Last Updated on June 5, 2023 by Karl Thompson
The American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1961) outlined what is commonly accepted as the Functionalist view of education as it relates to modern societies in the late 1950s.
Particularistic and Universalistic Values
Parsons argued that, after primary socialisation within the family, the school takes over as the focal socialising: school acts as a bridge between family and society as a whole, preparing children for their adult roles in society.
Within the family, the child is judged by particularistic standards. Parents treat the child as their own, unique, special child, rather than judging him or her by universal standards that are applied to every individual.
However, in the wider society the individual is treated and judged in terms of universalistic standards, which are applied to all members, regardless of their kinship ties.
Within the family, the child’s status is ascribed: it is fixed by birth. However, in advanced industrial society, status in adult life is largely achieved: for example individuals achieve their occupational skills. Thus it is necessary that the child moves from the particularistic standards and ascribed status of the family to the universalistic standards and achieved status of adult society.
The school prepares people for this transition. It establishes universalistic standards, in terms of which all pupils achieve their status. Their conduct is assessed against the yardstick of the school rules; their achievement is measured by performance in examinations. The same standards are applied to all pupils regardless of ascribed characteristics such as sex, race, family background or class of origin. Schools operated on meritocratic principles: status is achieved on the basis of merit (or worth).
Like Durkheim, Parsons argued that the school represents society in miniature. Modern industrial society is increasingly based on achievement rather than ascription, on universalistic rather than particularistic standards, on meritocratic principles which apply to all its members. By reflecting the operation of society as a whole, the school prepares young people for their adult roles.
Education: Meritocracy and Value Consensus
Parsons argued that a further main function of schools was to socialise young people into the basic values of society. Parsons, like many functionalists, maintained that value consensus is essential for society to operate effectively. In American society, school instils two major values
- The value of achievement
- The value of equality of opportunity.
By encouraging students to strive for high levels of academic attainment, and by rewarding those who succeed, schools foster the value of achievement itself. By placing individuals in the same situation in the classroom and so allowing them to compete on equal terms in examinations, schools foster the value of equality of opportunity.
These values have important functions in society as a whole. Advanced industrial society requires a highly motivated, highly skilled workforce. This necessitates differential reward for differential achievement, a principle which has been established in schools.
Both the winners (the high achievers) and the losers (the low achievers) will see the system as just and fair, since status is achieved in a situation where all have an equal chance. Again, the principles that operate in the wider society are mirrored in the school.
Ultimately Parsons believed that the education system was meritocratic and because of this it created value consensus in an unequal society.
Education and Selection
Finally, Parsons saw the educational system as an important mechanism for the section of individuals for their future role in society. In his words, it ‘functions to allocate these human resources within the role-structure of adult society’. Thus schools by testing and evaluating students, match their talents, skills and capacities to the jobs for which they are best suited. The school is therefor seen as the major mechanism for role allocation.
Evaluations of Parsons
The main criticisms of Parson’s work come from Marxism.
Marxists criticize the idea that schools transmit shared values, rather they see the education system as transmitting the values of the ruling class, as outlined in Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle.
Marxists have also criticised the idea that schools are meritocratic, arguing that meritocracy is a myth, because in reality, which schools may treat pupils the same, class inequalities result in unequal opportunities.
Signposting and Related Posts
This post has been written to provide a more in-depth look at the Functionalist Perspective on education, usually taught as part of the education topic within A-level sociology.
This post provides a more in-depth account of the Functionalist Perspective on Education. For a simplified version please see this post.
If you like this in-depth sort of thing then you might also like my post on Durkheim’s view of education.
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Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.