The Role of Education in Society

The role of education in society from the Education topic of AQA A level Sociology

Functionalist perspective on education

Durkheim: solidarity and skills

Durkheim argues that society needs a sense of solidarity where its individual members must feel themselves to be part of a single community. Without social solidarity, social cooperation would be impossible because each individual would persue their own selfish desires. The education system helps to create social solidarity by transmitting its shared beliefs and values to the next generation such as the teaching of a country's history creating a sense of a shared heritage

School also acts as a society in minature as both in school and at work we have to cooperate with people who are not friends or family and follow a set of impersonal rules so school prepares us for life in wider society

Modern industrial economies involve the cooperation of many specialists even in producing a single item. Education teaches individuals the specialist skills and knowledge needed for the division of labour to be successful

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Functionalist perspective on education

Parsons: meritocracy

Parsons sees the school as the focal socialising agency in modern society acting as a bridge between the family and wider society. This bridge is needed because family and society operate on different principles. Within the family the child is judged by particularistic standards with an ascribed status but in school and society everyone is judged by the same universalistic standards where a person's status is achieved through hard work thanks to the meritocratic system

Davis & Moore: role allocation

They argue that inequality is necessary to ensure that the most important roles in society are filled by the most talented people such as doctors. Not everyone is equally talented so society has to offer higher rewards for these jobs encouraging competition. The education system sorts us according to our ability with the most able gaining the highest grades which gives them entry to the rewarded options

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Criticisms of the Functionalist perspective

  • Many argue that the education system doesn't teach specialist skills to a high level with high quality apprenticeships being rare and a 1/3 of 16-19 year olds are doing courses which don't lead to good jobs
  • Achievement is often greatly influenced by class background rather than ability due to cultural and material deprivation which puts them at a disadvantage
  • Marxists argue that society does not work on a value consensus and instead education in a capitalist society only transmits the ideology of the bourgeouis
  • Interactionists like Wrong say that people have free will and are not just mere puppets of society with some pupils rejecting the values of the school
  • The New Right says the state education system does not prepare young people for work
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Neoliberalism & The New Right perspective on educa

Neoliberals argue that the state should not provide services such as education and welfare as instead governments should encourage competition and have schools be more like businesses which will drive up standards

The New Right say the state cannot meet people's needs so the education system should be marketised. They agree with Functionalists that some people are more naturally talented than others and favour a meritocratic system. However, they say the education system doesn't meet these goals because it is run by the state where they have a one size fits all approach which disregards local needs

The pupils, parents and employers have no say so schools are inefficient and the ones which get poor results are not answerable to their consumers as they have produced a less qualified workforce. They say the marketisation of education will bring competition between schools and will increase the schools' ability to meet the needs of everyone

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Neoliberalism & The New Right perspective on educa

Chubb & Moe: consumer choice

Chubb & Moe argue that the US state run education system has failed because it has failed the needs of disadvantaged groups andnnfails to produce pupils with the necessary skills. They found that working class pupils did 5% better in private than in state schools so they call for the introduction of a market system which would put control back in the hands of the parents improving the quality and efficiency of schools by giving parents a voucher on buying education from a school of their choice like a private business

Two roles for the state

There still remains important roles for the state by imposing a framework within which schools have to compete like Ofsted and exam league tables and to ensure the school transmits a shared culture through a national curriculum which they believe should be British based

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Criticisms of The New Right perspective

  • Competition between schools often only benefits the middle class as they are the ones with the economic capital to be able to move to the catchment area of a highly performing school
  • The real cause of low educational standards is not state control but social inequality and low funding
  • They contradict themselves by rejecting a one size fits all school approach but still wanting to impose a compulsory national curriculum
  • Marxists argue the education system doesn't impose a shared national culture as it instead devalues the culture of the working class
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Marxist perspective on education

Althusser: the ideological state apparatus

In Althusser's view, the education system is an important ideological state apparatus because it performs two functions:

  • Education reproduces class inequality by transmitting it from generation to generation by failing each generation of working class pupils
  • Education legitimises class inequality by producing ideologies which persuade workers to accept their inequality is inevitable so they don't challenge capitalism
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Marxist perspective on education

Bowles & Gintis: schooling in capitalist America

Bowles & Gintis argue that capitalism requires a workforce with the behaviour type suited to their role as exploited workers willing to accept orders from above with the education system reproducing an obedient workforce that will accept inequality as inevitable. They studied a New York high school and found that schools reward the kind of personality traits that made for a submissive worker such as high discipline so these pupils gained higher grades

Both schools and workplaces are hierarchies with headteachers at the top and students at the bottom with these parallels being examples of the correspondence principle. This operates through the hidden curriculum where simply through the everyday workings of the school pupils become accustomed to accepting hierarchy. Working class pupils are prepared for their role as the exploted workers of the future

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Marxist perspective on education

There is always a danger that the poor will rebel against the unfair system but the education system prevents this from happening by legitimising class inequalities. Bowles & Gintis describe the education system as a myth making machine which promotes the myth of meritocracy

Unlike Functionalists, they argue that meritocracy does not exist as evidence shows that the main factor determining whether or not someone has a high income is their class background, not their educational achievement. By disguising this fact, the myth of meritocracy serves to justify the privileges of the higher class persuading the working class to accept their inequality and not challenege capitalism

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Marxist perspective on education

Willis: learning to labour

Whereas other Marxists like Bowles & Gintis see education as a straightforward process of indoctrination, Willis' study shows that working class pupils can resist such attempts to indoctrinate them. He used qualitative methods to study 12 working class boys as they make the transition from school to work. They form a counter culture opposed to the school as they find it boring and meaningless so break the rules by smoking and drinking. These acts of defiance are ways of resisting the school

Willis sees the similarity between their anti school counter culture and the shopfloor culture of male manual workers as they both see intellectual work as effeminate. However, their resistance to school helps them slot into those very jobs that capitalism needs someone to perform due to their lack of qualifications

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Criticisms of Marxist perspective

  • Postmodernists criticise Bowles & Gintis' correspondence principle because in todays' post Fordist economy schools are required to produce a very different labour force which reproduces diversity, not inequality
  • Willis portrays the counter culture in a romanticised way by hailing them as working class heroes but Feminists say this ignores their sexist attitudes
  • Willis' study of only 12 boys in one school can be seen as unrepresentive
  • They ignore other inequalities such as ethnicity and gender as McDonald argues that schools reproduce not only capitalism but patriarchy too
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