Date of Award

Spring 2007

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This dissertation develops the concept of critical autonomy as a theoretical framework to guide responses to social class oppression in schooling. The project is grounded on Cheryl Misak and C. S. Peirce's arguments about inquiry and their implications for holding knowledge claims, especially claims to self-knowledge. As a result, critical autonomy presupposes the need for engagement in a community of inquiry. Unlike other theories of autonomy that may acknowledge that autonomy is nurtured socially but is realized in isolation, I argue that critical autonomy is enhanced through the constant process of inquiry with other inquirers. Thus it is always a relational concept.

Rather than arguing that the conception of critical autonomy will help agents transcend the challenges of living within oppressive social contexts, it grounds itself in the contradiction at the heart of oppression and offers a solution that is itself paradoxical. We wish to make our lives our "own," living them from the "inside" as Will Kymlicka describes it, but to do so, we must draw on "external" resources to foster independence. Of course, it is paradoxical to link increasing one's individual autonomy with greater dependence upon others, but it is the key to critical autonomy.

I also argue that schools can support critical autonomy by fostering the conditions in which on-going collaborative inquiry into a wide variety of beliefs and claims to knowledge thrives. Such an environment help students engage in analyses of knowledge claims as well as the processes that led to those claims in a variety of domains, both academic and personal. I explore the ways that an autonomy-enhancing context is created through collaborative inquiry amongst students, teachers, parents, and school officials on a variety of questions.