Forming Autonomous Citizens – The Role of Education


Citizenship education focuses on the development of an autonomous personality which is characterized by democratic political identity and understanding of and respect for diversity.  “Education for democratic citizenship” means education, training, awareness-raising, information, practices and activities which aim, by equipping learners with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behavior, to empower them to exercise and defend their democratic rights and responsibilities in society, to value diversity and to play an active part in democratic life, with a view to the promotion and protection of democracy and the rule of law» (Council of Europe).

Key Words: Political Identity, Autonomy, Citizenship Education

This paper aims to explore autonomy as a key feature of political identity that is formed by the school system. It is a theoretical work that analyzes specific aspects of citizenship education.

The issue of autonomy has attracted the attention of philosophical thought over the centuries. From Plato and Aristotle to Kant, Durkheim, Dewey and Castoriadis, philosophers have expounded their views on the notion of free will. The term autonomy (from autos ‘self’ + nomos ‘law’) signifies one’s capacity to provide oneself with laws and to be aware of doing so. The relationship between autonomy and heteronomy appears in Plato’s early political theory. In Protagoras two moral sentiments are mentioned, aidos and dike, which constitute the basis of an individual’s capacity to partake in societal life. According to Despotopoulos, aidos should lead to polis harmony by inspiring citizens to act in a just manner (autonomy), while dike should guide citizens towards behavioral commitments (heteronomy) thus ensuring state cohesion. These two principles can lead to philia, i.e. the moral unity of the state, which should result in consensus and amity among citizens (1980).

Autonomy and Education 

In the course of their development, individuals need to gain biological, emotional and intellectual autonomy. Formal education is mainly interested in the development of emotional, and intellectual autonomy. If intellectual autonomy, in the sense of defining one’s own goals through critical thinking, is the individual’s crowning achievement, emotional autonomy should not be underestimated. On the contrary, it has been argued that emotional and intellectual development occur in parallel with each other and hence a comparative evaluation of the two is rather meaningless.

School seems to be the most appropriate institution for the child’s social development and autonomy.  Entry to education inaugurates an entirely new setting than that of family. At this stage, to use a metaphor, the child strides out of the sheltered space of privacy into the vast public sphere, the space of social discourse, personalized authority, and democracy. In this new context, the child ceases to be ‘unique’ and becomes ‘one of many identical persons’. School is primarily regarded as an institution of socialization and a space of democratic values cultivation. To put it differently, the school is an institution whose main task is to develop collective consciousness. In Durkheim’s social theory, pedagogy has a political dimension, as it bears all the characteristics of society, of rules and of learning which are also fundamental to the process of socialization (1974). According to Castoriadis, the aim of education is, “… to transform, to alter the set of pulsions and unbridled imagination, so as to become a human in the full sense of the word. A human, as Aristotle maintained, a being with the capacity to rule and to be ruled” (1990).

Education, therefore, is not merely aimed at internalizing social coercions, but also at developing critical acceptance and understanding of social and political institutions. The development of this capacity leads to intellectual autonomy. The term intellectual autonomy refers to critical thinking, a way of thinking which can only be produced by science. Dworkin defines intellectual autonomy as, “a second-order capacity of persons to reflect critically upon their first-order preferences, desires, wishes, and so forth and the capacity to accept or attempt to change these in light of higher-order preferences and values. By exercising such a capacity, persons define their nature, give meaning and coherence to their lives, and take responsibility for the kind of person they are (1998).

The traditional authoritarian pedagogical model which prevailed until the late 19th century is unconcerned with the issue of autonomy in education. The key features of this model are a teacher-centred approach, the use of threats and corporal punishment. In this context, both the educator and the student exist in an atmosphere of generalized authoritarianism specific to the socio-historical reality. A sense of freedom in pedagogical reality first appears with the Progressive Education model in the late 19th century, which endorses student initiative and self-motivation. This change is not independent of the social and political-ideological views and developments of the era in which it occurs. In fact, the new circumstances cause the pursuit of a qualitatively different pedagogical practice which should be founded on autonomy.

Autonomy-oriented curricula propose the development of knowledge, skills and habits that promote civic values. Educators are also involved in this process. Given that democratic citizenship is mostly built through social interaction rather than through syllabuses and circulars, and that educators are entrusted with the task of applying and developing the moral, mental and learning objectives of specialized activities, their contribution to building personal autonomy is crucial. Educators who aim to promote autonomous citizenship should themselves follow the Popperian path. They should expose their thoughts, beliefs and plans to scrutiny, review and potential rejection.


COUNCIL OF EUROPE Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)7

ΔΕΣΠΟΤΟΠΟΥΛΟΣ Κ. (1980). Πολιτική φιλοσοφία του Πλάτωνος. Αθήνα: Παπαζήση.

DURKHEIM E. (1974, 1st ed. 1963). L’ education morale. Paris: Presses Universitaires De France.

DWORKIN G. (1988). The Theory and Practice of Autonomy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 6, as cited in BRIDGES D., Education, Autonomy and Democratic Citizenship, London and New York: Routledge.