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Taclott Parsons’ Perspective on Education

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.

Taclott Parsons.png
A typically convoluted quote from my man TP – He’s basically saying ‘individual ability, not class background is what determines achievement’

 

Parsons argued that, after primary socialisation within the family, the school takes over as the focal socializing-agency: 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 and Value Consensus

As part of this process, schools 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

  1. The value of achievement
  2. 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.

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 comes 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.

Related Posts 

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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The Functionalist Perspective on Education

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

1. Creating 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.

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.

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. 

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

  1. School performs positive functions for most pupils – exclusion and truancy rates are very low
  2. Role Allocation – Those with degrees earn 85% more than those without degrees
  3. Schools do try to foster ‘solidarity’ – PSHE
  4. Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses
  5. Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)

Negative Evaluations of Functionalism (Criticisms)

  1. Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – e.g. private schools benefit the wealthy.
  2. Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying/
  3. Postmodernists argue that ‘teaching to the test’ kills creativity.
  4. Functionalism reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.

FIN 

Sociology of Education Revision Bundle

Education Revision Bundle CoverIf 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

You might also like my brief vodcast on the same topic…

Test Yourself:

The Functionalist Perspective on Education Key Terms Quiz (Quizlet)

Related Posts

The Functionalist perspective on education is usually the first discrete topic taught within the sociology of education module, and then followed by The Marxist Perspective on Educationand then The New Right View of Education

Also relevant is this post: Evaluating the Functionalist Perspective on Education