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Perspectives on Education


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Perspectives on Education: Functionalist Views of Education, Durkheim, Talcott Parsons


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[This article is part of a longer article. Download the whole article in its original format.] Functionalists take the view that society must be divided into separate groups, each of which performs a task that is necessary to the survival of society as a whole - the organic whole. Societies function well when people accept internally, either consciously or unconsciously, the need to contribute to the organic functioning of the whole of society. People agree voluntarily to submerge part of their individual identity in favour of the survival of all. They do this because they recognise that there is no simple alternative to society. They would accuse Marxists of "utopianism" - that is, dreaming up a "perfect", but wholly unrealistic and unrealisable society based on a dream world. When people accept their role in society they develop a form of social conscience, which Durkheim labels the "conscience collective". Functionalists tend to look to the sociologist Emile Durkheim as the founder of their point of view. This is not entirely true. Modern functionalists, like Talcott Parsons, seek to defend capitalism, but Durkheim's vision of the organic society of the future was one in which there would be no inheritance of capital, so people would be assigned their functional role on the basis of merit alone. Modern capitalist societies are not meritocracies in this sense. Different individuals find different roles in society, but the opportunities of individuals are considerably affected by their class situation. Although Durkheim is not exactly a defender of capitalism, his functionalism, which tells us that every social grouping is a functional part of the whole of society, tends to favour a defence of capitalism. Capitalists see the educational system as fair, and as preparing individuals for their roles in adult society according to their abilities. Talcott Parsons sees the school classroom as a microcosm of society. It is a bridge between the family and wider society. In wider society status is achieved. Education socialises young people for adult roles. According to Talcott Parson's Functionalism individuals interact with each other through the medium of social structures. They accept common standards of evaluation, which are moral standards or 'norms'. Sociological processes maintain these structures, and ensure stability through adherence to the norms. This is called a 'structuralist-functionalist' approach to social systems analysis. Parsons analyses the functions of society into: 1. Adaptation - the provision of physical necessities - the economic system; 2. Goal attainment - the establishment of the goals of society as a whole - the political system; 3. Pattern maintenance and tension management - serves to motivate individuals and resolve conflicts - kinship, family & marriage; 4. Integration - socialisation of individuals to accept the norms and control them if they don't - schools, churches, media, police and judicial system. Therefore, Parsons sees education as serving a part in the function of integration. Through education individuals are socialised to conform. Education also supports the economic "imperative" of society by: 1. Inculcating certain technical skills and requirements; 2. Separating out potential workers for different points of entry to the labour market. Regarding the integration "imperative" schooling specifically causes children to internalise social values and norms at a level which the family alone cannot achieve. In America elementary school education teaches American youth the value of fair competition. "It includes, above all, recognition that it is fair to give differential rewards for different levels of achievement, so long as there has been fair access to opportunity.." Functionalists maintain that there is a high degree of equality of opportunity within the education system Functionalism stresses the link between education and the economy. A malfunctioning educational system would be one in which individuals are not assigned the most appropriate role, and will hence lead to inefficiency. This could be taken as an argument against elitism in education and in favour of a comprehensive system. Davies and Moore follow Parsons claiming that "Education is the proving ground for ability and hence the selective agency for placing people in different statuses according to their capacities." Thus modern functionalists tend to assume that the education system is a meritocracy. Functionalists believe that the demands of industrial society for a skilled workforce are met by the educational system. In criticism of functionalism: 1.Functionalism does not appear to offer a satisfactory account of conflict within educational systems. The goals and purposes of education are not generally agreed by professionals and employees within it. 2. It fails to deal adequately with the content of the curriculum and teacher-pupil interaction in the classroom. 3. It treats individuals as if they were the "puppets" of society. "Nothing more than the product of the societal norms and values which they internalise through their experiences of socialisation in the home, school, workplace etc." 4. Functionalists, especially of the Talcott Parsons type, tend to idealise existing society and ignore facts that a critical of their own views. Seeking to argue that society is a meritocracy based on equality of opportunity, functionalists tend to be wilfully blind to the very real differences of educational experience between members of different classes. They seek to paint a rosy picture in which the functions of individuals in society are all assigned to them by the educational system, rather than by class.
Contents of
Perspectives on Education

1 Perspectives on Education: Class and alienation
2 Perspectives on Education: Marxist perspectives, the Hidden Curriculum
3 Perspectives on Education: Functionalist Views of Education, Durkheim, Talcott Parsons

Related articles: (1) Introduction to Marxism, (2) Perspectives on Education