Functionalists focus on the positive functions performed by the education system. There are four positive functions that education performs
1. Creating Social Solidarity
We have social solidarity when we feel as if we are part of something bigger. Durkheim argued that school makes us feel like we are part of something bigger. This is done through the learning of subjects such as history and English which give us a shared sense of identity. Also in American schools, children pledge allegiance to the flag.
Durkheim argued that ‘school is a society in miniature.’ preparing us for life in wider society. For example, both in school and at work we have to cooperate with people who are neither friends or family – which gets us ready for dealing with people at work in later life.
2. Learning specialist skills for work
Durkheim noted that an advanced industrial economy required a massive and complex Division of Labour. At school, individuals learn the diverse skills necessary for this to take place. For example, we may all start off learning the same subjects, but later on we specialize when we do GCSEs.
3. Teaching us core values
Talcott Parsons argued that education acts as the ‘focal socializing agency’ in modern society. School plays the central role in the process of secondary socialisation, taking over from primary socialisation. He argued this was necessary because the family and the wider society work in different principles and children need to adapt if they re to cope In the wider world.
In the family, children are judged according to what he calls particularistic standards by their parents – that is they are judged by rules that only apply to that particular child. Individual children are given tasks based on their different abilities and judged according to their unique characteristics. Parents often adapt rules to suit the unique abilities of the child.
In contrast in school and in wider society, children and adults are judged according to the same universalistic standards (i.e they are judged by the same exams and the same laws). These rules and laws are applied equally to all people irrespective of the unique character of the individual. School gets us ready for this.
4. Role Allocation and meritocracy
Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using examinations and qualifications. This ensures that the most talented are allocated to the occupations that are most important for society. This is seen to be fair because there is equality of opportunity – everyone has a chance of success and it is the most able who succeed through their own efforts – this is known as meritocracy
Positive evaluations of the Functionalist view on education
- School performs positive functions for most pupils – exclusion and truancy rates are very low
- Role Allocation – Those with degrees earn 85% more than those without degrees
- Schools do try to foster ‘solidarity’ – PSHE
- Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses
- Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)
Negative Evaluations of Functionalism (Criticisms)
- Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – e.g. private schools benefit the wealthy.
- Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying/
- Postmodernists argue that ‘teaching to the test’ kills creativity.
- Functionalism reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my brief vodcast on the same topic…
The Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Views of Education – A Comparison
Related Online Sources
Twynham’s Sociology Pages offer an OK round up of The Functionalist Perspective on Education (written by an ex-student)
This post from Podology (also by a student) is also OK – written as an essay (no title given), but it does tend to just juxtapose criticisms from other perspectives