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Kenneth D. Benne (1908–1992)

Contribution, Concept of Democratic Authority, Social Foundations of Education

Kenneth D. Benne is well remembered as both an influential philosopher of education and a theorist of organizational change. The thematic link between these two domains was, for Benne, theorizing the practices of democratic life.


Born in 1908, Benne began his early career as an elementary and secondary school teacher in rural Kansas and went on to become a cofounder of three major scholarly organizations: the Philosophy of Education Society, the National Training Laboratories Institute of Behavioral Science, and the International Association of Applied Social Scientists. His breadth of interests and influence is further illustrated in his professional association presidencies: the Philosophy of Education Society, the American Education Fellowship, and the Adult Education Association of the United States.

Benne completed his B.S. degree in 1930 at Kansas State University with a double major in science and English literature. He completed an M.A. in philosophy at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1944. His doctoral dissertation, "A Conception of Authority," was published by Teachers College Bureau of Publications. It was republished in 1971 in response to that later era's challenges to authority in education and in the wider society. For a period of five decades and through professorships at Teachers College, Columbia; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Boston University, Benne continued to write, teach, and practice in the field of democratic educational and social change. His authorship includes more than 200 articles and books in philosophy, adult education, social science, and organizational change. He defied academic convention by publishing his poetry within his writings, and late in life self-published a volume of poems, Teach Me to Sing of Winter (1988), many of which he had sent to his friends over a fifty-year period.

Concept of Democratic Authority

For fifty years following his dissertation, Benne continued to search for how authority could be constituted in democratic life, and how people could develop the capacities to engage in democratic authority relations in their efforts to solve shared problems. Benne's original insights included a working conception of authority that distinguished it as a human relationship distinct from the more varied phenomena of power. In addition, he analyzed that relationship as triadic in nature, including a bearer of authority, a willing subject, and an agreed-on "field" of interaction that marks the limits of legitimate authority. Finally, he presented criteria for distinguishing nonauthoritarian from authoritarian authority relationships. Benne's concept of democratic authority depended heavily on dialogue among the participants in authority relations so that coercive influences could be detected and addressed. His commitment to dialogic authority prefigured German theorist Jurgen Habermas's conception of uncoerced speech communities, as well as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's dialogic pedagogy.

Social Foundations of Education

While Benne was working out his conception of authority in democratic life at Teachers College, he was also a part of the Kilpatrick discussion group there, named after the influential philosopher of education William Heard Kilpatrick and including R. Freeman Butts, Harold Rugg, George Counts, Bruce Raup, and other educational theorists with disciplinary roots in the social sciences and humanities. Over a period of fifteen years, this group founded and developed the field of social foundations of education, the interdisciplinary, critical analysis of the relationships between education and social contexts. Several Teachers College graduates, including Benne, migrated to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which became a site for the further development of the social foundations enterprise.

At Urbana, Benne teamed up with other social-foundations-trained scholars to create a social foundations division in the College of Education. There Benne coedited, with his University of Illinois colleagues B. O. Smith, Ralph Stanley, and Archibald Anderson, the Social Foundations of Education (1956), the leading social foundations of education book of its era.

Benne's interest in democratic authority relations took him beyond philosophy of education to conceptualize learning in organizations other than in schools. During the Columbia and Illinois years, Benne had been active in cofounding the concept of the training group, or T-group, with Kurt Lewin and other social and behavioral scientists at National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine. Later, after Benne left Urbana for Boston University, he relied on his organizational change background when he teamed with Warren Bennis and Robert Chin to coedit and author Planning of Change (1961), an influential book that has remained in print for more than forty years. Bennis, who soon became a leader in the organizational change and development field, wrote an "intellectual memoir" in 2001 that recalled Planning of Change as "an attempt to encompass in one volume the most seminal and original essays in the yet unborn field of organizational change"(Bennis, Spreitzer, and Cummings, p. 261). Bennis credits Benne with coining the phrase "change agent" in that volume.

A Benne contribution that has received much less attention was his coauthorship in 1943 of the Discipline of Practical Judgment in a Democratic Society with Raup, Smith, and George Axtelle. This book, which came out during the war years and was scarcely noticed, was re-released in 1950 as the Improvement of Practical Intelligence: The Central Task of Education. It again caused hardly a stir in the midst of the postwar era that feared threats to democracy from external ideologies rather than from within. This volume sought to address what the authors framed as the basic problem confronting contemporary civilization, namely "the development of methods of public deliberation and institutions that will create and clarify common perspectives and will promote decisions and policies in which all interested parties participate" (Raup et al., p. 41). They saw this as an educational and political challenge to which educational philosophers had a contribution to make. It was a belief that Benne never abandoned, as is demonstrated in his last book, The Task of Post-Contemporary Education: Essays in Behalf of a Human Future.


BENNE, KENNETH D. 1971. A Conception of Authority (1943). New York: Russell and Russell.

BENNE, KENNETH D. 1990. The Task of Post-Contemporary Education: Essays in Behalf of a Human Future. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

BENNIS, WARREN; BENNE, KENNETH D.; and CHIN, ROBERT. 1984. The Planning of Change, 4th edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

BENNIS, WARREN; SPREITZER, GRETCHEN M.; and CUMMINGS, THOMAS G., eds. 2001. The Future of Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

BURNETT, JOE R. 1979. "Response to Kenneth D. Benne's 'Diagnosis of Our Time."' Studies in Philosophy and Education 4 (4):299–312.

BUTTS, R. FREEMAN. 1993. "Kenneth Benne: The Compleat Teacher, or the Philosopher's Practice of Civic Virtue." Educational Theory 43 (2):223–228.

GREENE, MAXINE. 1993. "Kenneth Benne, Poet of the Limits, Poet of Possibility." Educational Theory 43 (2):219–221.

RAUP, R. BRUCE; AXTELLE, GEORGE E.; BENNE, KENNETH D.; and SMITH, B. OTHANEL. 1950. The Improvement of Practical Intelligence: The Central Task of Education. New York: Harper.

SMITH, B. OTHANEL; BENNE, KENNETH D.; STANLEY, RALPH; and ANDERSON, ARCHIBALD. 1956. The Social Foundations of Education. New York: Dryden.


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