Education plays an integral part in everyone’s success in life. Historically, education was only for the elite. While everyone had the opportunity to learn, only the rich enjoyed a formal education. Most children did their learning at home, their teachers being parents, siblings and other relatives. Children were taught what they needed to know to be productive members of their socio-economic class. Children of people who had menial uneducated jobs did not attend formal school.
Instead, they were taught hands-on skills. By the end of the 20th century, most of the world had become more institutionalized, resulting in a requirement of more educated individuals to work in establishments such as hospitals, banks and stores. The result…more schools to teach more people the required skills and knowledge. And with that emerged the ability for individuals to step out of their pre-determined life and make a better life for themselves by becoming more educated.
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Since then, schools have been filling the needs of modern-day society. Schools teach students the academics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Still, it also teaches children discipline, respect, morals, and values from a young age that prepare them for work and helps them integrate into society. As a result, many theorists have examined the sociological functions of education. By examining some of the manifest and latent social functions of education, this essay will try to answer the question “Do Schools Work?” and, if not, the alternatives.
Schools classify students. Labelling occurs in schools as a result of the constant evaluating of the students. In most schools, students are grouped by not only grade level but by their academic level. The grade level is their actual grade in school; the academic level is the actual level they are working at. For example, in one grade 1 class, there could be 4 or 5 different reading groups. By grouping students by academic levels, schools can remediate students on a lower academic level while still advancing students on a higher level in another classroom or area of the class.
Having more than one academic level in a classroom can be difficult for the teaching staff. Still, it can be handled by using differentiated instruction and having students who need more support have a teacher aid provide them with such. In addition, students with emotional and behavioral problems are often given access to what are called resource classes or can even go to a school specifically designed for children of this nature. In doing so, children can have a smaller classroom environment with more teachers to help them catch up to other children in their grade. This scenario can either have a positive or negative outcome.
Robert Wegman talks about reference groups in his article “Classroom Discipline: An Exercise in the Maintenance of Social Reality.” Wegman says there are two outcomes for the lower academic student. “If classroom conditions make the low-IQ student think he can raise his status, he is less likely to feel relatively deprived” (Wegman 69). Or the student could feel discouraged and lower their performance even more.
Bourdieu would argue with Wegman, saying the groups are essentially developed for exclusion. Roy Nash explains Bourdieu’s theory, “working-class and cultural minority children, on average, fail in the school system because it is specifically designed to exclude them by neglect” (Nash 440). You can look at segregating students by academics or grade keeps everyone in their proper place. Many schools have to deal with low budgets, resulting in the lack of teacher assistants in the classroom. Those students struggling can be left behind because there physically isn’t enough workforce to aid everyone.
There is another choice for a student being left behind. They can make the conscious decision to change. This idea of only one right way of something existing is Cultural Capital. Pierre Bourdieu first introduced the theory. Cultural Capital is the “mastery of elements of a prestigious status culture” (DiMaggio 191). What we like and don’t like are shaped by the social class we belong to. Therefore, for any student to move into another social group, they must altogether drop all their own beliefs and values and take on those of the group they wish to move into.
Schools create an understanding of the discipline. Discipline is a necessity to maintain order in schools. Not only does discipline help the teacher perform their job better, but a well-behaved classroom reflects well on the teachers and administration. If you were to see two separate classes walking in the school’s hallway, one class in the single file not talking and the other class running all over and yelling and screaming, which teacher would you think has more control? The classroom has changed a great deal. We even see a difference in a mere 30 or 40 years.
Historically classrooms were set up with the teacher’s desk in the front and rows of student’s desks facing the teacher. Power came from above and flowed downward; this is how control was carried out on students. The teacher was feared. Fear is instilled in the students, and eventually, no punishment is needed. Take, for example, “the strap.” Years ago, students were disciplined for bad behavior with physical punishment. You were sent to the Principles office and received the strap. Not a lot of students ever received the strap; however, everyone behaved because of the fear. The extent of discipline usually results in no need for punishment. Michel Foucault’s work on discipline was mainly focused on prisons; however, the past rigid and institutional form the schools encompassed could put them in the same category.
Today things have changed. The emphasis is more on communication rather than power ( Deacon 183). When you walk into a classroom now, it differs significantly. We see desks assembled in groups. The teacher’s desk could be in the back or the middle of the classroom, or maybe there isn’t even a teacher’s desk. This setup encourages cooperative learning. The teacher has become more of an equal to the students rather than an authoritative figure. Michel Foucault talked about this when he wrote about power and the self. “not the domination of the king in his central position….but that of his subjects in their mutual relations…[of] the multiple forms of subjugation that have a place and function within the social organism” (Olssen 21).
Starting this mutual relationship between authority and students early in life teaches the child how to operate cooperatively with authority later in life. The unwritten rules of behavior are what is called the hidden curriculum. Conflict is a constant in today’s society. One theorist who would argue the need for conflict is Emile Durkheim. He would argue that if needs are the same, then there is always a struggle for existence. But where different interests can be pursued, then there may be room for all. In his book “The Division of Labour in Society” he wrote:
Instead of entering into or remaining in the competition, two similar enterprises establish equilibrium by sharing their common task. Instead of one being subordinate to the other, they co-ordinate. But, in all cases, new specialties appear (Durkheim, 270). The reality is conflict in the world of education has always been there and will continue to ensure that the best and the brightest continue on to become the leading individuals in society. It is not only a concern about where you place, but where others are placed compared to you. Who got the highest mark on the test? Who won 1st place in the science fair? Who won the most ribbons in Track and Field?
The introduction of competition into education encourages students to learn more, study harder, and produce better results. If this happens as it should students will do better in school and as a result will learn more than if there were no competition. Students have long been encouraged to excel at academics, but now have even more rewards that can possibly be earned. In the past, simple recognition could be achieved fairly easily by making all A’s or by being present each day at school, but now more is expected of students. In the elementary level of education, students are still rewarded for good grades and perfect attendance and rewards are given in the form of receiving certificates and ribbons in award ceremonies and students can earn special activities and parties for doing well.
In the middle grades and high school grades, students still earn those things, but bigger incentives are given as the children get older. Students in these grade levels are able to compete in sporting events as long as they maintain a certain academic level as set in place by the school system. Students are recognized for their achievements in both academics and sports at award ceremonies in front of the entire student body, parents, teachers and community leaders.
Furthermore, all students are encouraged to participate in clubs and school organizations that also require the maintenance of a high-grade point average; clubs can include anything from Girl Guides/Scouts to Junior Achievers to Debate Club and 4-H. Students in all levels are also able to participate in Spellathons, Science Fairs, and other competitions that encourage them to do more and better than their peers. In the high school years, there is added pressure, especially for those who plan to attend college, to do well and earn scholarships and grants that will help pay for their higher education. Competition is but one aspect of education, but it fosters a healthy environment that encourages students to do well in all areas of academics.
The education system is a place that helps develop children, teaches them norms and values and helps integrate them into society. However, schools do have some negative functions that are usually ignored by most people. The classification of students and creating conflict within the classroom can result in negative effects. Many students can be forced to either submit to authority and take on the beliefs and values of the ruling class or be left behind. In my opinion, this is not what should be happening in schools in the 21st Century. So is there an alternative?
The emergence of student-based learning programs can be the answer. The article “What Unschooling is and What it Means to Us” may be the answer to all the “hidden” agendas of schools. Carlo Ricci describes unschooling as “a learner-centred democratic approach to education, putting the learner’s passions and interests first” (Ricci 141). At first one may think this is homeschooling. Take the child out of the school and all social problems are solved. That is not true. Being homeschooled, you are still following a government-issued outline of what you should be learning. Instead unschooling “is putting the power over their education and life into the hands of the learner” (Ricci 151).
Schools are supposed to be an extension of the home. Parents are supposed to feel safe sending their children to school. But, if your child is not part of the “in” crowd, or your socio-economic background does not match with the population in the school, your child may be made fun of, discriminated against and simply be looked at as an outcast. This is clear evidence that schools are failing in some aspects. Children must make the conscious decision to accept the “popular” thought in order to simply survive in school or face the consequences.
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- Reader. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009. Print.
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- Durkheim, Emile, The Division of Labor in Society, New York, The Free Press, 1933. Print.
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