Communitarianism and education

Communitarianism has become the focus of some debate and interest – but what is it, and what implications does the communitarian agenda have for education?

contents: introduction · philosophical communitarianism · political communitarianism · communitarianism and education · conclusion · further reading and references · links
Picture: Litchen community on Alpine rock by Richard Droker. Flickr | ccybncnd2


It is helpful to separate what might be called philosophical communitarianism from political communitarianism. Under the former category various social theorists such as Charles Taylor, Alistair MacIntyre and Michael Walzer have been placed although not necessarily by themselves. The best known advocate of the latter position is Amitai Etzioni (1995; 1997) – and this view has found some organizational expression in the United States, and in some of the rhetoric of ‘New Labour’ in Britain.

Philosophical communitarianism

The various writers that are grouped together as communitarianism may well have expressed some disquiet about being so labelled – and some of the conclusions drawn by others concerning their position, but it is possible to discern a distinctive anti-individualism in much of their work. According to Frazer (2000: 21) this involves three theses. That:

It is not the case that all there is in the world is individuals (we have also to look at the significance of collectives, institutions etc. – see the discussion of selfhood).

Ethically we need to look to the social individual or collective and the significance of reciprocity, trust, solidarity etc. (what has sometimes been discussed as social capital).

Methodologically it is necessary ‘to interpret and refine values that are immanent in the ways of life of really living groups – societies, communities’ (op. cit.).

These three themes in turn generate three important inferences – and here again Frazer (2000: 21-23) provides a very helpful overview:

Communitarians take issue with the idea that the individual stands and should stand in direct unmediated relationship with the state and with society. This is an idea that flows through a great deal of contemporary legal and political thought in northern countries. Communitarians argue for the continuing significance of status and local networks, and the potential of other intermediate institutions (ibid.: 21-22)

Communitarians dispute the place of a free unregulated market as the key social institution, and the idea that free market exchanges are a particular right and even natural pattern of human relationships. It is important to focus on the role of mediating institutions and norm-governed ways of doing things (ibid.: 22).

Communitarians promote a distinctive set of values. They value community itself, and tradition. They will also argue for debate and dialogue about what constitutes the significant values in a particular society – there cannot be a universal list for what is important will depend upon the traditions and ways of life in that society (ibid.: 22-3).

One of the interesting points of division or contention amongst those labelled as communitarian is the extent to which they embrace liberalism.  While some, such as Charles Taylor would endorse liberalism in some forms, others like Sandel would not.

Political communitarianism

Political communitarianism is something of a ragbag of elements. However, a flavour of the political movement is given by Etzioni (below).

Exhibit 1: Etzioni’s political communitarianism

We hold these truths

We hold that a moral revival in these United States is possible without Puritanism; that is, without busybodies meddling into our personal affairs, without thought police controlling our intellectual life. We can attain a recommitment to moral values – without puritanical excesses.

We hold that law and order can be restored without turning this country of the free into a police state, as long as we grant public authorities some carefully crafted and circumscribed new powers.

We hold that the family – without which no society has ever survived, let alone flourished – can be saved, without forcing women to stay at home or otherwise violating their rights.

We hold that schools can provide essential moral education – without indoctrinating young people.

We hold that people can live in communities without turning to vigilantes or becoming hostile to one another.

We hold that our call for increased social responsibilities… is not a call for curbing rights. On the contrary, strong rights presume strong responsibilities.

We hold that the pursuit of self-interest can be balanced by a commitment to the community, without requiring us to lead a life of austerity, altruism, or self-sacrifice….

We hold that powerful special-interest groups in the nation’s capital, and in so many statehouses and city halls, can be curbed without limiting the constitutional right of the people to lobby and petition those who govern….

We hold these truths as Communitarians, as people committed to creating a new moral, social, and public order based on restored communities, without puritanism or oppression.

Etzioni (1995: 1-2)

There are different strands within this movement – and hence considerable debate about the various elements that Etzioni lists, but the platform outlined remains a fair statement of key positions. Community was to be the central concept, ‘supported by traditional concepts of the family, values and education’ (Arthur 2000: 14). It is this latter element that has generated the most heat. Political communitarianism, it can be argued, looks to containing difference and the cultivation of a ‘new moral, social and public order’ (Frazer 2000 brings out other problems). Sennett (1998: 143) argues that it ‘falsely emphasizes unity as the source of strength in a community and mistakenly fears that when conflicts arise in a community, social bonds are threatened’. Within it there does seem to be a dislike of politics and a tendency to see great danger in plurality and difference. Moral conflict is often viewed as threatening the ability to establish community. An alternative reading (and one that is adopted here) is that difference is good for democratic life provided that we cultivate a sense of reciprocity, and ways of working that encourage deliberation. The search is not for the sort of common good that many communitarians seek (Guttman and Thompson 1996: 92) but rather for ways in which people may share in a common life. Moral disagreement will persist – the key is whether we can learn to respect and engage with each other’s ideas, behaviours and beliefs.

Communitarianism and education

James Arthur (with the help of Richard Bailey) has explored the implications of the communitarian agenda for education (or more particularly, schooling). He looks beyond the political communitarianism of Etzioni and others, to the concerns of Taylor, Sandel and other social theorists, He suggests that the core ideas in the communitarian agenda can be reduced to ten basic themes – all of which have policy implications for schools.

Exhibit 2: The communitarian agenda for education

James Arthur (2000: 136-141) argues that ten basic themes run through the communitarian agenda for education:

1. The family should be the primary moral educator of children.

2. Character education includes the systematic teaching of virtues in schools.

3. The ethos of the community has an educative function in school life.

4. Schools should promote the rights and responsibilities inherent within citizenship.

5. Community service is an important part of a child’s education in school.

6. A major purpose of the school curriculum is to teach social and political life-skills.

7. Schools should provide an active understanding of the common good.

8. Religious schools are able to operate a strong version of the communitarian perspective.

9. Many existing community-based education practices reflect the features of the communitarian perspective.

10. Schools should adopt a more democratic structure of operating.

One of the interesting features of this list is the extent to which it connects up with the concerns of educationalists such as Dewey and Lindemann. There are obvious points of similarity (such as the concern for the school as a community, for promoting participation in a shared life, and a concern for democracy). There are also significant points of departure – particularly in emphasis. Dewey and others, for example,  might well argue that the fostering of democracy should be the central focus of education. Furthermore, the less than tolerant tones of some political communitarianism would run counter to an interest in dialogue and discernment.

Arthur (2000: 141-2) argues that there are a number of tensions and unresolved issues within communitarian perspectives on education. That:

There is no comprehensive theory of education from a communitarian perspective – there isn’t currently the coherence or range to do so (especially given the different schools within communitarian thinking).

There is a basic tension in much of the thinking around the threat (or otherwise of individual autonomy and communal solidarity.

It is a public philosophy largely without a public – it is a discourse largely conducted by academics.

There are a number of questions whether the themes outlined above are either attractive to, or workable within, current schooling systems in northern countries.

This said, it can be argued that the sort of themes that Arthur outlines above provide us with a helpful set of questions for exploring some aspects of schooling. Should we teach virtue – and if we are to – what virtues are to be valued? What is the significance of ‘character education’? To what extent, and how, should schooling be democratized?


While some of the rhetoric of communitarianism has found its way into political discourse in the USA and UK (especially through some of the language of ‘New Labour’ in the latter), the way in which it has been reworked has led to some policy initiatives that would seem to run counter to a concern for the common good (for example, in the language of social inclusion around the Connexions strategy in England that in reality hides a deep individualization of social questions). Communitarianism provides us with some interesting themes and questions concerning education, but its political manifestation has looked uncomfortably authoritarian.

Further reading and references

Arthur, J. with Bailey, R. (2000) Schools and Community. The communitarian agenda in education, London: Falmer. 165 + ix pages. Helpful review of the main communitarian themes and what might constitute the ‘communitarian agenda’. Arthur and Bailey bring out some of the contrasting ‘traditions’ of thinking and practice and link these, in particular, to schooling. There is also a discussion of the place of religiously affiliated schools.

Etzioni, A. (1995) The Spirit of Community. Rights responsibilities and the communitarian agenda, London: Fontana Press. 323 + xii pages. Influential US text that argues for the balancing of individualism with social responsibility. The section titles provide an insight into the line: shoring up morality; too many rights, too few responsibilities; the public interest.

Etzioni, A. (1997) The New Golden Rule. Community and morality in a democratic society, London: Profile Books. 314 + xxi pages. Interesting development of communitarian debates based around what Etzioni sees as the two cardinal founding principles  and core virtues of the good society: social order (based on moral values) and autonomy (or “thick” liberty). The “golden rule” is where these are in equilibrium.

Frazer, E. (1999) The Problem of Communitarian Politics. Unity and conflict, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 279 + ix pages. Very helpful exploration and critique of the subject with some useful material on community.

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 541 pages. Brilliant setting out of analysis and evidence concerning the decline and possible reconstruction of civil life in the United States.


Guttman, A. and Thompson, D. (1996) Democracy and Disagreement, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Sennett, R. (1998) The Corrosion of Character. The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism, New York: Norton.

Walzer, M. (1997) On Tolerance, New Haven: Yale University Press.

How to cite this piece: Smith, Mark K. (2001) ‘Communitarianism and education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 2001. Updated June 2019.