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SOCIOLOGY PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION

Education is a part of an individuals becoming a social member. In this


article we are considering the question of what education is from a
sociological framework. What functions in the society actually the process of
education serve? So we are considering two main questions viz.
1.
What is the role of education in the society?

2.

Why are the different social groups differing in their educational levels?

The idea of formal education for the masses is very recent. Only after the
industrial revolution the masses were provided with free, compulsory,
education by the state. Why? Earlier the education was limited to a few people
who were rich enough to afford it or were part of the clergy. The same case
was in the Indian context also. There were no state run "schools" which made
sure that the education would be provided to the masses.
But in the last 100 years or so, education has become a major growth
industry. And when anything becomes a commodity, the classical demand and
supply theory does come into picture. The same has happened with education
in the contemporary era. Now higher education being a prized commodity, the
consumers are those who can pay for it.
First we take into account the functionalist perspective on education. The two
questions that we have started with are
"What are the functions of education for the society as a whole?"
In the functionalist perspective this leads to an assessment of the contribution
made by educational to the maintenance of the social structure.
The other question is:
"What are the functional relationships between education and other parts of
the social system?"
This leads to analysis which examines the relationship between educational
and the economic systems for example.

The functionalist view point in general tend to focus on


the positive contributions made by education to the social structure.
We now consider the stand points of various functionalists' on this issue.
Emile Durkheim

According to Durkheim the major function of education was the transmission


of society's norms and values.
Society can survive only if there exists among its members a sufficient degree
of homogeneity; education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by
fixing in the child form the beginning the essential similarities which collective
life demands.

Without these "essential similarities" the social life is impossible. The creation
of social solidarity is an essential task for the formation and sustenance of the
societies; and education does this. Durkheim argues that:
To become attached to society, the child must feel in it something that is real,
alive and powerful, which dominates the person and to which he also owes
the best part of himself.
Education and in particular, the teaching of history, provides this link between
the individual and the society. This view can be illustrated by the educational
practice in India. The common curriculum developed by NCERT has helped to
instil the shared norms and values into a population with diverse backgrounds.
It has provided a shared language and a common history for immigrants from
every country in Europe. The Indian student learn about the great leaders, the
freedom movement and the heritage that they have. In every textbook the
pledge that is presented actually socializes the student into a commitment to
society as a whole. You can look at the other article in which the history and
its relation to the curriculum is present.
Durkheim argues that in complex industrial societies, the school serves a
function which cannot be provided either by family or peer groups.
Membership in the society as a whole is not based on kinship or personal
choice. In the school the individual must learn to cooperate with those who are
neither their kin nor their friends. Thus the school provides a small scale
model for the society.
It is by respecting the school rules that the child learns to respect the rules in
general, that he develops the habit of self control and restraint simply because
he should control and restraint himself. It is first initiation into austerity of duty.
Serious life has now begun.
Also Durkheim argues that education teaches the individual specific skills
necessary for his future occupation, which is particularly important in the
industrial societies where a complex division of labour exists. The social

solidarity in the industrial society comes from the interdependence of the


labour in the process of production. The necessity of combination produces
cooperation and social solidarity. The schools thus transmit both:
1. The general values which provide 'necessary homogeneity for
social survival.'

2. The specific skills which provide 'necessary diversity for social


cooperation.'
The industrial society is thus united by value consciousness and a specialized
division of labour. Durkheim assumes that the norms and values of
transmitted by the educational system are those of the society as a whole
rather than of the ruling elite or ruling class. This produces a very different
view of the role of education in the society.

Talcott Parsons
Parsons argues that after the primary socialization within the family, the school
takes over as the 'focal socializing agency'. The school acts as a link between
the family and the society as a whole, thus preparing the child for his adult
role. In the family the child is treated in terms of 'particularistic' standards

whereas in the society the standards are 'universalistic'. By particularistic it is


meant here that in the family the child is treated as their particular child rather
than using yardsticks which can be applied to everybody; and by universalistic
it is meant that the child is judged in terms of yardsticks which are applicable
to all individuals.
Within the family the status of the child is ascribed, by birth. But the status in
adult life is largely achieved. Thus the child moves on from the particularistic
standards in the family to the universalistic standards of the society in general.
The school is the preparing ground for this transition. The school has
universalistic standards against which all the students are measured, these
are independent of the sex, race, family background or the class of the
student. The schools operate on meritocratic principles; status is achieved on
the basis of merit. This is one of the essential aspects of the modern industrial
society, where meritocratic principles are applied to all its members. The
children are 'trained' to be the future citizens in the schools; they are imparted
with the basic values of society. This value consensus is essential for the
society to operate smoothly. Two major values that the schools inculcate in the
students are:
1. Value of achievement.

2. Value of equal opportunity.


The value of achievement is itself fostered by rewarding the students which
have high levels of achievement; and by placing the individuals in the same
situation in the classroom so allowing them to compete on equal terms in
examinations, schools foster the value of equality and opportunity. These
values have an important role to play in the society as a whole. An advanced
industrial society requires highly motivated, achievement oriented skilled
workforce; and the school prepares the students exactly for this. All the
students high and the low achievers see system as just and fair, as they all
had an equal chance to begin with.
Another function that the school serves is that of selection of the individuals
for their future role in the society. By testing, evaluating the students for their

skills and capacities they can select the future jobs for which the future citizen
is best suited for. Thus the school is seen as a major facilitator in the role
allocation for the future citizens.

Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore

Davis and Moore agree with Parsons about the role allocating function of the
school but they link educational system more directly to the social
stratification. The social stratification is seen as a mechanism which ensures
that the most talented and able members of the society are allocated to those
positions, which are functionally most important to the society.

Though the thoughts of Davis and Moore represent the common sense
view of education, there are certain criticisms of them. Particularly
important is the questionable relationship between academic credentials
and occupational reward is loose. Another reason is doubt about the
proposition that the educational system grades people in terms of ability, it
has been argued that the intelligence has little effect upon educational
attainment. Finally there is considerable evidence that suggests the
influence of social stratification largely prevents effective grading of
individuals in terms of their abilities.
Criticisms:

References:
Sociology: Themes and Perspectives
Harlambos and Heald
Oxford 2002

In the mid-nineteenth century the founding fathers of Sociology like Marx, Comte and
Durkheim, sought to achieve their political objectives by using scientific methods. They wanted
to convince others about the validity or desirability of their views and the most effective way to
achieve that was to employ the tried and tested research methods of the natural sciences.
Whether they were critics of capitalism like Marx, or were supporters of it like Comte and
Durkheim, all were systems theorists. They offered meta-narratives which set out how the social
system worked. Yet these grand theories did not continue to multiply and later Sociologists have
proved to be much less ambitious, simply preferring to limit themselves to more manageable
topics within the discipline like education. As such, these Sociologists are known as middlerange theorists.
Whilst theres been an enduring interest in the subject, theories of education have come in and
gone out of fashion. Whether a theory/perspective was in vogue or not, owed much to the state of
the economy and the dominant political values of the time.
For example, Functionalism dominated Sociology in the 1950s due to the post-war boom. The
education system was largely viewed as beyond reproach. It was a multifunctional institution that
socialised the younger generation, gave them economically useful skills and it acted as a sifting
and sorting device, differentiating between the able and less able.
By the 1970s, structural tensions, inflation, economic stagnation and unemployment, meant that
Marxism and other critical theories like Feminism and anti-authoritarian Liberals became far
more influential.
The education system was undemocratic, unequal and unfair. Marxists like Raymond Boudon
argued that positional theory determined educational success or failure. It was your position in
the class structure that gave you an advantage, or a disadvantage, in the competitive world of
education. For Bourdieu, the working class lacked what he referred to as cultural capital; without
which they were doomed to failure. Cultural capital included the valuable cultural experiences of
foreign travel, museums, theatre and the possession of a sophisticated register and middle class
norms and values.
For Bowles and Gintis, the education system propagated a hidden curriculum where the working
classes learnt to know their place, to obey rules and were also socialised to accept that inequality
was natural and inevitable.

Feminist theories of education focused on gendered learning materials, a gendered curriculum


and discrimination in the classroom. Liberals like Ivan Illich in his De-schooling Society argued
that young people should not be encumbered by rules and regulations because all discipline
stifled their natural creativity. Practitioners should take a laissez-faire approach to student
management and students should only work when, and if they choose. Additionally, prescriptive
rules of grammar and punctuation should be ignored as what students have to say, is far more
important than how they say it. This approach was later referred to as trendy teaching methods

in the UK and the unfortunate product of this was a generation of largely illiterate, unemployable
youngsters.

As the New Right became dominant on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1980s, education
was viewed as being too concerned with the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake. Not
only was much of the output of education unproductive in any immediately apparent sense, it
was often far too critical of society. Education should concern itself with making an economic
contribution to society, focus on vocational training and maintaining social control; all of which
was designed to tackle the behaviour and skills deficit amongst working class males.

Today, the Sociology of education remains interested in the classical theories developed by the
founding fathers and the seemingly endless reinterpretation of their groundbreaking work, yet
there has been a noticeable change in emphasis as researchers try to understand how postmodernity affects education. A post-modern world is an uncertain one thats chaotic and lacks the
optimism of the enlightenment. This makes it very difficult for those charged with planning
education policy. Sociologists no longer claim to be able to discover the truth in a risk society, so
they limit themselves to offering interpretations of what they see, rather than solutions.
Government is then left to make of it what they will and to try and formulate policy prescriptions
that will equip our young people for the world of work. Unfortunately, this has led to hyperreform where qualifications and the regulatory framework are in a constant state of flux.
Students are unclear which of the new qualifications have real currency, which qualifications will
be discontinued and employers have been equally confused by the whole scenario, especially
where the new vocational diplomas are concerned.
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