Public education, it can be argued, shapes society, instils social mores and indoctrinates the impressionable with those philosophies the elites value. This essay will focus upon three main areas intrinsic to the education system. These are the social reproduction of ideas, the life chances created and instilled through education, and the socialisation of the individuals undergoing the educational process. Two main sociological perspectives that are useful when studying the education system are Functionalism and Critical Theory, because they focus on macro issues and social structures more than the interactionist perspective.
Functionalists believe that the school system is an agent of social reproduction, which operates to reproduce well integrated, fully functioning members of society (Webb, Schirato and Danaher, 2002: 114). Critical theorists, conversely, hold that education is the most effective mechanism for promoting social change and for giving opportunities to less privileged groups so that they can advance their social standing. However, education usually reproduces existing social divisions, maintaining the relative disadvantage of certain groups (Webb, Schirato and Danaher, 2002: 106). Munro (1994: 108) describes the different approaches by stating that, “functionalists tend to see education as synonymous with socialisation, while a conflict theorist is inclined to view education as ideological- that is, reflecting the interests of particular groups.”
Functionalists hold that the major institution for social reproduction is the education system, whereas, from a critical perspective, teachers, who oversee this reproduction, have been made into administrators of programs that provide “manpower capitalisation” through planned and directed behavioural changes (Illich, 1973: 327). Illich (1973: 327) comments, from a critical perspective, that teaching and learning remain sacred activities separate and estranged from a fulfilling life. This is because the things being taught do not line up with the necessary knowledge needed for life outside of education, and that “learning from programmed information always hides reality behind a screen” (Illich, 1973: 324). This means that the knowledge provided is set to a secret agenda.
The learning process, which supposedly passes on the values and mores necessary in society to students, is not, however, meeting these needs effectively. Relevant information, that is, knowledge, which will add skills to the labour market, is becoming less practical and more theoretical, expanding the gap between study and work. Regardless of this, employers and social elites have attempted to use the schools for the reproduction of compliant workers (Davis, 1999: 65). This double standard has been discussed in a best selling song, ‘The Wall’ by Pink Floyd (1978) in which they stated that the reproduction received through the school system was set to a hidden agenda, and that society would be better off without it.
Drucker (1973: 236) equates the influx of educated people to the potential for producing wealth in any given country. By stating this, educational socialisation and the development of educated people is the most important function education can have. He goes on to state that while this may be the case today, throughout history, being uneducated provided the wealth of a given nation, due to the class differences, and that education was for the rich and idle while the work was performed by the illiterate. This all changed with the Industrial Revolution, and the invention of moveable type in the 17th Century (Drucker, 1973: 232). The moveable type meant that education could be performed at a reduced rate, and words became a commodity that was necessary for improving the quality of the labour force.
Education is purported to provide the best possible life chances for its graduates, yet in reality, in many ways education diminishes these chances. Heinz (1987: 132) points out that the life chances of graduates are in a state of flux, that when the labour market is depressed and work is difficult to find, then young people will opt for more education as a means of delaying their entry into a tight work force. “The school then takes on the function of a warehouse; it is a place to mark time. At the same time school acts as a socio-political instrument for reducing social and political conflict, and this function gains predominance over its main function of educating young people.”
In many cases the academic credentials earned are unnecessary for working-class jobs (Furlong and Cartmel, 1999: 12), which changes the focus of education, making it oppressive and irrelevant (Davis, 1999: 83). Heinz (1987: 131) states “secondary school-leavers face a worsening outlook when they want to start in working life, and joining a preparatory program is increasingly becoming the only alternative to unemployment.” There are a growing number of young people who are finding it harder to find a place, whose prospects on the labour market are poor, being qualified but underemployed, or drifting between unemployment and occasional jobs (Heinz, 1987: 131). This increases social inequalities and the gap between rich and poor. By acting as a warehouse education is not preparing students for life but rather crippling their life chances.
The alternative to this are to reassess the curricula and teaching methods, reintegrating skilled workers into vocational education, ensuring that knowledge will be of direct benefit to graduates in obtaining a place within the work force. There are fewer and fewer opportunities becoming available, and school leavers have to undergo more and more relevant vocational training. However, fewer school-leavers are able to go directly into the vocational training they want.
Heinz (1987: 130) noted a growing trend 16 years ago that “Depending on the region, only between one-third and one-half of these school leavers succeed in getting a training place”, and in 1994 Munro (1994: 109) observed that the “school-to-work transition” had failed which had major ramifications for everyone involved, causing “underemployment of school leavers” (Munro, 1994: 116). The seriousness of this trend is made even more apparent by the fact that school-leavers are even ready to enter apprenticeships that lead them into dead-end occupations (Heinz, 1987: 129). Drucker (1973: 232) however, states that while this may be so, to be “uneducated is an economic liability and is unproductive,” even though education is producing an “unemployable, overeducated proletariat.” (Drucker, 1973: 233)
According to Mehan (1973: 240) education is a “major socialisation agency,” which moulds the individual’s self-concepts into a socially accepted format, allowing each individual to be slotted into a specific function (Sargent, 1994: 240). Sargent (1994: 240) points out that in the function of education “values are essentially involved” and are taught beside worldly knowledge. However, this knowledge interprets the world, but does not necessarily correspond with any external state (Sargent, 1994: 232).
The transmission of knowledge, skills and values, helps to sort and rank individuals, that they might be better placed in the labour market (Munro, 1994: 96). This raises a paradox, however, where education is seen by many as the best possible means of achieving greater equality in society (Sargent, 1994: 233), yet it categorises the graduates into job specifications, personality types and the opportunities granted to each. Sargent (1994: 231) furthers this thought by explaining that the education system is an integral part of determining position and power in our society (Sargent, 1994: 231), and that through education the class structures are compounded, making it more difficult for those in the working classes from advancing in the social hierarchy. The education institution both absorbs and perpetuates the ideology, “masquerading as ‘knowledge’, which legitimises inequality” (Sargent, 1994: 231). Regardless of the inequalities produced, it has become the “absolute prerequisite of social and economic development in our world” to have a highly educated pool of people ready for the labour market (Drucker, 1973: 232).
In conclusion, the failure of the education system to reduce social inequality and produce better workers, raises serious doubts as to its effectiveness. Life chances created through education appear to be diminishing, despite the extension of education. The knowledge taught seems to be ineffective in preparing students to cope with life. Functionalists need to reassess the structure of education, as it loses its ability to effectively provide for graduates, becoming dysfunctional in its goals to remove inequality and give a head start to people entering the work force. When looking at the education system, it is necessary to ask if the cost spent on educating people is being effectively used, considering the increasing number of educated poor. The gap between knowledge taught and life experience needs to be bridged, for education to effectively function. If, as it appears, schools are to socialise and reproduce effective and functioning members of society, the curricula has to be addressed.
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