Book Review: Justice, education and the politics of childhood: Challenges and perspectives.

Book Review: Justice, education and the politics of childhood: Challenges and perspectives, edited by Johannes Drerup, Gunter Graf, Christoph Schickhardt, and Gottfried Schweiger

Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016. Pp. 253 + 22. Hb. £74.50. E-book £58.99.

Reviewed by Anders Schinkel, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands

No review can do justice to all the chapters in an edited volume such as this, which includes fifteen chapters as well as a substantial introduction. So after a brief overview of the book, I will concentrate in this review on those chapters that deal, more or less directly, with issues related to education and childrearing.

The editors note that “questions concerning the moral, legal, and political status of children and childhood are widely debated in a variety of academic disciplines”, and their intention with this volume is “to contribute to these ongoing interdisciplinary controversies by developing new perspectives on the diverse theoretical and practical challenges posed by political and ethical issues related to children and childhood” (p. ix). This is quite a broad, unspecific aim, but that does not mean it is not worth pursuing. I know of no other book that brings together such a broad range of ethical and political issues concerning children; there is some similarity in set-up, for instance, with David Archard and Colin Murray Macleod’s edited volume The Moral and Political Status of Children (2002), but the present volume – though still strongly philosophical – is clearly more interdisciplinary. As such, it offers opportunities for scholars from different disciplines to explore other perspectives on their subject, and connections between their own and other fields.

In the introduction the editors do an excellent job of explaining the organization of the book, highlighting the central themes, and summarizing the chapters (making the reviewer’s job easy in this regard). The book is divided into three parts. Part I deals with some foundational concepts and questions in the philosophy – particularly the ethics and political philosophy – of childhood: the moral and political status of children; the normative role of conceptions of children’s autonomy, well-being, and flourishing; and the justification of paternalism. The texts in Part II deal with three questions concerning justice for children: 1) “What is the adequate currency of justice for children?”; 2) “What principles should guide the distribution of the relevant currency of justice among children and in relation to adults?”; and 3) “Who or which institutions are responsible for the protection and preservation of justice for children?” (p. xii). Part III is entitled “The politics of childhood”; this is the most diverse but also the least coherent of the three parts. As another reviewer has remarked (Platz, 2017), not altogether unjustly, the breadth of content and interdisciplinary approach of this volume are strengths that come at the price of loose coherence between the individual contributions. In my view, this is most evident in the third part, but the problem is partly in its name. Calling it something like “Education and Childrearing” would have better captured the connections between the chapters there. Overall, however, there are many interconnections and common threads between the different chapters, and the volume as a whole is certainly more unified than one commonly sees in these kinds of collections.

One theme that connects a number of the contributions is the concept of the intrinsic goods of childhood, as developed in the work of, among others, Anca Gheaus (2014) and Samantha Brennan (2014) (neither of whom contribute to this volume). This is the idea that what is good about childhood cannot be reduced to what it contributes to later (adult) life. It plays a central role in the contributions of Colin Macleod (ch. 1, “Constructing children’s rights”) and Alexander Bagattini (ch. 2, “Future-oriented paternalism and the intrinsic goods of childhood”), but is also touched upon in Lars Lindblom’s chapter (ch. 6, “Equality of what for children”). The concepts of autonomy and well-being, too, (naturally) figure not just in Part I but also in contributions to Parts II and III.

Five chapters deal more or less directly with education or childrearing: Bagattini’s chapter concerns the justification of parental paternalism, and thus deals with childrearing on a very abstract level. Bagattini argues for a type of future-oriented paternalism – the idea that parents may subordinate children’s current interests with a view to their future interests (e.g. in autonomy or happiness) – that balances future interests against current interests, where the latter are understood as including intrinsic goods of childhood, such as “children’s interest in purposeless play, imagination and joy” (p. 29). This view seems reasonable, but also somewhat trivial – or at least it will seem trivial to those who reject a purely instrumental conception of childhood, which I presume in this day and age is most people. Also, some of the “conflict” that is meant to generate interest in this chapter appears to me somewhat artificial. It may be that the instrumental conception of childhood offers an easy rationale for future-oriented paternalism, but from that, it does not necessarily follow that it becomes hard to defend the latter once one has rejected the former. Hence the “dilemmatic situation” mentioned by Bagattini – “on the one hand, future-oriented paternalism is morally flawed because its underlying rationale is invalid. On the other hand, we need future-oriented paternalism to do justice to the child’s future interests as an adult” (p. 28) – does not really seem that dilemmatic at all.

Clemens Sedmak’s chapter “‘My place’? Catholic social teaching and the politics of Geborgenheit” concerns an important aspect of a good educational (or childrearing) climate, namely, that children need to feel geborgen, i.e. safe, a sense of belonging, of being warmly loved, wanted, and cared for. The concept of Geborgenheit is central to this chapter, so again, childrearing and education do not take centre stage, but the educational relevance of the concept is obvious, and the analysis is interesting. Sedmak offers a detailed analysis of the concept in terms of the “space” required for it, the type of care it entails, and the identity-supporting function of the various aspects of Geborgenheit. To my mind, the paragraph in which Sedmak traces the role of Geborgenheit in Catholic Social Teaching does not contribute much to an otherwise very interesting analysis of a relatively neglected concept.

Johannes Drerup’s chapter (ch. 8: “The politics of the level playing field. Equality of opportunity and educational justice”), the longest chapter in the book, makes the interesting point that, compared to adequacy conceptions of educational justice, conceptions of equality of opportunity are better able to take account of the specifically educational dimension of educational justice. This has to do with the special role that the value of autonomy plays in the educational context. Drerup observes:

While traditional rejections of equality as an ideal of social justice often rest on the assumption that in the name of equality individual responsibility and autonomy are nullified, in the case of equality of opportunity as a principle of educational justice it is the other way round. Because personal responsibility (and thus some form of personal autonomy) is regarded as [central to the idea of opportunity] it seems unreasonable to apply principles of equality of opportunity to the educational field without further reflection. (pp. 122-123)

From an educational perspective, however, it would be wrong to treat children as completely non-autonomous below some threshold of autonomy, and as wholly autonomous above it. Moreover, our ascriptions of autonomy depend on our perception of the opportunities available to children, and vice versa: “[A]utonomy as an educational aim and equality of educational opportunity are … intertwined and … mutually supportive principles” (p. 128). Although the negative part of Drerup’s claim, i.e., that adequacy conceptions of educational justice have more difficulty with the educational dimension of educational justice, remains somewhat underdeveloped, the positive claim is well made and highlights a neglected aspect of the problem.

In Chapter 12, “Civic education, political or comprehensive?”, Elizabeth Edenberg defends the political liberal conception of civic education against common objections by distinguishing three different aspects in Rawls’ conception of reasonableness. Some commentators (Amy Gutmann, 1995; Eamonn Callan, 1996, 1997) believe that Rawls’ requirement that civic education include the cultivation of reasonableness implies the collapse of the distinction between political and comprehensive liberalism; others, on the other hand (such as Susan Okin, 1994, 2004), interpret the reasonableness requirement as being too lax, and reject political liberalism for that reason. A third group, in which Edenberg includes Stephen Macedo (1995), among others, agrees that the theoretical distinction between political and comprehensive liberalism holds, and finds political liberal civic education (PLCE) to be defensible, but also believes that the practical differences between political and comprehensive liberal civic education may not be significant. Edenberg argues that the reasonableness requirement has three components, which she calls: 1) the respect criterion (“one must recognize oneself and one’s fellow citizens as free and equal citizens who deserve fair terms of cooperation in society”, p. 192); 2) the burdens of judgment criterion (“one must recognize the burdens of judgment, which leads to recognizing the fact of reasonable pluralism”, p. 193); and 3) the legitimacy criterion (“one must accept the consequences of this recognition by using public reason when ‘directing the legitimate exercise of political power’ on matters of constitutional essentials and basis justice (PL, 54)”) (Edenberg’s reference here is to Rawls, 2005). Since Rawls intends his political liberalism to be broadly inclusive in scope, the question is which criteria of reasonableness are compatible with this aim (p. 193). Edenberg then argues that “[a] civic education that teaches children the respect criterion and the burdens of judgment criterion will be distinctive to political liberalism while maintaining the broadly inclusive scope of reasonableness” (p. 197). She goes on to say that reasonableness becomes too restrictive if it is taken to include also the legitimacy criterion, and that the latter, therefore, should not be included in PLCE. This is because the liberal principle of legitimacy – which grounds legitimacy in the use of public reason, in exclusive reliance on arguments available and understandable to all – is not the only possible (reasonable) conception of legitimacy. Edenberg’s argument is clear and carefully constructed, and poses an interesting challenge to those who either find PLCE indefensible or see it as undistinguishable from comprehensive liberal forms of civic education.

Finally, in Chapter 14, “Education for autonomy in the context of consumer culture”, Phillip Knobloch argues for the relevance of the concepts of critical consumer education and consumer aesthetic education for (thinking about) education for autonomy. To argue that, to preserve autonomy as an educational aim, it is necessary, in a consumer society, to provide critical consumer education, is a common view; and media education is often seen as part of this. Knobloch’s contribution lies in the emphasis he places on the aesthetic dimension of consumer culture, including critical and sustainable consumption, and, particularly, the role of fictions in such a culture and our awareness of them. While there are some interesting insights here, the concept of autonomy remains underdeveloped, and the conclusion Knobloch reaches, that autonomy is itself  “overall an important fiction” – while it may contain an important element of truth – calls for more argument than the author offers. It begs the question what makes this an important or valuable fiction, rather than one we might as well ignore?

Political philosophy and philosophy of education sometimes seem to proceed on parallel tracks (with philosophers of education rather more aware of what goes on adjacent to them than vice versa), but this interdisciplinary volume is a good example of how things can be. It shows that political philosophy cannot ignore children and education, and that education and childrearing are inherently ethical and political practices. It does this through contributions that in many cases do offer fresh perspectives on familiar challenges.



Archard, D. and C.M. Macleod (Eds) (2002) The moral and political status of children, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brennan, S. (2014) “The goods of childhood and children’s rights”, in F. Baylis and C. McLeod (eds), Family-making: Contemporary ethical challenges, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 29-45.

Callan, E. (1996) “Political liberalism and political education”, Review of Politics 58(1), pp. 5-33.

Callan, E. (1997) Creating citizens: Political education and liberal democracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gheaus, A. (2014) “The intrinsic goods of childhood and the just society”, in A. Bagattini and C. Macleod (eds), The nature of children’s well-being: Theory and practice, Dordrecht:  Springer, pp. 35-53.

Gutmann, A. (1995) “Civic education and social diversity”, Ethics 105(3), pp. 557-579.

Macedo, S. (1995) “Liberal civic education and religious fundamentalism: The case of God v. John Rawls?”, Ethics 105(3), pp. 468-496.

Okin, S. M. (1994) “Political liberalism, justice, and gender”, Ethics 105(1), pp. 23-43.

Okin, S. M. (2004) “Gender, Justice and gender: An unfinished debate”, Fordham Law Review 72(5), pp. 1537-1567.

Platz, M. (2017) “Review of Johannes Drerup, Gunter Grad, Christoph Schickhardt, Gottfried Schweiger (2016) (Eds): Justice, Education, and the Politics of Childhood, Switzerland:   Springer International Publishing”, in Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, Band 71(1), pp. 169-172.

Rawls, J. (2005) Political liberalism: Expanded edition, New York: Columbia University Press.


You can read an interview with the book’s editors here.