John F. Kennedy once said, "Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education." Indeed, education is the cornerstone of any modern society. It is the vehicle we use to pass along our knowledge and culture to future generations. To better understand our system of education, it is best to examine it from multiple perspectives. This paper will use two distinct social theories to explore the roles of education in society. First, we will look at education through the sociological lens of functionalism. Then, we will view the institution of education as a conflict theorist sees it. Before we apply our two social theories to the topic of education, it would be helpful to review the meaning and background of those theories.
Functionalism is a social paradigm that views society as a system of interdependent parts, or subsystems. For society to work, all parts of the whole must have a general consensus. For example, they must have shared values to provide societal expectations of individuals. Another aspect of a functional society is the existence of common symbols. These symbols give the individuals and collectives in the society common ground to base communication on. When a general consensus does exist within a society, that society can be said to be in a state of equilibrium.
The aspiration of equilibrium is the precursor for the emergence of functionalism. In 19th century Europe, the industrial revolution and the French revolution were changing the social climate. These changes were leading to what was perceived as a social crisis. Functionalism was sociology's attempt to reestablish social order and stability (Sociology at Hewett, 2007).
The French sociologist mile Durkheim is credited with being the first to link functionalism with sociology. His work was influenced by the concept of functionalism within other sciences such as anthropology and biology. Functionalism was the key concept in most of Durkheim's work (Sociology at Hewett, 2007). His writings on the division of labor, religion, and crime have been very influential on later functionalists like Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton (Wikipedia, 2007).
Like functionalism, conflict theory also views society as a system of social structures. However, conflict theorists have a different opinion on the purpose of those structures. While functionalism views the sub-systems within the system of a society as entities that work together for the benefit of all, conflict theory holds that the sub-systems are in place and perpetuated in order to benefit only those that hold power. The people that hold power are the one's that have control of what are perceived as scarce resources, like money, land, and political influence.
Conflict theory emerged in the 1950s and 1960s in response the social turmoil in the United States and Europe. However, the concept behind conflict theory dates back to the 19th century writings of Karl Marx (Sociology at Hewett, 2007).
For the functionalist, education is an institution that functions to fulfill the needs of society. Most people might agree that education exists to impart knowledge to the students that they will need to function in everyday life. Functionalism acknowledges this aspect of education, but it also recognizes another purpose of education.
Of equal importance to passing on knowledge is the socialization of the individual. Joel M. Charon (2007) tells us that socialization is the method that our social institutions, "teach people the ways of society and, in so doing, form their basic qualities." He goes on to say that as people learn through socialization, "they internalize those ways."
mile Durkheim argued that education has the responsibility to define and clarify social and moral norms. It performed this function in three main areas: Social solidarity, social rules, and division of labor (Sociology at Hewett, 2007).
The social solidarity that Durkheim speaks of is dependent on the similarities between individuals in a society. These similarities can be formed and strengthened with universal rituals and routines like reciting the pledge of allegiance as class. Additionally, the teaching of history contributes to social continuity with previous generations that share the same values and morals (Wikipedia, 2007).
These shared values and morals are the basis for our social rules. Our schools are responsible for teaching us social rules. During our years at school, we learn cooperation, self-discipline, timeliness, and etiquette. These traits are significantly important in our society as a whole, so they are reflected in our education system where they can be internalized throughout the learning process (Sociology at Hewett, 2007).
Talcott Parsons lists two more values that that our education system instills in its indoctrinated students. First, we learn the value of achievement. Throughout our educational experiences, we are rewarded based on how well we do on exams, in sports, and many other activities. We also learn the value of equal opportunity. Our education system teaches us that everyone is treated equally and we all have the same chances of success (Sociology at Hewett, 2007).
The values of achievement and equal opportunity are the products of Parson's concept of meritocracy. Essentially, he believed that achieved the most in school do so based on the amount of ability they possess plus the amount of effort they put forth. Meritocratic principles enable schools to arrange students into skill groups, helping individuals match their abilities with appropriate career choices, otherwise known as role allocation. (Sociology at Hewett, 2007).
Role allocation is the education system's method of maintaining the division of labor as championed by Durkheim. He proposed that as a society industrialized and its population increased, separation and specialization of the workforce would become necessary. So from a functionalist view, the division of labor is beneficial and necessary to the survival of a society. While appearing to separate people in a society, in practice it brought a new form of solidarity. Durkheim called it organic solidarity, and it is the result of the interdependence of individuals in the society. As people become more specialized in their work, they become more dependant on others to provide the things they cannot provide themselves (Dunman, 2003).
Conflict theorists do not take such a positive stance on the role of education in regards to role allocation. For them, the institution of education is a tool used by those in power to perpetuate the current social status quo. The social elite establishes private schools to educate their children and pass down their own values and expectations. Those in power also control the public school system and use it to instill respect for the current social structure in the lower classes (Collins, 1971).
Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis explained that there are three things the education system is designed to teach to the middle and low class students. First, they teach them to be a subservient workforce; that compliance and dependability will lead to success and that aggressiveness and independence will lead to failure. Second, they teach acceptance of the hierarchy. The hierarchy of the school is a mirror image into the hierarchy of the rest of society. Finally, they teach motivation by external rewards. In school they learn that the only reason for going to school is to pass exams, and ultimately to graduate. It is not encouraged to actually be interested in the material being taught. This prepares us for the workforce where we are not expected to like our job, just to do it so we can get paid (Sociology at Hewett, 2007).
According to conflict theory, all of this is to prepare each individual for their future roles in a capitalist system. It ensures that children of the elite will maintain the status of their forebears, and that the lower classes will sufficiently indoctrinated to continue their exploitation. Employers routinely use education as a selection tool. Jobs with a high social status such as executives, Wall Street Lawyers, and politicians at the national level are almost exclusively recruited from elite universities. While employers looking for middle management and other white-collar workers, require certain levels of education that indicate sufficient motivation and social experience. Even many jobs with the lowest social status require a high school education at a minimum. This assures the employers that the individual has at least received the social training to be a good employee. The technical skills taught in school are of little or no significance in the eyes of many conflict theorists (Collins, 1971).
I examined both the functional and the conflict theory's view of education so that we may get a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. Both approaches recognize that our education system is a product of our society, rather than a creator of it. Therefore, those that look to improve our education system will do well to look at the state of our society as a whole, and start from there.
Charon, Joel M. (2007). Ten questions: A Sociological Perspective (6th ed.). California. Thomson Higher Education.
Collins, Randall. (1971, December). Functional and Conflict Theory of Educational Stratification. American Sociological Review. (36)6, 1002-1019. Retrieved 25 November, 2007, from JSTOR.
Dunman, Joe L. (2003). The Division of Labor. Retrieved 24 November, 2007, from http://durkheim.itgo.com/divisionoflabor.html
Sociology at Hewett... Sociology Pages from the Hewett School, Norwich UK. Retrieved 23 November, 2007, from http://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/CURRIC/soc/Theory1.htm
Wikipedia Contributors. (2007, November). Functionalism (sociology). Retrieved 24 November, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Functionalism_%28sociology%29 &oldid=173517753