Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

Garsten, Bryan


Education has long been romanticized by political thinkers for its supposed power to shape ideal selves and societies. This dissertation examines the history of political thought on education and contends that citizens are principally educated through socialization by law, culture, and institutions. Revealing the limits of utilitarian visions of education as subject formation, this dissertation ultimately argues against the excessive idealization of education as a means of realizing individual and collective projects of becoming. It argues for a revaluation of education as a truth-seeking activity for all ages.In “Molding Citizens: Plato’s Question,” I offer a rereading of Plato’s body of work through the lens of education. Against common readings, I contend that Socrates was less a model teacher and more a model student who forced Plato to grapple with whether good citizens are the products of good teachers and with whether education as a truth-seeking activity is antithetical to that civic end. I show how Plato maintained that good citizenship is not primarily the result of a teacher’s lessons, but of the law, culture, and institutions that structure lifelong association. I further demonstrate how he considered whether the socialization that determines becoming could be intentionally designed and perfected. In “Cultivating Man: Rousseau’s Experiment,” I argue that Rousseau saw a critical problem with Plato’s model because association will only produce ideal persons and citizens if and when a given society is already ideal. In response, Rousseau offered his Emile as an experiment in limiting socialization at the individual level in order to create a new ideal who might resist the toxic effects of a non-ideal society. Against common readings, I contend that Rousseau did not advocate molding persons toward predetermined models. Instead, he suggested cultivating the potential of each individual through a personalized and inimitable educational program of anti-socialization. Rousseau also put his theory into practice by creating curated fictional worlds for his readers, writing novels that provided ideal, private, and imagined experiences of socialization. In “Developing Liberal Democrats: Dewey’s Synthesis,” I reveal how Dewey sought to harmonize the apparent tensions between Plato and Rousseau by generating a democratic theory of education still embraced by contemporary political theorists today. Following Hegel, Dewey maintained that educators need not choose between educating for the individual and educating for society because each could be perfected through the other. Analyzing his conception of education as growth, I show that although Dewey claimed to embrace an idea of education that has no end and is lifelong, he ultimately relied on a necessarily progressive view of education that placed excessive, undue hope on the institution of the school. I demonstrate how in relegating all education to the service of society, Dewey owed more to Plato than is typically realized, and that because he did not adequately recognize the value of individuals understood as separable from their contribution to social progress, he further foreclosed the possibility of education as a purely private or solitary truth-seeking activity. In “Realizing the Revolution: Freire’s Critical Pedagogy,” I introduce political theorists to Paulo Freire, a pedagogue whose reception in the United States as a founder of critical pedagogy made him a giant in the field of education studies but obscured his contributions to political thought. Whereas Plato, Rousseau, and Dewey each stressed the power and importance of ongoing socialization from childhood, Freire took a different approach, suggesting that one’s interpretation of experience is more important to becoming than experience itself. Taking adult education as his starting point, Freire suggested that what society needed was not a theory of learning for children, but rather a theory of unlearning for adults that would result in concrete action against all oppression in society. Valuing neither stability nor incremental progress, Freire redefined education as a praxis that prompts critical consciousness and radical change. For him, education could never and should never aspire to be neutral or separate from becoming and the realization of ideals. Finally, in “Living to Learn: An Alternative,” I conclude by defending education as a truth-seeking activity separable from projects of individual and collective becoming. Having examined how each thinker resolves or struggles with the tension between these two “spirits” of education, usually in favor of becoming, I argue for a reassessment of education as an intrinsically valuable practice of truth-seeking to be enjoyed by children but most especially by adults within and outside the boundaries of the school.