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Explore and evaluate competing explanations on the role and function of education.

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Explore and evaluate competing explanations on the role and function of ‘education’.

This essay will attempt to explore the educational system and it’s role and functions in society, using sources which reflect the psychological and philosophical concepts, along with social and learning theories. State education will be explored in relation to the opinions of conflict and consensus structuralist sociological theorists. Finally, the concept of humanism in education will be defined and evaluated.

For the majority of people the term ‘education’ is inextricably linked to the state-controlled learning that is compulsory in this country from the age of five to the age of sixteen. ‘Education’ is derived from the Latin terms ‘educare’ and ‘educere’. ‘Educare’ means to rear, to bring up, to cultivate; Shankman and Durrant (2002) suggest that this gives a sense of education as a logical, rationally ordered concept, the imparting of knowledge in order to produce ‘educated’ people. ‘Educere’ means to evoke, to draw out, to lead forth; this meaning would explain education as a creative process, encouraging the student to tap into his or her own potential.

The state places great emphasis on ensuring that everyone receives an education, and there are legal structures in place to compel parents to ensure that their children attend school. An ‘education’ is therefore something that everyone experiences, although there can arguably be huge differences in the quality of education received. Society accepts and agrees to the legal constraints placed upon it’s members and school becomes an important societal structure, not only in its function as provider of knowledge, but also in the process of socialization. However, Durkheim states that education is ‘only the image and reflection of society. It imitates and reproduces the latter in abbreviated forms: it does not create it’ (Durkheim, 1951).

 Although most people would accept the idea that life chances are not distributed equally within a capitalist society, people generally choose to believe that education is a meritocratic system, whereby everyone has an equal chance of success if they work hard. At school certain norms and values are instilled into the students, such as co-operation, punctuality and discipline. Jorgenson et al (1997) suggest that school is the first organisation people attend, become members of in effect, and therefore school becomes a model for all the subsequent organisations that people join.  

One of the criticisms of the functionalist view of education may be that it does not address the conflict that occurs within educational systems and, furthermore, the meritocratic ideal does not account for peoples varying experiences of education. Another criticism may be that a rigidly structured system may place more importance on the structure itself, rather than the processes of teaching and learning that take place within it.  

Conflict theory also views society as a system of structures. However, it holds an opposing view as to the function of those structures and it regards education as another tool used by the dominant group of society to protect the status quo. Although outwardly democratic, society is an authoritative structure; hierarchy filters down to every level, and those who hold the power do not wish to share it. Bowles and Gintis (1976) are of the opinion that the social relationships in educational institutions reflect the social relationships of the workplace, saying, ‘Social relations in education are a replica of the hierarchical division of work. Hierarchical relations are reflected in the vertical lines of authority which go from administrators to teachers and from teachers to students’ (Bowles & Gintis, 1976, pp175-176).

In addition, just as in the workforce individuals who challenge their bosses and fight for better working conditions are often labelled as ‘rabble-rousers’, students who challenge the school system are labelled as troublemakers. Rogers and Freiberg (1994) state that ‘while behaviourism has diminished in its importance for most psychologists it continues to rule the educational system…….from the way students are disciplines to the way teachers are evaluated, the method is one of control, reward and punishment (Rogers & Freiberg, 1994, p296).

Bowles and Gintis (1976) go on to suggest that schools serve a function not so much to teach content, more to shape the form of the students. They offer an explanation of three areas in which the system is designed to ‘mould’ individuals from lower status backgrounds; firstly, in order to produce a subservient workforce, students are taught the values of compliance and dependability; in turn, an acceptance of hierarchy becomes the norm; finally, students are motivated by external rewards, passing exams in order to leave school and join the workforce to which they are suited. In this way, the content of the lessons becomes immaterial; it is the socialization that is important.

In addition, Bowles and Gintis reject the functionalist view of a meritocratic society, claiming that the concept is impossible within a capitalist framework. Social mobility is considered to be strongly linked to the kind of education a person receives. ‘Schools, by testing and evaluating students, match their talents, skills and capacities to the jobs for which they are best suited. The school is therefore seen as the major mechanism for role allocation’, (Haralambos and Holborn, 1991, p233). Employers use education as a selection tool, recruiting from top universities to fill the jobs with high social status. Society’s elite establish private schools and their values and expectations are passed down to their children, who in turn become the next generation’s privileged class. People in positions of power also have control of state education and can ensure that it functions to instil acceptance of the status quo. Furthermore, jobs with little or no social status still require the applicant to have had a high school education; it can be argued that it is not proof of knowledge that the employer requires, but evidence of social training.

Eggleston (1977) remarks that education as an institution has systems of value and power that guide every decision, including the curriculum, and the norms and values of the school must either respect the power structure, which is also the power structure of society, or challenge it. However, even when educational structures such as the free-school movement, reject the power system, they will still inevitably be influenced by it.

Educare is a scientific approach to teaching and learning, studying the nature of knowledge, what it is and how we acquire it. The term ‘science’ derives from the Latin ‘scientia’ which in turn translates to the Greek ‘episteme’. Epistemology is concerned with setting established methods of teaching and ‘measuring’ the results to evaluate their success. Educere, however, is not only concerned with scientific knowledge; it also encourages creative thinking and critical questioning, producing independent forward-thinking adults, capable of dealing with the changes that society may face in the future. This approach expands upon the philosophical concept of ‘ontology’, which can be described as the study of reality and the nature of being.

In relation to this, critical educational theorists have stressed the importance of using theoretical approaches to explore strategies for addressing the arguably unfavourable relationship between schools and the economy. One such approach is humanistic education which focuses on the development of the individual as the ultimate aim of education. Humanistic education has its roots in classical Greek ‘Paideia’, referring to the process of educating an individual to become all that he or she can be. Paideia is based on the assumption that all human beings are naturally active learners, capable of living a fully humanistic life defined by intellectual growth.

Aloni (1999) describes four approaches in humanistic education beginning with the classical approach, rooted in the teachings of the Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Secondly, the romantic or therapeutic approach was first observed in the eighteenth century writings of Rousseau who blamed, among other things, encyclopaedic knowledge and authoritarian education for many of society’s problems. Rousseau suggested a concept of self-development that became the basis for the ideas of later educational theorists and psychologists, such as Dewey, Rogers and Maslow. Based upon the concept of self-actualisation, this approach can be characterised as the belief that the inner nature of human beings is essentially good and unique, and true education, educere, will draw it out.

The Existentialist approach to humanistic education, as described by Aloni (1999) is philosophical in nature; the insights of, amongst others, Nietszche and Sartre are explored  and, based upon a concept that man is nothing else but what he makes of himself, students are urged to constantly choose, form and develop their identities.

The final approach is relating to radical education and critical pedagogy; well-known proponents such as Freire and Illich posit the use of educational discourse to address notions of power and social issues such as class and gender, so that students can ultimately gain critical consciousness. Freire (2000) argues that learning should be an act of culture and freedom, but banking education, where passive learners receive pre-selected deposits of knowledge, does not allow this act to take place. As this passivity increases amongst individuals already dominated by capitalism and the state, a ‘culture of silence’ is created. Freire advocated participatory learning and research, in which the learners and the facilitator work collaboratively to draw connections between academic theory and life experience. Thus, as critical co-investigators, learners are able to develop new ways of thinking and advance towards a critical consciousness.

According to Gage and Berliner (1991) some basic principles of the humanistic approach are that: students will learn best what they want and need to know; knowing how to learn is more important than acquiring a lot of knowledge; self-evaluation is the only meaningful evaluation of a student’s work; feelings are as important as facts; and finally, students learn best in a non-threatening environment.  

A quick search of government education-related websites would not lead to a belief in the humanism of education within our consumerist society. The government Department for Children, School and Families  produces numerous lists of statistics and league tables of results that ‘consumers’ can use to make comparisons between the academic achievements of schools in different boroughs and wards. Although the website page, ‘Education and Skills: the National Picture’ (2008) claims that ‘The aim of the skills strategy is to ensure that…..individuals have the skill they need to be both employable and personally fulfilled’, it goes on to talk about regional development agencies, regional partners and economic strategy, all language more suggestive of business than education, and it could be thought that the employability factor is of greater importance than personal fulfilment.

Business-like strategies and league tables serve to introduce an ideal of competition into education and this competitiveness filters down to the classroom, where teachers are under pressure to produce results and, as imagination is not measurable or socially verifiable, there may be a tendency to disregard or even discourage it. Ireson and Hallam (1999) suggest that low streams tend to undertake work that is highly structured, concentrating on basic skills with fewer opportunities for independent learning, discussion or activities that promote critical thinking, analysis and creativity. Furthermore, research has shown that teachers have low expectations of low-ability students; Weinstein (2002) carried out studies by interviewing students and her results demonstrated that students perceive low expectations in several ways: by the type of work given and when and how much help is offered; by the type of feedback given; by what teachers say and even by non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice.

It appears that, although the majority of people would claim to be humanist, and would agree with a humanist approach to teaching as the method of choice, the state educational system falls short of the standard. Aloni (2001) offers the explanation that the term has become so popular ‘that it has become vacuous and lost much of its capacity to serve as a moral and educational ideal’ (Aloni, 2001, p27), going further to suggest that humanism can be identified as a commitment  to ‘the enhancement of human freedom and growth, to the realisation and perfection of human potentialities, and an ethical code that places the highest value on the dignity of humanity, as an end in itself’ (Aloni, 2001, p 28).

In conclusion, this essay has discussed the concept of education from a functionalist perspective, considering and evaluating the role that education plays in the socialisation of individuals. Education is strongly linked to social mobility and it can be argued that the meritocratic ideal is biased towards groups of higher socio-economic status. Conflict theorists argue that capitalism ensures its own survival by the establishment of private educational institutions and selection methods. It is also apparent that low-ability groups receive a different kind of teaching than the high-ability groups and labelling often generates a self-fulfilling prophecy of low-achievers.  Furthermore, the hierarchical divisions within educational institutions reflect the divisions in the workplace, ensuring the compliance of the next generation of workers.  

Humanistic education offers an alternative to a rigid structured form of teaching. It’s roots in philosophy have been explored, along with the thoughts of critical pedagogical educators, such as Freire, who challenges banking education and the culture of silence, positing collaboration between learners and facilitators.

It may be argued that consumerism has created an educational system that has become another marketable commodity, and educational institutions are placed in a position of needing to compete with each other. There may be a danger that, in the race to excel, the statistics and ratings become more important than the educational process. As the world changes with global pollution, religious wars and general political unrest, it becomes more important than ever for the education system to produce independent thinkers and creative problem-solvers. The cultivation of self and development of critical thinking that arises from humanistic education could arguably be the only way to achieve this.

Word Count: 2,277


Aloni, N. (1999) Humanistic Education, available from:- http://www.ffst.hr/ENCYCLOPAEDIA/humanistic_education.htm (accessed 26 April 2008)

Aloni, N. (2001) ‘A Redefinition of Liberal and Humanistic Education’ in J. Collins & D. Cook (eds) Understanding Learning:  Influences and Outcomes Sage: London

Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life Routledge: London

Department for Education (2008) ‘Education and Skills: The National Picture’, available from:- http://www.gos.gov.uk/educskills/?a=42496 (accessed 28 April 2008)

Durkheim, E. (1951) Suicide: A Study in Sociology The Free Press: New York

Eggleston, J. (1977) The Sociology of the School Curriculum Routledge: London

Freire, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Bergman Ramos, M., Continuum: New York

Gage, N. and Berliner, D. (1991) Educational Psychology 5th edn., Houghton Mifflin: Boston

Haralambos, M. and Holborn, M. (1991) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives Collins Educational: London

Ireson, J. and Hallam, S. (1999) ‘Raising Standards: Is Ability Grouping the Answer?’ Oxford Review of Education Vol.25, No.3, pp 343-358

Jorgensen, N., Bird, J., Heyhoe, A., Russell, B. and Savvas, M. (1997) Sociology: An Interactive Approach Collins Educational: London

Rogers, C.R. and Freiberg, H.J. (1994) Freedom to Learn 3rd edn., Prentice Hall: New Jersey

Shankman, S. and Durrant, S.W. (2002) Early China/Ancient Greece: Thinking Through Comparisons SUNY Press: China

Weinstein, R.S. (2002) ‘Overcoming inequality in schooling: A call to action for community psychology’ American Journal of Community Psychology Vol.30, pp 21-42

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