Sociology- the roles and purpose of education

  • Created on: 18-05-13 14:24


Functionalists are consensus theorists, focusing on the way schools create social cohesion and make effective use of human resources for the good of all.

Emile Durkheim- Durkheim's Moral Education (based on lectures given in 1902-03) claimed that the main purpose of education was to socialise children into society's norms and values. This value consensus was more important than academic subjects. Not everyone could be a high achiever, but if they learnt to cooperate with others, this would create a united and orderly society. Over time, as fewer people went to church and citizens became more hetrogeneous (from different backgrounds), education became an effective means of creating social solidarity.

Talcott Parsons-Writing in 1950s America, Parsons described education as a useful bridge between the home and work. In the family the child is treated tolerantly and experiences a great deal of freedom, whereas workers are judged by universalistic standards and have to conform to company rules. Schools socialise children into the norms of wider society, but in a caring way.

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Kigsley Davis and Wilbert Moore- Davis and Moore,contemporaries of Parsons, viewed education' smain purpose as role allocation, sorting students for the workplace by allocating them to different courses, depending on their skills. Society is a meritocracy where those who work hard to improve their skills and abilities are rewarded fairly with responsible and well-paid jobs. Awarding nationally recognised qualifications enables employers to see immediately who is fitted for particular types of work.


  • David Hargreaves agreed with Durkheim that social cohesion was a desirable aim, but felt it was neglected because schools encouraged individualism and competition for qualifications, giving little time to cooperate activities.
  • Recent UK governments have echoed Durkheim's views by introducing Citizenship (in 2002) to encourage values of responsibility and cooperation, and by inspecting schools for 'community cohesion' (since 2007).
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  • Left-wingers reject the functionalist view that some students must expect to be academically unsuccessful and will be directed into courses leading into low paid work. They believe this relates more to social class origin than to ability and effort.
  • Durkheim's views were supported by the Ouseley Report into the Bradford Riots of 2001. Many children had been educated in faith schools, so that whtites grew up seperately from those of South Asian origin. This lack of socila cohesion made tensions more likely. After the Report, the government was less eager promote faith in schools.
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Marxists are conflict theorists, focusing on the way schools divide society by reinforcing inequalities. To them, teaching children the dominant values of capitalist society is social control, hegemony, indoctrination by an ideology, socialisation of the future workforce into conformity by soercion.

Bowles and Gintis

Bowles and Gintis's study, Schooling in Capitalist America (1976), tried to explain the lack of working-class social mobility, despite longer education than in previous generations. Thet argued that the working-class majority of school students were discouraged from thinking for themselves, occupied with dull, reptitive tasks and rewarded for being puntualand obedient, so they became used to the sort of regime they would encounter in factories. Only a middle class minority in the top streams or elite colleges were encouraged to use their initiative on creative projects, preparing them for professional positions. This hidden curriculum (unofficial values learnt at school) influenced students' expectations, dulling any ambitions working-class students might have, whle developing the confidence and potential of the middle class.

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The close resemblance between the school regimeand future working conditions is called the correspondence principle. For example, for working class students:

  • school discourages the questioning of what teachers tell them, so they accept the foreman's authority when they move into work;
  • schools tasks are dull and reptitive, like factory work;
  • rewards are extrinsic, not intrinsic. The only benefit of schoolwork is the qualification at the end, the equivalent of the pay packet;
  • tasks are fragmented by bells, just as laour on a production line is broken up into unfulfilling little processes;
  • identical uniforms and punishments for lateness are humbling;
  • constant supervision prepares students for factory work.

To Bowles and Gintis, educational underachievement is not a reflection of a lower working class IQ, but of differential treatment of the social classes. Under capitalism a mass of doctile workers is needed to produce goods to enrich capitalists, so school is organised to assit this process.

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Paul Willis- Willis, in Learning to Labour: How Working- Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs (1977), observed and interviewed twelve British working-class boys in their last school year and early months in factory work. Unlike Bowles and Gintis, he found 'the lads' far from doctile, as they formed an anti-school subculture. They had a realistic view of their likely destiny as factory workers and members of the working class, so they saw no relevance in education. This fatalism made it impossible for them to succeed at school and rise above their class position, so their failure resulted from their working class culture, as opposed to the way the school operated. Nevertheless, Willis study was Marxists as it recognised the influence of class inequalities on the attitudes of these boys and their families. As in school, the lads passed their time in the factory joking around to alleviate boredom.


  • Studies by Bowles and Gintis and Willis are contradictory, as in the former, working class students are destined for factory workbecause of their doctility, and in the latter because of their failure to conform.
  • Willis study has been criticised for the small size of the sample. However, it was long, in depth study and he also interviewed the lads' parents.
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  • Bowles and Gintis's view is similar to that of the Brazilian Paulo Freire. In Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) he wrote that the teacher's role should be to help poor students to question and change society, but he was imprisoned for his beliefs and the United States withdrew funding from his primary education programme in Brazil because they feared its radical ideas would encourage revolution.
  • Marxists, like functionalists, focus on schools shape students' attitudes and prepare them for work. Marxists view this process as class-based, promoting bourgeois students and restricting proletarian students, regardless of their ability, to reproduce capitalists society. Functionalists, in contrast, view the sorting of students as meritocratic and necessary for a society in which workers perform different functions. They emphasise the cohesion between students instead of the social divisions.
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Liberals see the role of education differently from structuralists. They are more interested in the benefits to individuals of learning how to learn. As knowledge becomes out of date, it is important to be able to research information at any stage of life, including for leisure. People need to think independently to participate in democracy.

John Dewey- Dewey, in Democracy and Education (1916), said that children should learn through experiment and observation as opposed to being fed information by the teacher. This would foster initiative and confidence inn problem solving, encouraging people to promote changes in society cooperatively.

Ivan Illich- Illich, in Deschooling Society (1971), shared Dewey's dislike for education systems where students were passive recipients of knowledge, but he proposed a more radical solution. Compulsory schooling meant that many children lacked motivation to learn and became unnessarily dependent on teachers. Instead, they should be issued with education vouchers and learn vocational skills by working alongside professionals while exploring non-vocational subjects with interested others.

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  • Dewey's teaching methods were influentialand schools now encourae group problem solving and thinking skills.
  • Illich's idea that choosing what to learn motivats children influenced progressive education in the 1970s, when primary children were allowed to select from a wide range of activities in open plan classrooms.
  • making schooling optional is unlikely to be adopted. Besides the practical problems of how to occupy young children and ensure that they basic skills, middle class parents might be more proactive in seeking an extensive education for their children, increasing their class divide.
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Vey useful :)

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