Functionalism is a way of looking at society and argues that we all share very similar values and we basically agree about what is right. They argue that society is in harmony and that all parts of society contribute to the way it functions. These parts are the family, education, the legal system, religion etc. This is known as the ‘consensus theory’. Marxists argue that society is not in harmony and that the ordinary people are exploited by the wealthy. They see every part of society contributing to this exploitation.
In this essay I will be comparing the functionalists and Marxists views of the role of education in modern society. Functionalists claim that education contributes to society. They believe that schools pass on the culture of society from one generation to the next, schools continue the process of socialisation that begins in the family; therefore, they act as agencies of socialisations and because children are socialised into a shared set of values, education can help them feel they belong to a particular society and that they have shared interests with other members of that society.
A second contribution schools make to the smooth running of the society is through ‘sifting and sorting’ people into different occupational roles. Those who do well in the education system are rewarded by being able to reach occupations that have high pay and high status. In effect, schools identify students’ skills and abilities, selecting the more able for more challenging and advanced studies and guiding others towards courses and work more suited to their abilities. This has been described as meritocracy.
Social background is not seen as important. Because of the teaching of a shared value system, it is accepted as fair by most people; those who are successful are seen as deserving their success, and those who miss out blame themselves rather than the system. This system allows plenty of social mobility; people from working-class backgrounds can be upwardly mobile if they merit this. However, conflict theorists, such as Marxists, see education in schools as justifying and perpetuating inequality.
Bowles and Gintis, who have a Marxist perspective on education, claim that the major role of education in capitalist societies is the reproduction of labour power – a hard-working disciplined workforce. Bowles and Gintis argue that such a workforce is reproduced in two ways, through the hidden curriculum of schooling and the correspondence, or very close similarity, between the social relationships at school and work in particular, the way schooling operates the ‘long shadow of work’. The second way was through the role of the education system in legitimizing or justifying inequality.
Bowles and Gintis argue that the hidden curriculum in schools corresponds closely to many features of the workplace, for example, males and females often playing sports, having different dress rules, and being counselled into different subjects, further education courses, and careers; many teachers having different expectations of boys and girls. In the work place males and females being encouraged to conform to gender stereotypes and work in different jobs; for example, women being encouraged into taking primary responsibility for housework and childcare.
Paul Willis, a Marxist-interactionist believes that individuals can shape society too. Willis recognises that schools do not produce a willing and obedient workforce – a quick glance at almost any secondary school provides evidence that students do not always obey teachers, that they can be disruptive and challenge the school Willis says it is easy to understand why middle-class young people willingly go into secure and well-paid career jobs, but what is more difficult to explain is why working-class young people go so willingly into dead-end, low-paid and boring manual working-class jobs.
Willis studied a group of twelve working class male pupils referred to as the ‘lads’. The ‘lads’ developed an anti-school or counter-school subculture – a set of values, attitudes and behaviour opposed both to the main aims of the school and to the ‘ear ‘oles’ – conformist pupils who generally conformed to school values. They attached little values to the aims of school, such as gaining qualifications, and their main priorities were to free themselves from control by the school, to avoid or disrupt lessons, to have a ‘laff’ and to get into the world of work as soon as possible.
They thought that school was boring, pointless and irrelevant to their lives, and stopped them smoking, drinking, going out at night, getting a job and cash and involving themselves in the ‘real’ world of male, manual work. Willis found a similarity between the counter-school culture and the workplace culture of male lower working class jobs, such as sexism, a lack of respect for authority and an emphasis on having a ‘laff’ to escape the boring oppressive nature of both school and work.
His research suggests that schools are not directly preparing the sort of obedient and docile labour force required by capitalism which Bowles and Gintis suggest. Young, working-class males are not forced or persuaded by the school to leave and look for manual jobs, but actively reject school through the counter-school culture and willingly enter male semi and unskilled work the minute they leave school. To conclude functionalists and Marxists have opposite views on how education affects society; functionalists say that educations allows society to run smoothly and Marxists say that education shows inequality towards society.