The function of education is to reproduce and legitimate social inequality
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Education is an aspect of socialisation which involves the acquisition of knowledge and learning of skills. It shapes our beliefs and moral values through a systematic formal transmission. Education is said be an integral function of society, as it provides a contributory characteristic which helps to maintain and adapt society and it’s values. Before the 1960’s, education was taught through a system known as the ‘Tripartite’ system.
This involved all children at the age of eleven undertaking an exam in order to ascertain individual ability in order to separate the children into streams of ability and assign them to what was believed to be the most appropriate school. Those demonstrating exceptional ability went to Grammar schools, which were designed to prepare them for professional occupations. Those of lesser ability moved to Secondary modern schools which focused on providing pupils with the skills necessary to prepare the students for more manual and unqualified jobs.
A third sector was introduced called a Technical college. This was primarily based on teaching the children purely manual skills which in turn would be used for manual labour. This system frequently served to reinforce social inequality because it was largely middle class children who went to Grammar school, while the working classes were frequently restricted to either Secondary Modern’s or technical schools.
The difference being that middle class families provided their children with an advantageous primary socialisation in the form of literature, using a wide vocabulary, etc which resulted in a stark difference in ability at the age of eleven. The system was highly criticised by saying that it did not allow fair opportunity for children from all social backgrounds so in response to this in the 1960’s/70’s the British Labour Government designed and introduced the ‘Comprehensive’. The Comprehensive was intended to reduce class differences in educational attainment.
It allowed children to mix from all social backgrounds and therefore provided equal opportunity. Although this system has been highly criticised since it was first introduced there are a number of factors which imply and suggest that although the comprehensive system is less divisive than the tripartite, it still does little to engender social equality if anything, serves to reinforce class inequality. According to the Marxist Sociologists, Bowles and Gintis (Schooling in Capitalist America, 1976), education will always reinforce and legitimate social inequality.
As a consequence of the elite owning the means, they decide what the curriculum entails and therefore continuously reinforce and reproduce their class status as the system is designed by themselves for themselves, leaving the working class powerless. In any industrial capitalist society there is a rigid hierarchy of authority, this is evident in the workplace, in society and in its values which are instilled in members of society at any early age – at school.
For example in the workplace; Shareholders, Directors, Managers, professionals, technical staff, white collar workers down to manual employees; one being answerable to the next, but at the top of the ladder, the shareholders who own and control the entire company. Within the workplace there is a fragmentation of tasks. Due to the structure of the work itself the tasks become mundane, provide little, if any scope for initiative, responsibility and judgement. Therefore the employee works purely for economic needs rather than actual interest and the elite, the owners of the company maintain profit gain and control
This organisation of production in capitalist society can be seen as reflected in the structure of the education system. The fragmentation of tasks equalling to the short lessons. There is very little time in school to undertake a deep comprehensive study of each particular subject simply due to the short time in which it is supposedly taught, consequently leaving much of the study to outward influences like extra tutoring, homework etc. Activities which usually can only be provided by the middle and upper classes due to economic affluence.
The education system has been seen as reinforcing and legitimising social inequality through its emphasis on the values of discipline and authority. These are imperative for upholding wider inequalities and make sure that the workers do not rebel against owners or capitalists, nor do the working class attempt to change the system that does not work for them. According to Bowles and Gintis, the pupil is powerless to the choice of subjects which they learn and how they are taught.
They claim that the child learns to study at school to achieve good grades because that will provide them with a better job when they leave rather than learning for learnings’ sake. A similar picture is seen in the workplace, the employee works in a meaningless job for financial necessity rather than personal enjoyment. Thus, there is alienation at school and work between means and end. Bowles and Gintis would argue that schools are not uniform in their organisation and that the experience of school differs for all, for example boys, girls, blacks, whites, rich and poor.
The typically working class school will emphasise obedience, ‘rule following’ and other such values similar to that of a working class employment environment. Middle class schools will encourage leadership skills, etc, in order to prepare them for such parallel roles in the workplace. These divisions occur as children are treated differently by teachers, consciously or otherwise, depending on their class, gender or race. Marxist sociologists have argued that the education system assigns pupils to their relevant social groups according to the same social group from which they came, therefore reducing social mobility and reinforcing inequality.
The education system legitimates the inequality by justifying it in people’s mind that their poverty deems them powerless and that their social fate is inevitable, thus they accept their position and become defeatist. Hence there is little opposition to ruling class domination and sustaining the elite in their position of power. Pierre Bourdieu (1997) claimed that it was cultural capital – chiefly commanded by the middle classes – which reinforced social inequality within society.
The advantages of cultural capital are particularly evident in children at a young age and can be viewed as one of the major arguments against the Tripartite system which divided children at eleven. Bourdieu claimed that cultural capital could be broken up into three sections. The embodied state, the culture that we already possess in our heads; the objectified state, the culture which can be found in possessions such as art and literature; the institutionalised state, which is the culture represented in qualifications.
Success in examinations and therefore later success within the workplace depended on whether or not the individual possessed the right culture in the early stages of primary socialisation and therefore, serves to reinforce inequality. The dominant culture (the elite) established the standards of excellence within our schools and therefore generally possessed those elements in order for academic success, e. g. , Cultural Capital. Cultural capital is the culture of the elite, the elite decide the curriculum therefore providing their own success in a structure created by themselves for themselves.
According to Bordieu, this again, reinforces a reproduction of class. The education system maintains the class structure by making it appear that the success of the elite and failure of the working class was an objective procedure. The working class fail academically not down to inadequacies but because of a lack of cultural capital. Some members of the working class have and do succeed academically and later in employment, but according to Bordieu, this reinforces the system further by suggesting the working class fail due to incompetence.
Bordieu has been criticised by Jenkins (1992) who said that workers accept inequality, not because they see it as justified but because they have no say in the matter. Bordieu assumes that education does not provide opportunity for the working class. He paints a circular picture of class reproduction and implies that social and cultural change is impossible when it quite obviously isn’t. Society and our culture reflects a very different picture of that seen today in comparison with, for example, 1960’s.
The skills that are recognised by exams are the ones exercised by the elite, not manual skills, which are arguably equally valuable. Therefore the working classes are not recognised as valuable in society. In reference to the streaming which takes place within Comprehensive schools, Hargreaves (1967) claimed that students in higher streams had a greater commitment to their studies. They valued hard work, academic culture and compliance with authority. Bottom stream students were often deemed delinquents prone to breaking rules, fighting, smoking, etc.
By placing these pupils into streams in the first place, Hargreaves argues that the schools compound the class divisions and also exacerbate the problem, by creating specific cultures. The bottom streams become more deviant and less inclined to change their stereotype due to the label that the school has given them. Students from the middle and upper classes remain academically successful due souly to their social backgrounds. Parents can afford such educational aids as computers, books, and trips abroad etc, factors which all ensue educational improvement.
Middle class families have the finances in order to move to an area where they will be in the catchment area for ‘better’ schools. Children from working class backgrounds may perhaps be less inclined towards educational achievement for several reasons relating to their social background. Parents are less likely to be able to afford ‘extra’s’ such as previously mentioned, they may suffer from nutritional problems which in effect cause ill health, parents work longer hours and aren’t always sure that their child has attended school etc.
In conclusion, middle class families hold an economic advantage over working class families when it comes to their children’s academic achievement. In criticism to the entire Marxist approach to the social inequalities reinforced by the education system, the Functionalists provide a different view point. According to the Functionalist approach, the expansion of formal schooling was a precondition for effective economic growth and development of a meritocratic society. Since industrialisation, society has needed to change in order to function, survive and prosper.
The education system provides three vital functions in order to meet the needs of industrialised society. The first being that the education system develops human resources for an industrial nation. In pre-industrialised society there was no need for education as jobs were simple and often manual. Education provides the basic skills for the future labour force. Those that are ‘clever’ and ‘motivated’ can acquire a more specialised form of knowledge necessary for professional, managerial and technical occupations.
The education system is highly developed and structured so in response to the general technical requirements of the industrial product. Secondly, industrial societies have a multiplicity of occupations with different skill requirements, varied levels of responsibility and use a sophisticated mechanism to select individuals. Therefore the education system has a vital ‘selection’ function within society. Performance is monitored by exams and grades, which are in sequence used by employers for selection purposes. Greater rewards for more demanding jobs provide incentives to work harder to attain qualifications in order to fill these positions.
The selection of individuals through the education system ensures those that gain the better jobs are those that deserve them on the basis of greater achievement. The education system provides the job ‘allocation’ for society. Thirdly, according to the Functionalist approach, the education system contributes to the cohesion of society by transmitting to the new generations the ‘core’ values of that society, otherwise known as the common cultural heritage. The education system is vital in providing fundamental values such as honesty, individualism, achievement orientation, respect for parliamentary democracy, etc.
These basic values present a fundamental agreement despite the diversity of individuals which help to maintain equilibrium within society. In criticism to the Functionalist approach, it has been argued that the technical and cognitive skills which are taught in the mainstream curriculum bare little resemblance to those skills required within employment e. g. , Latin, Sociology, Human Biology, etc. In ‘The great training robbery’, Berg (1970) suggests that more highly qualified workers, in educational terms, are not necessarily more productive workers.
Qualifications do not necessarily make you more proficient in those jobs. The schools select who is a success and who is a failure but they may often misplace them in the social structure by not allowing for labelling, social class backgrounds or sex differences. Schools confirm to pupils the status to which they are born rather than being a neutral influence. Berg claims that the education system is said to encourage ambition and aspirations through ‘glittering prizes’ when more often than not it actually dampens down their dreams by claiming that their sights have been set ‘unrealistically high’.
According to King (1977 p. 3), the values and ideas promoted by schools are not necessarily equal to all sectors of society; “There are many different ways of being British”. Analysis of curriculum materials have shown racism, ethnic, social class and sexist bias exist therefore the curriculum is only compatible with some groups in society. In conclusion, of the two approaches and their view on inequality of society through the education system, both emphasise the relationship between education, the economy and social inequality.
Neither considers the day-to-day interactions between pupil and teacher. The main emphasis is on the structure of education rather than the content. Neither the Functionalist nor the Marxist approach allow for non-conformists within society. It is difficult to conclude whether or not the education system reinforces and legitimises social inequality. Although the evidence is there to suggest that it does and that there are serious aspects of the system that need to be changed for a brighter future for our children, at the same time, we see success on a more intimate level in most working class area’s.
In conclusion, although it is not fully clear whether education serves to fully reproduce and legitimate inequality, it is clear that middle class children in general appear to gain more from the current education system. Furthermore, it is not only the qualitative outcome or educational attainment that serves to reinforce inequality, but also the values that education serves to convey, values which maintain the capitalist system and legitimate elite privilege and rule.