which all other citizens agreed with me would my moral ideal simply translate into a political idea. 


Really, she doesn’t want to offer solutions?  What does she mean by “considering ways of resolving problems that are compatible with a commitment to “democratic values?”   


Is her commitment to democratic values more “basic,” or fundamental than to her “moral values?”  Does she believe her commitment is one all individuals share?  Does she believe all her fellow citizens share it? 



8. Does multiculturalism imply that differing cultural values equal? 


In The epilogue Gutmann defends multiculturalism.  She contends:


307 When public school texts and teachers present narratives of moral choices in politics, they set the stage for students to think about these choices as democratic citizens.  A multicultural history should not imply…that competing cultural beliefs and practice are equally valuable.  There would be little point to understanding competing beliefs and practices if their equal value would simply be assumed. 


308 …[an]  important response of democratic education in a multi-cultural context is to help students understand the merits (and limits) of tolerating competing conceptions of the good life, and thereby respecting the rights of all individuals to pursue their conception of the good life to the extent that these conceptions are consistent with respecting the equal rights of other individuals.  Agreeing to disagree about conceptions of the good life is essential to securing the basic liberty of all individuals.  Religious differences have long been among the most salient cultural differences in democratic societies.  Deliberative democracy is committed to protecting religious freedom along with other basic liberties, such as freedom of speech.  On matters of basic liberty, a democratic education teaches toleration of cultural differences on grounds of reciprocity: mutual respect for the personal integrity of all persons. 


But are we sufficiently tolerant to be able to live up to this?  All of us, most of us, many of us…. 


Suggestions for Further Study:


Additional Gutmann Books:


Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement: Why Moral Conflict Cannot Be Avoided In Politics, and What Should Be Done About It (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996). 


Why Deliberative Democracy?  (Princeton: Princeton UP., 2004) 


Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It (Princeton: Princeton UP., 2012). 


On My Webpage:


Education, Indoctrination, and Academic Freedom


My View of The Nature of A Liberal Arts Education


Hate Speech and Democratic Responsibility: Rights, Civility, and Dignity


Additional Resources:


Democracy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry (New York: Henry Holt; 1927).  Reprinted, Melvin L. Rogers (ed.) (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012).  



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Last revised on 04/04/23