What is the point of education? A functionalist perspective
by Sam Cook a former student
In The Family module we examined Functionalist, Marxist and Feminist perspectives of the family. Now we’re going to examine and assess Functionalist, Marxist and Feminist perspectives of education.
The first perspective we’ll look at is the functionalist perspective. As you will remember functionalists look at the function or role of an institution in society in keeping the social body ‘functioning’ (working) properly. Functionalists usually begin their sociological analysis with the following questions:
- How does education contribute to the maintenance and wellbeing of society?
- What are the relationships between education and other parts of the social system?
Emile Durkheim (functionalist) – writing over 100 years ago that one of the main functions of education is to bind members of society together – this creates social unity and solidarity.
Talcott Parsons (a functionalist) writing in the 1950s and 1960s developed Durkheim’s ideas. He said education is a key component of the social body, just like the heart is integral to the functioning of the human body, education is fundamental to the health of the social body.
It does this by:
- Passing on society’s culture – education functions as a key mechanism (functional prerequisite) through which a new generation of children acquire the ‘central’ norms, values and culture of their society. This unites or glues people together by giving them shared values, what sociologists’ term as a value consensus, through the ‘hidden curriculum’.
- Socialisation – Durkheim argued that schools are a ‘society in miniature’ – a small scale version of the wider society in which people live and work. Talcott Parsons argued how schools from this standpoint, take over the primary socialisation role of parents. This means schools are sites of secondary socialisation. They, the schools, provide a bridge between the ‘particularistic’ values of the family and the ‘universalistic’ values of meritocracy of contemporary industrial society.
- Particularistic values are those given to you by your family, they treat you as an individual, they take account of your own individual skills, abilities, and habits and from these particularistic values your status within the family has been ascribed. In contrast universalistic values are those given to everyone, the same rules apply to everyone. As an individual you aren’t afforded any special considerations and your status is now achieved rather than ascribed. Therefore you might have a high ascribed status at home but a low achieved status at school because you never do any work.
- Providing training – schooling provides society with people equipped with the right skills to due the jobs society needs. This makes sure the best and most qualified people end up doing the jobs that utilizes and recognises these skills, qualifications and individual effort. This creates what is termed as the division of labour – whereby the world of work is fragmented into a large number of specialized jobs. From this position the inequalities in society are fair and just, everyone is given and equal chance, it’s merely that some people work hard and succeed and others choose to be idle, mess about in class and only have themselves to blame for their failure. Therefore people who work hard at school become dentists while those that don’t become binmen – known as meritocracy. Which one are you?
- Meritocracy- Davis and Moore (functionalists) said as we know live in a meritocratic society the education system becomes the best mechanism for selecting the right people for the right jobs – role allocation. Meritocracy is the notion that people should and are duly awarded by society for their hard work and efforts. Those that work hard will and can achieve those that choose not to, achieve their due rewards.
- Before you move to the next lesson it’ll be useful if you test your knowledge about what you’ve just read. You can do that here Functionalism test
- To understand the difference between universalistic and particularistic values think of this. Imagine you were brought up at home to eat with your hands at every meal time. Eating with your hands would be a value particular to your family – hence particularistic value. But when you go to school and starting eating school dinners you discover you’re the only person eating with their hands. So the teachers teach you to eat with a knife and fork like all the other children which is an eating method valued by everyone – hence the term universalistic value.