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'The Science of Liberty is Not So Simple': Teaching Democratic Thinking in Revolutionary France

Adrian O'Connor


This article examines education’s place in the French Revolution of 1789 and, more specifically, how ideas about education shaped the pursuit of a democratic and participatory politics in revolutionary France. Highlighting three foci of revolutionary pedagogy – skills, habits, and dispositions – as well as the ways in which ideas about education underwrote the social, political, and cultural ambitions of the Revolution, it explores education’s role in making democratic politics and a democratic society appear desirable, attainable, and sustainable. Analyzing these eighteenth century efforts to “teach democratic thinking,” this article also aims to clarify what is at stake in contemporary discussions of democratic education, offers an historically-minded approach and a genealogy to current debates about the purposes and practices of education, and suggests criteria with which to consider pedagogical, institutional, technological, and social issues regarding education and its future.

Keywords: democratic education; French Revolution; political pedagogy

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