Durkheim’s Perspective on Education

Emile Durkheim argued that schools were essential for ‘imprinting’ shared social values into the minds of children. He believed schools would play a central role in forming modern societies.

Functionalist sociologist Emile Durkheim saw Education as performing two major functions in advanced industrial societies – transmitting the shared values of society and simultaneously teaching the specialised skills for an economy based on a specialised division of labour.

Durkheim, a French sociologist, was writing at the turn of the twentieth century (late 19th and early 20th) and he believed that schools were one of the few institutions uniquely poised to assist with the transition from traditional society, based on mechanical (face to face) solidarity, to modern society, which was much larger in scale and based on organic (more abstract) solidarity.

Durkheim Education

Education and the Transmission of Shared Values

According to Durkheim ‘Society can survive only if there exists among its members a sufficient degree of homogeneity: education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the child from the beginning the essential similarities which collective life demands’ (Durkhiem, quoted in Haralambos 2013). 

Education does this by instilling a sense of social solidarity in the individual – which involves instilling a sense of belonging to wider society, a sense of commitment to the importance of working towards society’s goals and a feeling that the society is more important than the individual.

Durkheim argued that ‘to become attached to society, the child must feel in it something that is real, alive and powerful, which dominates the person and to which he owes the best part of himself’ (Durkheim, quoted in Haralambos 2013). 

Education, and in particular the teaching of history, provides this link between the individual and society. If history is taught effectively, it ‘comes alive’ for children, linking them to their social past and developing in them a sense of commitment to the social group.

Education and Social Rules 

Durkheim argued that, in complex societies, school serves a function which cannot be fulfilled by either the family, which is based on kinship or friendship, which is based on personal choice, whereas being a member of wider society involves learning to get on with and co-operate with people who are neither our kin or our friends.

School is the only institution capable of preparing children for membership in wider society – it does this by enforcing a set of rules which are applied to all children, and children learn to interact with all other children on the basis of these shared rules – it thus acts like a society in miniature.

Durkhiem argued that school rules should be strictly enforced – with a series of punishments for those who broke the school rules which reflected the seriousness of the damage done to the social group by the child who broke the rules. Durkheim also believed that by explaining why punishments were given for rule breakers, children would come to learn to exercise self-discipline not only because of fear of punishment, but also because they could see the damage their deviant behaviour did to the group as a whole.

According to Durkheim social sciences such as sociology could play a role in making it clear to children the rational basis of social rules:

‘It is by respecting the school rules that the child learns to respect rules in general, that he develops the habit of self-control and restraint simply because he should control and restrain himself. It is a first initiation into the austerity of duty. Serious life has now begun’. (Durkhiem, Quoted in Haralambos, 2013). 

Education and the Division of Labour 

Durkheim argued that a second crucial function for education in an advanced industrial economy is the teaching of specialised skills required for a complex division of labour.

In traditional, pre-industrialised societies, skills could be passed on through the family, or through direct apprenticeships, meaning formal education in school was not necessary. However, factory based production in modern industrial society often involves the application of advanced scientific knowledge, which requires years of formal education to learn, thus schools become much more necessary.

Another factor which makes school necessary in modern societies (according to Durkheim) is that  social solidarity in industrial societies is based largely on the interdependence of specialised skills – the manufacture of a single product requires the combination of a variety of specialists. In other words, solidarity is based on co-operation between people with very different skill sets – and school is the perfect place for children to learn to get on with people with different backgrounds.

Taking the above two points together, Durkheim argues that schools provide ‘the necessary homogeneity for social survival and the ‘necessary diversity for social co-operation’.

Evaluations of Durkheim

  1. Postmodernists might criticise Durkheim for his assumption that society needs shared values – Britain has become much more multicultural in recent decades, and the extent to which there is a single British culture is debatable – there are whole communities which are largely cut off from mainstream culture, as evidenced in the case of ethnic segregation in Oldham.
  2. Marxists would be a bit more cynical about the relationship between school and work – according to Durkheim school is a neutral institution which simply transmits values and skills to individuals which enable the economy to run smoothly – according to Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle, this is a much darker process – school teaches working class kids to be passive, making them easier to exploit in later life.
  3. Ken Robinson in his ‘changing education paradigms‘ talk makes a number of criticisms of the contemporary education system – he argues it’s failing too many kids.
  4. Liberals such as Ivan Illich would even question the view that we need schools to transmit complex skills – In ‘Deschooling Society‘ he suggested that we could learn work related skills in a much more decentralised way, something which is even more possible today in the age of online learning.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This material is relevant to the Education topic within the sociology of education. It is really extension work to explore the The Functionalist view of Education in more depth.

Talcott Parsons is the second main Functionalist sociologist who wrote about education, in the 1940s and 1950s, so half a century later than Durkheim – Education and Universalistic Values

You might also like the following related post: Evaluating the Functionalist View of Education.

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Sources/ Find out more

Durkheim first outlines aspects of his views on the role of education in society in his classic text: The Division of Labour in Society.

This WikiPedia article on Durkheim is quite useful

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

Functionalists focus on the positive functions of education – creating social solidarity, teaching core values and work skills and role allocation/ meritocracy

Functionalists focus on the positive functions performed by the education system. There are four positive functions that education performs

1. Creating social solidarity
2. Teaching skills necessary for work
3. Teaching us core values
4. Role Allocation and meritocracyFunctionalist perspective on education mind map for A-level sociology

Education Creates Social Solidarity

We have social solidarity when we feel as if we are part of something bigger. Emile 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.

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 specialise when we do GCSEs.

The most obvious examples of this function of education are in the compulsory sector, especially with vocational education where students learn the specific skills required for particular professions – everything from engineering and construction to media and IT technicians and beauty therapy.

Durkheim believed that one of the most impressive things about modern education systems was that they simultaneously taught us core values and a sense of belonging to the whole (See below) while at the same time they teach us the DIFFERENT and DIVERSE skills that a modern economic system requires to function.

Education teaches pupils 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.

The above ties in quite nicely with the modernisation theory view of development – achieved status is seen as a superior system to the ascribed status found in traditional societies. 

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.

Functionalists believe that meritocracy is extremely important for peace in society because people will only accept status and wage differences if those in lower status jobs believe they themselves had (or have) a fair chance to climb the ladder and get a higher status and better paid job themselves.

Positive evaluations of the Functionalist view on education

School performs positive functions for most pupils most of the time – even though students might not want to go to school sometimes and not necessarily enjoy school some of the time, the majority come out after 13 years of formal schooling as reasonable human beings.

There does seem to be a link between education and economic growth, suggesting a good education system benefits the wider society and economy. All countries in Western Europe have very good education systems while many poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have many more problems with their education systems, such as low attendance rates.

Exclusion and truancy rates are relatively low, suggesting there is very little active resistance to schooling.

Schools do at least try to foster ‘solidarity’ – through PSHE lessons and teaching British Values for example.

Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses. If you look at post-16 education especially there is a lot of diverse courses offered and it it is difficult to see how technologically advanced post-industrial economies could function without a thriving post-16 and university sectors.

Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)

Criticisms of the Functionalist View of Education

It is usual in A-level sociology to criticise one perspective using other perspectives, but in the case of Functionalism there are many more stand alone criticisms that we can make!

Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – wealthier students from higher socio-economic backgrounds still, in 2022, get better results than poorer students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, this is true within the state school system , but the largest difference in achievement is between the 7% of very wealthy students who attend fee paying independent schools and the 93% who attend state schools.

HOWEVER, there is evidence that a disadvantage gap opened up during school lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, with poorer students falling further behind than richer students, this actually suggests that when schools are open as usual, they at least narrow that achievement gap to an extent!

Marxists would also argue that the Functionalist view of education is ideological – the fact that it focuses on the postive functions of education means it reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.

The Functionalist perspective on education was developed in the late 19th century (Durkheim) and the 1950s (Parsons) – during modernity, but with the shift to postmodernity society has changed and the British school system seems to have adapted with it.

For example, schools today focus more on developing the individual rather than teaching duties and responsibilities that individuals should adopt towards society – it’s more about the individual and less about solidarity (following the shift from modern to postmodern society)

Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying and there are a minority for who it doesn’t work, such as those permanently excluded. If we were to do the kind of in-depth research Interactionists prefer we might find that a significant minority of children are harmed during school in more subtle ways.

It is difficult to argue that schools performed any of the above four functions during the disruption caused by the government’s response to the pandemic, especially not being judged by universalistic standards (no standardized exams) or meritocracy (because private school teachers inflated their students’ grades more than state school teachers).

Contemporary Evidence to Evaluate Functionalism (2022 update)

Students need to be able to evaluate sociological perspectives using contemporary evidence and a lot has happened in the last few years, most of the evidence suggesting that the Functionalist view of education is extremely limited in helping us to understand the role of education in society.

Below I consider five pieces of contemporary evidence mainly from 2020-2022 and what they suggest about some of the key ideas of Functionalism as applied to education.

The shift to the Ebacc

The government plans to make 90% of pupils sit GCSEs from with the Ebacc suite of subjects by 2025. This will result in a more similar experience of education for 14-16 year olds studying towards GCSEs and the Ebacc as the Ebacc consists of a relatively narrow range of subjects: English, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a language.

On the surface this move away from allowing students to have more choice in what they study could lead to more of a shared collective conscience and thus solidarity and value consensus as students are taught a higher proportion of rational (e.g. a lot more science) and critical subjects – so more students might finish their GCSEs thinking more similarly.

The ArtsProfessional blog points out that this will result in more students from more deprived backgrounds studying subjects NOT on the approved Ebacc list because such students are more likely to do seven rather than nine GCSEs – and they have to do seven from the list above as part of the Ebacc. This means we could have poorer students being excluded from creative subjects and P.E. because these aren’t on the list, while richer and more able students do the seven Ebacc subjects plus two or three other GCSEs of their choice.

It’s also likely that more able and affluent students will get better results in their Ebacc and have a more rounded subject base because of their additional subjects, while less able and poorer students end up with only Ebacc GCSEs and weaker results.

So the net effect of making students sit a narrower range of subjects is an increase in the inequality of outcomes along class lines, which goes against the idea of meritocracy as it reproduces class inequality.

The Problem with PREVENT and British Values

The requirement to teach British Values in schools started in 2015 and emerged out of the PREVENT agenda, which required schools to intervene when they suspected (mainly Muslim) children were being radicalised and drawn into terrorism.

The government defines British values as democracy, respect for the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance and respect for those with different faiths – and the theory behind getting students to think about what ‘being British’ means is that it might to create a new tolerant and respectful national identity based on these values and help prevent radicalisation and terrorism.

OFSTED’s vision is that British Values are embedded into the curriculum and taught through several critical thinking subjects such as history and english – through which students learn about the historical struggles for democracy and the emergence of civil society. Ideally, students would also be taught to think about whether these values are universal beyond Britain.

However, according to a 2018 article in the Conversation it is highly unlikely that the requirement on schools to teach British Values is going to promote Value Consensus in any meaningful way.

Some schools, for example, confuse British Values with British stereotypes and get students to do projects such as doing collages of what Britishness in involving pictures of the Queen (or now King) and fish and chips, which hardly promote critical thinking.

A second problem is that these values are so general that each of them can be interpreted in many different ways, and they are also full of contradictions.

For example, there are different forms of democracy, other than our first past the post system, and ‘individual liberty’ is context dependent and clearly has its limits, but where? And as to the rule of law: Boris Johnson didn’t even respect that during lockdown so that is laughable. Hence any discussions around what the specifics of these values should mean could potentially reveal or even open up divisions between pupils.

There is also a problem that the whole PREVENT and British Values agenda emerged as a response to Islamic fundamentalism – it could potentially lead to further marginalisation of Muslim children in schools as the implicit message is that it’s mainly targeted at making Muslim children conform to this new Britishness (whatever that is!)

BREXIT

The EU Referendum in 2015 firmly split the UK population down the middle, with approximately half the population voting to stay in the EU and half voting to leave.

This is the only time that the UK Population has been offered the chance to vote directly on a specific social policy and the fact that it divided the nation in half suggests that there is no meaningful value consensus around the idea of how Britain should relate to the wider world.

And clearly if there is no value consensus in adult society, schools have roundly failed to foster any sense of value consensus on this issue during the last five decades!

Graduate Labour Market Statistics

The 2021 Graduate Labour Market statistics suggest some broad support for education performing the role allocation function, where a tiered education system sifts and sorts people into higher and higher skilled roles.

86.7% of graduates were employed in 2021 compared to 67.2% of non-graduates:

And graduates were three times as likely to be in ‘highly skilled’ jobs compared to non-graduates, suggesting that going to university successfully sifts most graduates into higher skilled jobs.

HOWEVER there are still around 25% of graduates who end up in lower skilled jobs so clearly the system isn’t that effective, and it’s also clear that going to university is NOT the only way to secure a higher-skilled job.

Apprenticeships

According to the 2021-22 apprenticeship data The total number of people doing apprenticeships in 2021-2022 was approximately 750 000, with the main sectors being health and social care and business administration.

The majority of people doing apprenticeships are under 25 and this suggests that apprenticeships are working alongside more traditional further and higher education institutions (colleges and universities) to further perform the function of role allocation.

The numbers of people doing apprenticeships certainly aren’t sufficient to suggest that apprenticeship, work based learning is undermining the role allocation function being performed my colleges and universities.

Test Yourself

Sociology of Education Revision Bundle

Education Revision Bundle Cover

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:

  1. 34 pages of revision notes
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
  4. how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education

Signposting/ Related Posts

This post has been written primarily for students studying the education topic, as part of the AQA’s A-Level Sociology course.

The Functionalist perspective on education is usually the first discrete topic taught within the sociology of education module.

After reading this post you might like to read this Evaluations of Functionalism post which discusses the strengths and limitations of this perspective in more depth

After Functionalism students usually study The Marxist Perspective on Education which criticises much of what Functionalists say about the topic.

A related perspective is The New Right View of Education which is usually taught as an updated and modified version of Functionalism, more relevant to society today.

You might also like this summary of perspectives on education grid, although you might need to squint to see it (update pending!)

Please click here to return to the homepage – ReviseSociology.com

 

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