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The Role Of Education In Society Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2766 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In the language of social sciences, education is defined as “the transmission of certain attitudes, knowledge and skills to the members of a society through formal systematic training”. Today majority of the children in every society are expected to be to spend much of their first 18 years of life in school. This was not the case a century ago, when just a small elite in the developed countries like USA and UK had the privilege of attending school. In poor countries even today, most young people receive only a few years of formal schooling. But the social scientists also differentiate between education and schooling. Education is what the person has learned, whereby schooling is defined as the amount of time spent in institution dedicated to educating and which often confers degrees and diplomas on those who complete a period of enrollment.

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Today schooling in low-income nations reflects local culture. But all low-income countries have one trait in common when it comes to schooling—-there is not very much of it. In the worlds poorest nations, only half of all children ever get to school at all; in the world as a whole, just half of children reach the secondary grades. As a result majority of the children in Latin America, Asia and Africa can not read and write.

High-income nations endorse the idea that every one go to school. For one thing the workers who use machinery or computers need at least basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. In high-income nations, literacy is also necessary to carry on political democracy. American president Lyndon B. Johnson once said that “we have entered an age in which education is not just a luxury permitting some men and women an advantage over others. It has become a necessity without which a person is defenseless in this complex, industrialized society…..we have truly entered the century of the educated men and women”.

Imagine how illiteracy would affect you! What would you do if you were unable to read street signs, menus, letters, simple instructions, want ads, telephone directories, labels, bills and bank statements? What would you do if you were unable to use calendars, city maps or any guidelines? How could you become an active participant in the society without reading skills? In America alone there are 27 million illiterate people, if literacy is to read only the simplest text and street signs.

Literacy has far reaching implications. It is seen as a process of consciousness raising aimed at human liberation. It also provides the foundations for an industrial and post-industrial society.

Apart from literacy, we commonly think of schools as agencies that provide formal, conscious, and systematic training. But schools teach more than the skills and the information classified in the academic curriculum. Whether intentionally or unwittingly, they impart a whole complex of unarticulated values, attitudes and behaviors-what is termed as “hidden curriculum”. Students not only learn from the official coarse of study, but from the physical environment of the school, the attitude teachers and students exhibit towards one another, the social climate and the organization of the institution.

The behavior constituting the hidden curriculum are modeled by teachers and reinforced by them in dealing with students. The characteristics preferred by teachers are those that embody middle-class values and morality-responsibility, reliability, self-control, efficiency, thoroughness and emotional stability. These behaviors resemble those of workplace and marketplace, where the emphasis is on economically ambitious, materialistic, competitive and conforming behavior. Even the first graders learn the importance of “getting ahead”.


Learning is a fundamental mechanism for adapting to our environment. It involves more or less permanent modification in behavior that results from experience. Since learning is critical to social life, societies do not leave it to chance. Many societies transmit certain attitudes, knowledge, and skills to their members through formal systematic training-the institution we call education-where teachers and students carry out their associated roles. Education is the many side process of socialization by which people acquire those behaviors essential for effective participation in a society. Both the functionalist and conflict perspectives are in agreement on the importance of education, but they differ in their conception of the part it plays in modern life.


Schools came into existence several thousand years ago in advanced horticultural and agricultural societies to prepare a select few for leadership and professional positions. Until the last century or so, no society could afford more than a handful of educated people. With the emergence of large-scale industrial and bureaucratic organizations, came a need for an abundant supply of literate and educated people. The school system became a primary vehicle by which a nation’s citizens were taught the three Rs, and the higher education became the custodian of nation’s intellectual capital. Education today is a crucial investment in the economy and major economic resources. It has also become a major military resource. Throughout the world, schools are increasingly being viewed as a branch of the state and as a serving state purposes.

Functionalists look at how formal education contributes to the operation of society, and the schooling does this in many ways. As is the case with their analysis of other social phenomena, functionalist framework examine the institution of education from the point of view of its contributions to societal survival. These theorists have identified the following major functions or survival related consequences of education in the society:

Cultural Preservation and Storage, retrieval and Dissemination: In pre-modern societies and those in early phase of modernization, education serves two major survival functions: the preservation and storage of cultural elements, and retrieval and dissemination of those elements. The teaching that is carried out in these societies by family and kinship groups (religious groups as well) is directed to keeping alive in people’s minds important ideas, beliefs and other pieces of information. Whereby in today’s society the knowledge and skills required by contemporary living cannot be satisfied in more or less automatic “natural” way. Instead, a specialized educational agency is needed to transmit to the young ways of thinking, feeling and acting required by rapidly changing urban and technologically based societies.

Socialization and Social Placement: As societies move through the modernization process, education acquires additional functions. Their importance increases with increasing levels of development and its accompanying social, economic and political changes. For example-as marriage and family structures and the family’s social roles are redefined, formal educational structures become more heavily involved in the socialization process. Schools become primary mechanism for inculcating in young members of society a general knowledge and acceptance of the established socio-cultural system. For the immigrants in new societies formal education serves as a major avenue for the assimilation of these new comers into the system, in return fostering social integration and national unity. Formal education also imparts to students more specific knowledge and skills required by changing economic system which is beyond the ability of the family to teach its members. On the basis of achievement principles, formal educational attainment becomes an important mechanism for social placement.

Cultural Expansion and Innovation: Schools create and transmit culture. Especially at centers of higher education, scholars conduct research that leads to discovery and changes in our social life. For example, medical research at medical institutions has helped increase life expectancy, just as research by sociologists and psychologists helps us take advantage of our longevity.

Social Transformation and reform: In both modernizing and modernized societies, whether by intent or by accident, formal education can bring about social revisions and reforms. It provides its clients )students) a more comprehensive, sophisticated view of the present, a vision of alternative possible future, and a detailed knowledge of how social processes work. In human history revolutions and reforms were the products of educational institutions. In modern democratic societies, higher levels of formal education are associated with higher levels of involvement in the political system.

Social Integration: Functionalists say that the education system functions to instill the dominant values of a society and shape a common national mind. Within our country, students learn what it means to be a Pakistani. We become literate in national language, gain a common heritage, and acquire mainstream standards and rules. Youngsters from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are immersed within the same culture and prepared for responsible citizenship. Likewise, the schools are geared to integrate the poor and disadvantaged within the fabric of dominant mainstream institutions. But how well the educational institutions are performing these functions is a debatable matter.

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Screening and Selecting: Educational institutions commonly perform the function of screening and selecting individuals for different types of jobs. By conferring degrees, diplomas, and credentials for many technical, managerial and professional positions, it determines which young people will have access to scarce positions and offices of power, privilege and status. For many, schools are alike “mobility escalators” allowing gifted people to ascend the social ladder.

Schools today perform a good many latent functions that may not be recognized or intended. Like they provide custodial or babysitting service. Schools are the settings in which students develop a variety of interpersonal skills, needed for entering into friendship, participating in community affaires, and relating to others in workplace. Besides, the age segregation of the students in school environment encourages the formation of youth subcultures. Finally, formal compulsory education keeps children and adolescents out of the labor market and so out of competition with adults for jobs.


Conflict theorists say the educational institution reproduces and legitimizes the current social order. By doing so, it serves some people at the expense of others. Conflict perspective offers an all together different picture of formal education in modern societies. According to this, the institution of education exists to further the interests of those who control the social structure, not the best interest of the population at large. Conflict theorists in the Marxist tradition argue that:

Hidden Curriculum. In capitalist societies, the institution of education forms a societal superstructure, derived from and dependent on the underlying economic superstructure. Like law, the state, religion and even the culture itself-formal education in these societies exists to further the domination of the non-propertied working and middle classes by the propertied and powerful ruling class. Formal education involves a “hidden curriculum” that infuses the teachings of basic information and skills with values, norms and myths supportive of capitalism and capitalists. Thus formal education acts as a powerful tool in the establishment and maintenance of a “false consciousness” among the members of the working and middle classes. From this point of view, if formal education has any so called functions, its primary function is to preserve an exploitative status quo by shaping the minds of the exploited.

Political Education. All political regimes have a vested interest in exercising control over the contents of their society’s formal education process, and all will take steps to do so. To one degree or another, political socialization takes place in the schools of virtually every modern industrial nation. Text books in history, literature, and other academic fields may be chosen by the state on the basis of their contents rather than their merit. For example, until recently, most history books used in the schools of America, presented a “white washed” picture of westward expansion of the U.S in 19th century. The whole sale destruction of the indigenous Native American cultures was seldom discussed. Most often “Indians” were depicted as temporary problem encountered by the heroic white settlers in the process of fulfilling their manifest destiny of taming the frontiers and developing the continent “from sea to shining sea”

Similarly, until the past few years, the Japanese Ministry of Education continued to approve only those history books that offered only positive account of the Japan’s military aggression in Asia throughout this century, especially invasion of China in 1930s and the World War II.

Education and Stratification. For Marx and his followers, education is an important mechanism for the reinforcement and perpetuation of social stratification system. In contemporary societies, education is an important source of attaining a future higher social and economic position. Modern societies are “credential” systems that feature occupations that increasingly demand formal certification of competency. In the class room students compete with each other for grades and other rewards.

In many Asian countries, formal education and educational achievement have become something of a fetish to people hungry for advancement and a taste of good life offered by modernized, industrialized social system.

Even in traditional societies, formal education was reserved solely for the use of the nobility and other privileged classes. There was no need of literacy for the peasants and the serfs, who were believed to be too intellectually inferior to qualify for and benefit from the formal education. In developing societies, in which only the established upper classes can appreciate and afford it, education is still reserved for elites. Financial and other requirements for some universities lie beyond the means of most lower and working class families, effectively putting the benefits of graduating from them out of their reach. The academic currency value of degree from such schools tends to be much higher than that of less-known institutions. Thus widening the gap between the rich and the poor.

4. Control Devices. Conflict theorists agree with the functionalists that education draws the minorities and disadvantaged into the dominant culture. But the system serves the interest of the dominant group by defusing the threat posed by the minority ethnic groups. In large, conflict ridden, multi-ethnic society like United States, schools are to “Americanize” people. Through compulsory education the values of the dominant group are transmitted to those at the bottom.

5. Productive Capital. Conflict theorists see the research and development function of the universities quite differently from the functionalists. Educational institutions produce the technical and administrative knowledge necessary for running a capitalist order. According to some reports, there has been “a virtual explosion over the past several years in the number and variety of university-industry alliances”. Universities are entering research agreements with companies, setting up research parks, and encouraging the founding of new high-tech businesses at campus.

Functional analysis stresses the way in which formal education supports the operation of the modern society, but it overlooks the problems inherent in our educational system and ignores how schooling helps produce the class restructure in each generation. On the other hand social conflict theorists overemphasizes the negative role of the education in our today’s world. But we must also agree that no system is perfect and education like other institution is not free from faults.


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