Book Review: Liberty and Education: A civic republican approach

Book Review: Liberty and Education: A civic republican approach, by Geoffrey Hinchliffe

London, Routledge, 2014. Pp. 174. Hb. £90.00.

Reviewed by Neil Hopkins, University of Bedfordshire

Geoffrey Hinchliffe’s book, Liberty and Education, is an important contribution to the literature on republican conceptions of liberty and non-domination and how these might relate to the contemporary field of education. Hinchliffe draws on the work of Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit, and J.G.A. Pocock in his discussion of republicanism and recent political philosophy. Broadly speaking, republicanism (in its contemporary guise) emphasises a theory of liberty around freedom as non-domination. This is to be distinguished from freedom as non-interference (which has tended to predominate in Anglo-American political philosophy over the past few centuries). Where Skinner, Pettit, and Pocock differ from the classical forms of republicanism associated with fourth-century Athens or the Roman Republic is in regard to political participation: contemporary republican theorists tend not to view political engagement as a necessary component of leading a good life. In this regard, Skinner, Pettit, and Pocock adhere to contemporary liberal political philosophy by not advocating a particular conception of the good.

Hinchliffe’s book is set out in four parts. In Part One, he gives an account of republican liberty (based primarily on Skinner but also with references to Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Locke to give an historical perspective to the theory). Part Two frames republican theory within a theory of knowledge that draws extensively on John McDowell’s Mind and World (1994), especially his concept of a ‘space of reasons’, and the implications this theory has for education. In Part Three, Hinchliffe investigates the relationship between authority and republican forms of liberty (with particular emphasis on notions of educational authority and teacher authority). The fourth (and final) part discusses Antonio Gramsci’s ideas on hegemony (based on his Selections from Prison Notebooks (1971)) in relation to aspects of knowledge and educational processes.

As stated above, Hinchliffe defines liberty in terms of freedom as non-domination. This liberty is envisaged within the parameters of what Hinchliffe refers to as a ‘free state’: ‘the relation between states is one that is free of domination, and at the same time within such a state the relation between persons is free of dominion as well’ (p. 10). However, this republican free state is non-eudaimonic because, in the words of Hinchliffe, ‘republicans endorse the freedom not to flourish [as well as the freedom to flourish] because the notion of self-determination…implies that one takes the consequences of one’s actions’ (p. 11). Hinchliffe makes very strong connections between liberty and human powers (especially in Chapter Three). For the author, ‘[a]s far as liberty is concerned, there are only two powers that really count: the power of self-determination and the power to co-operate with others’ (p. 35). It is important for Hinchliffe that these powers are seen as normative powers ‘without which the concept of liberty and liberty-bearing agents is incomprehensible’ (p. 37). Hinchliffe engages with capability theory by interpreting it in terms of the idea of liberty-bearing agents and the two human powers mentioned above. In this sense, capability is itself viewed as a form of self-determination to the extent that ‘[t]here is…a way of interpreting capabilities that sees them as not only contributing to but as exemplifying the liberty-bearing status of an agent’ (emphasis in the original) (p. 39).

What implications does this concept of liberty have for knowledge and education? It is here that Hinchliffe investigates McDowell’s ideas concerning the ‘space of reasons’.  The ‘space of reasons’ is defined in the book as ‘the domain in which liberty-bearing persons conduct themselves and interact with each other’ (p. 45). It is important, in this account, to connect the ‘space of reasons’ with what is referred to by Hinchliffe as ‘second nature’. ‘Second nature’ is conceived by Hinchliffe (from his reading of McDowell) as the ‘sensory processes and other experiences that we share with a natural world become saturated with conceptual meaning’ (p. 46). This opens up a long-standing debate in philosophy regarding the mind-world dualism and, for Hinchliffe, the space of reasons does not dissolve this dualism – in his view, ‘it provides a way of thinking through that relationship’ (p. 49). The theory of knowledge outlined in the book does not lend itself to what the author calls a ‘comprehensive pedagogic strategy’; instead pedagogy must adopt a modest role. Regarding theories of knowledge and education, the book critiques ‘propositional knowledge’ (which is often associated with the work of Paul Hirst). According to Hinchliffe, such forms of knowledge ‘are disconnected from experience, whereas in fact they arise from a certain understanding of the structuring of experience’ (p. 54). In keeping with not promoting a specific conception of the good, liberty is not to be seen as the aim of education but rather in terms of what the book calls ‘authoritative structures’.

Although we have already seen that Hinchliffe sets out a ‘modest’ role for pedagogy, he sets out in Chapter Six how teaching can facilitate or hinder liberty. Interestingly, he is sceptical (at times) of constructivist teaching methods and the development of what he calls ‘auto-pedagogy’. While many have linked constructivism with autonomy in education, Hinchliffe believes ‘[c]onstructivism seems to place a considerable burden and responsibility on the child’ (p. 78). He disconnects the concept of liberty from that of self-mastery: ‘if liberty is to be taken seriously then I should be free not to embrace self-management as a way of life’ (emphasis in the original) (p. 86). For Hinchliffe, many aspects of learner-centred pedagogies assume this level of self-mastery.  From a curriculum point-of-view, Hinchliffe agrees with Christopher Winch (for example) in emphasising the importance of knowing-how as well as knowing-that. But Hinchliffe is a strong advocate of subject disciplines – this is because ‘[a] subject-based curriculum respects children’s autonomy much more than a curriculum that is integrated through the promotion of holistic-based ends’ (p. 96). There is a certain scepticism expressed towards the idea of the curriculum focussing too keenly on personal development and personal relationships, as this potentially leads to a ‘narcissistic preoccupation with the self’ (p. 96), when schools should be aiming to aiming to open up pathways to the world through the subject disciplines.

The issue of liberty and authority (and where the boundaries occur) is a constant source of tension within political philosophy and theory. According to Liberty and Education, liberty ‘can only function within an authoritative normative order’ (p. 105). As an answer to the question ‘What is an authoritative normative order?’, Hinchliffe responds: a government that ‘constitutes laws and institutional structures premised on the idea that agents are free and liberty-bearing’ (p. 109). But what of authority within education itself? Hinchliffe explores educational authority through Amy Gutmann’s models in Democratic Education. Hinchliffe is keen to promote a democratic conception of educational authority where ‘[e]ducation is not a service and neither are teachers mere service-providers’ (p. 118). The author favours a return to the School Boards that were in existence in England at the inception of the state school system (and are still in existence in the United States) as a means of exerting democratic authority and control on the state system of education. Hinchliffe is concerned by the increasing centralisation of educational authority (exemplified by the current powers the Education Secretary now has regarding Academies). School Boards, in his view, ‘acted as a forum for local debate and discussion in a way rarely seen these days’ (p. 120). The authority of teachers needs to be derived from such a broad-based educational authority. Currently, this is not the case – OfSTED and the current inspection regime for schools and colleges comes in for particular criticism because it ‘treats teachers as the mere instruments of children’s learning who are not recognised…as being capable of bearing liberty’ (p. 126). Hinchliffe introduces the German concept of Beruf (or a sense of vocation that encompasses theoretical and occupational knowledge with civic and ethical responsibilities) as a way forward when reflecting on teacher authority, particularly within an accountable and participatory public sphere (or set of public spheres).

Authority leads neatly to hegemony and the work of Antonio Gramsci (in the final part of the book). Hinchliffe sees hegemony as ‘the supremacy of a set of ideas that privilege some social groups over others, that privilege certain activities over others’ (p. 144); he alludes to the dominance of business terminology and practices in contemporary education as an example of hegemony. Why Gramsci is important for Hinchliffe’s notion of liberty is because hegemony is not monolithic – there are always contradictions or ellipses in any hegemonic structure. Gramsci also believed in the possibility of counter-hegemony: ‘each person has a philosophical-intellectual dimension that enables them to play a part in constructing society both in terms of its physical, material character and at the level of meaning’ (p. 147).

Hinchliffe focuses on Gramsci’s criticism of the Gentile reforms in the Italian school system that favoured a more vocational approach to learning. In this sense, Hinchliffe implies, Gramsci is in agreement with him regarding an emphasis on a curriculum that favours subject disciplines of a broadly humanistic character. The study of history is of particular relevance: ‘For Gramsci, reflection without history is meaningless’ (p. 157).

This is an important and engaging book that makes a significant contribution to the literature. Hinchliffe grounds his ideas on liberty and education using credible philosophical forebears and theoretical frameworks. If there was more space within the book, a greater exploration of Pettit’s ideas on freedom as non-domination would have benefitted the book as a whole. Pettit provides a sophisticated analysis of the child and the role of parental and teacher authority from a republican point-of-view (especially in Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (1997)) that would have complemented the discussion in Part Three. Finally, can Hinchliffe’s work been seen as a civic republican approach? When one thinks of civic republicanism, we conjure up ideas of Aristotle’s polis and the Jacobins of Revolutionary France. Can an approach still be deemed ‘civic republican’ when it acknowledges there is not one dominant conception of the good? Discussion of that is for another book and another review.



Hinchliffe, G. (2015), Liberty and Education: A civic republican approach (Routledge)

Pettit, P. (1997), Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Clarendon Press)


You can read an interview with Geoff Hinchliffe on the Author Interviews page.

Neil Hopkins’ ‘Citizenship and Democracy in Further and Adult Education’ is reviewed here. You can read an interview with Neil here.