Functionalist View Role Education Britain Plan Introduction Essay

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  • Subject: Sociology
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Functionalist view role education Britain. Plan Introduction - write a paragraph explain answer question. You explain discussing Functionalist views role education describing evaluating views Durkheim Parsons.

Sociology essay: Assess the functionalist view of the role of education in Britain

How best to educate children is a constant source of national debate in Great Britain. Likewise, the question of the function or role of education in society is no less contentious amongst sociological theorists. During the early 20th century, functionalism was the dominant mode used to conceptualize the purpose of education. In the 1960s and 1970s, Marxist critics and other authors on the subject of education began to become more critical of its central tenants, which they saw as reinforcing social inequalities rather than honoring the capacity of the educational system to enact meaningful changes to improve people's lives and to disrupt the unjust nature of the class system.

The purpose of education according to classical functionalism, as articulated by Emile Durkheim, suggests that "society is more than the sum of its parts; rather, each part of society is functional for the stability of the whole society" (Crossman 2013). Schools form important socialization functions within a nation such as Great Britain, orienting an increasingly diverse society to the history and values of the dominant social order. Children learn how to get along with others and learn how to respect authority in a manner which transfers over into how they behave in a work environment. Employers and the nation as a whole are both reliant upon the school system to function properly. Without schools, employers would not have employees able to perform their duties; without schools the nation would be a hodge-podge of values and allegiances and be unable to defend itself. However, "when one part of the system is not working or is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates social problems, which leads to social change" (Crossman 2013). When children are not being educated properly and cannot find work, social unrest inevitably arises; when specific segments of society are not appropriately socialized through the school system, whether they are young, working-class men or the children of immigrants, society does not function properly as a cohesive whole. Education is thus a medium for "social solidarity" and creating a community (Functionalism and education, 2013, History Learning Site.). Durkheim viewed the stratification of society in a relatively positive fashion -- the fact that not all students are deemed suitable for all jobs was necessary for an appropriate division of labor under the capitalist system.

Talcott Parsons was a functionalist much like Durkheim although Parsons gave greater attention to the question of inequality, namely why certain persons are assigned certain functions within the educational system. Parsons stressed the meritocratic nature of the education system. Parsons believed the education system enables intellectually gifted students to rise above their original class status, ensuring that the stratification of society does not become inevitably based upon one's background. This serves a positive function for society, in effect ensuring that the 'cream rises to the top.' "Achievements and rewards are based on effort and ability -- achieved status" (Functionalism and education, 2013, History Learning Site). This is advantageous for society given that the workers best suited for their jobs fill these positions. Although Great Britain was not always meritocratic in terms of the structure of its educational system, it has increasingly become so over the years, according to modern functionalists: "The Robbins report of 1963 established the principle that all those capable of benefiting from higher education should be entitled to it. New universities were built, polytechnics were established and the Open University gave adults fresh educational opportunities. Children of school-leaving age were encouraged to stay on in school sixth forms, or to attend college. By 1990, 36 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds were in full-time education in Britain" (Haralambos & Holborn 1995: 725).

However, many vociferous criticisms of the functionalist perspective emerged in the 20th century. Marxists such as Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis were noteworthy for offering what is called the 'conflict' sociological perspective of education. They stressed that functionalists did not appreciate sufficiently the degree to which educational institutions could be used to serve elite members of society despite having the exterior trappings of meritocracy, and the spread of education served the state, rather than allowed members of disenfranchised groups to gain power. Both the educational and vocational systems of Britain were thoroughly hierarchical and are thus designed to perpetuate inequality according to these authors. "Inequality and the ensuing conflict about it as inevitable in modern capitalist societies. In order to manage this conflict, the ruling class has to rule by force, on occasion, and by persuasion. Its policies are deliberately designed to confuse and contain conflict and the result of genuine attempts to develop modern institutions like labour markets, and the unintended consequences of technical and other developments (so there is no simple conspiracy theory here)" (Harris n.d). Schools do not really provide workers with skills, but rather merely socialize students to perform particular functions within the capitalist firmament. There is little correlation between occupation and IQ and a high degree of correlation between the social class into which one is born and the eventual occupation of the student. Schools instill "obedience, politeness, punctuality, neatness and respect for authority" rather than the real tools to ascend a meritocracy, contrary to what Parsons suggested (Harris n.d). The school system may mouth certain tropes regarding the equality of all persons to placate the working classes, but ultimately the values it espouses are those which keep the lower classes subservient, while members of the upper class have their innately higher-born position validated (Harris n.d). Access to better-quality schools and connections keep the elite in privileged positions, while only a token handful of working class people are allowed to rise through the ranks -- usually those who are willing to serve, rather than fundamentally uproot the system.

However, it might be protested that while wealthier students have an undeniable advantage within the context of the educational system, some students do seem to be able to rise through its auspices. According to Paul Willis' neo-Marxist view of the educational system, while class plays an undeniable role in job allocation, so does culture. Willis' landmark study of working-class boys entitled Learning to labour demonstrated how working-class boys, feeling that a meritocratic system did not exist, made a virtue of not paying attention in class, skirting the law, and otherwise taking pride in their class status and ability to 'do a hard day's work' with their hands. Boys who tried to study and apply themselves were ridiculed and looked upon as class traitors. "Seeing as society is run by capitalism, the lads recognised that there was no such thing as an equal opportunity for them, as no matter how hard they tried, they would still remain far less successful than middle class students. This links to the Marxist idea that there is no meritocracy in a capitalist society" (Paul Willis, 2013, History Learning Site). Thus, although class within Great Britain may indeed impede social mobility within the educational system, class acts as a form of identity and forms a psychological crutch or 'function' for the individual that may cause him or her to apparently behave against his or her own interests.

The liberal view of the educational system takes a considerably more positive view of the potential for education to enact social changes, both for the individual and for society, although it believes substantial changes is required for it to do so. For example, John Dewey "argued that it was the job of education to encourage individuals to develop their full potential as human beings. He particularly stressed the development of intellectual potential. Schooling for all would help to foster the physical, emotional and spiritual talents of everyone, as well as their intellectual abilities" (Haralambos & Holborn 1995: 730). Dewey argued for a progressive approach to education, in which a child's innate abilities were exploited and used to enhance his or her learning. Instead of teachers disseminating information, which tends to reinforce existing power imbalances, teaching should be conceptualized as a mutual dialogue or exchange, with teachers leading their pupils to explore the students' full potential. Liberally minded views of education stress allowing students to 'learn how to learn' rather than specifically preparing students for vocations. Critics of liberalism have often cited its failure to instill basic skills in students; liberal critics of functionalism suggest that a functionalist education is unnecessarily limiting, and by pigeonholing a child into an occupation early in life, he or she is more likely to end up little better in society than his or her parents. Like functionalism, liberalism believes that it does serve a function for society as well as the individual "a progressive education system is a vital part of a successful democracy. Since in a democracy power rests with the people, it is necessary for the people to be able…

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