Conference Papers

Autonomy and The Four Capacities

The purpose of the Scottish curriculum is encapsulated in the four capacities of a CfE, namely, to create successful learners, effective contributors, responsible citizens and confident individuals. These capacities, along with their associated skills, values and dispositions, all point, it seems, to a highly individualistic conception of the aims and purposes of education (see Biesta, 2008). I wish to question this claim.
While there seems to be little reasoned support for the selection and espousal of these four particular capacities and the values they embody, some justification can be found in A Curriculum for Excellence (Scottish Executive, 2004). The reasons advanced for the four capacities are based on the virtues of wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity. Seemingly an arbitrary selection (Gilles, 2006), these values have been prized in varying degrees by many philosophers such as Aristotle and Rawls, and have underpinned the enduring idea of a liberal education (see Hirst 1972; Nussbaum, 1998).
In this conceptual paper, I will argue that the capacities might be seen as embodying the ideals of a liberal education, more particularly that they may embody the ideals of autonomy, a concept that, in its various guises, has over time shaped philosophical thought about the person. In the liberal philosophical tradition, the separateness of persons is a basic fact for normative thought and action. It is the individual who is to be educated, where education is seen as the ‘deliberate, purposeful activity directed to the development of individuals’ (Hirst,1972:391). The deeper idea is that, following Seneca (1995), students’ minds should be liberated from habit and tradition, to question the status quo and cherished values. Students should be nurtured to be critical so that they can increasingly take command of their minds, so taking responsibility for their own thought and actions. Autonomy, thus, should be an important aim of education (Dearden, 1972).
Autonomy is not, as has been conceived by poststructuralists and critical theorists, necessarily individualistic, rational and abstract; and autonomous agents are not in danger of being too self-sufficient, removed from meaningful relationships to be participatory and leading members of their communities. Such beings are firmly rooted in the social world of persons, developing their plans, goals and values in social relations with others. Indeed, autonomy is valuable in any field in which we can advance reasons for action. These aspirations are articulated in a CfE.
I will not suggest that the capacities are not unproblematic. Inevitably they are since they embody values deriving from (representatives of) the state or some supposed national narrative about the nation’s values. I am not unaware either of the criticisms that we are educating human capital to be harvested for economic wealth creation. I will acknowledge such issues. I propose that we approach CfE from a different, perhaps now unfamiliar angle, given the predominance of postmodernist and poststructuralist thought in educational discourse, to ask if there is a positive account to be made of a CfE and the four capacities.

Mackenzie, A. (2014) 'Autonomy and The Four Capacities', paper presented to The 10th Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association (BESA), 26–27 June, viewed 08 August 2020, <>