Functions of Formal Education Systems : Part One : The Marxist Perspective
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Before analysing the functions of formal education systems it is necessary to distinguish between informal and formal education. Individuals receive education both informally from parents, peers, the Church, the mass media and the work place and formally in educational institutions such as schools, colleges and universities.
The transition from pre- industrial to industrial society increases the relative importance of formal education because industrial societies rely very heavily on the availability of specialist work skills which cannot be taught informally. Also within the formal education system it is important to distinguish between the academic subject curriculum and the hidden curriculum which is a set of cultural values, attitudes and norms that is implicitly conveyed to pupils by teachers’ actions and by the organisational processes operating inside schools all of which may have a considerable impact on students’ attitudes to authority and their acceptance of traditional gender roles although some change in the nature of the Hidden Curriculum in relation to equal opportunities has been apparent in recent years .
The functions of formal education systems to be analysed are:
- the transmission of knowledge and skills;
- the provision of a mechanism for easing the transition from family life to the wider society;
- the transmission of attitudes and values via processes of socialisation and social control operating through the hidden curriculum;
- the allocation of individuals to appropriate roles within society;
- the contribution to processes of social reform , for example via processes of compensatory education, which are designed to help disadvantaged students.
As we shall see below the above functions must be analysed from differing sociological perspectives but the student might first like to answer briefly the following general preliminary questions.
The Functions of Formal Education Systems: The Marxist Perspective.
The Marxist analysis of formal education systems within capitalist societies must be considered in the context of Marx’s overall analysis of Capitalism based on the existence of social classes around the capitalist production process, the inevitability of class exploitation and of a conflict between the property-owning Bourgeoisie and the property-less Proletariat culminating in the eventual revolutionary overthrow of the Bourgeoisie and the replacement of capitalism by the classless, socialist Utopia.
Under capitalism, according to Marx, the Bourgeoisie are the economically dominant class arid since for Marx, the characteristics of the Superstructure [the political, legal and ideological structures of society] are heavily influenced by the economic base, the economically dominant Bourgeoisie will also be a politically dominant ruling class able to pressure the institutions of the State to secure its own interests. As Marx and Engels put it: “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole Bourgeoisie”.
Whereas according to Functionalists, formal education systems contribute to the economic efficiency and social stability of societies which are basically democratic, increasingly meritocratic and based on consensus, Marxists argue that formal education systems help to maintain and reproduce capitalist societies which are exploitative, unequal, unjust and cruel. They do so in the following ways.
- They provide knowledge which may be used to enhance capitalist profitability.
- They help to socialise pupils , not to accept norms and values which are beneficial for all members of society, [as argued by Functionalists ] but to accept a ruling class ideology which sustains capitalist inequalities and the economic and political dominance of the capitalist ruling class.
- They help to produce new generations of workers with characteristics suitable for exploitation by the capitalist system .
- They help to allocate new workers to the new roles on the apparently meritocratic basis of individual ability but in reality the educational system of role allocation operates to the advantage of middle and upper class students and at the expense of working class students.
- In helping to sustain the myth that individuals are allocated to work roles on the basis of meritocracy, education systems help to sustain the further myth that substantial income and wealth inequalities are fair because they arise out of differences in natural ability and differences in effort. Formal education systems legitimise inequality.
- In these ways, according to Marxists, formal education systems help to reproduce capitalist class structures.
This Marxist to the analysis of formal education systems may now be considered in more detail. In Marxist theory, capitalist industrial societies , in simplified terms, are described as two class societies in which the property-owning Bourgeoisie exploit the property-less Proletariat. The economic base of society heavily influences the superstructure of society (the political, legal, religious and education systems, for example) and so the nature of the education system reflects the nature of the capitalist economic system as a whole and it is designed to perpetuate that very capitalist economic system.
The Marxist Louis Althusser distinguishes between Ideological State Apparatuses and Repressive State Apparatuses. ISAs include the family, the church , the mass media and the formal education system and these are institutions which act to communicate to us not a set of norms and values which are based upon consensus because they are beneficial to the individual members of society but to communicate a ruling class ideology which benefits the rich, powerful Bourgeoisie at the expense of the poorer, relatively powerless Proletariat. ISAs are distinguished by Althusser from the RSAs (Repressive State Apparatuses) such as the police, courts , penal system and the military which maintain social stability by force if the ISAs fail to maintain social stability by persuasion.
Formal Education systems have been analysed in more detail from a Marxist Perspective by the Marxists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in their study entitled Schooling in Capitalist America  in which they argue that the social relations of the education system correspond in several important respects to the social relations of production in the capitalist system and that this correspondence between the education system and the capitalist economic system serves to prepares students for their future roles in the capitalist economic system. This is Bowles’ and Gintis’ so-called Correspondence Theory.
With regard to the US education system, Bowles and Gintis make the following claims.
- Bowles and Gintis recognise that in advanced capitalist systems there are very considerable differences in skill, decision-making power, income and opportunities for promotion as between different occupations and that formal education systems must themselves be differentiated so as to prepare students for entry into different kinds of occupation. Thus in higher tracks [an American term for sets, bands or streams] and subsequently in Higher Education students may well be encouraged to work creatively, independently and with limited supervision although even these students are encouraged to accept the general desirability of hierarchical social relations of education. Other students , destined perhaps for skilled manual, clerical or lower managerial positions may also be allowed a limited amount of educational autonomy but lower track and mainly working class students are instructed in ways which actually inhibit their personal development and prepare them for unskilled, poorly paid employment.
- Thus schools are organised on hierarchical principles of authority and control such that teachers give orders which students are expected to obey which prepares especially working class and low track pupils to accept authority without question when they enter the workforce.
- Bowles and Gintis argue that schools are especially likely to reward with high grades pupils with personality traits showing subordinacy and discipline and to penalise with low grades pupils with personality traits showing creativity, aggressivity and independence. Bowles and Gintis surveys of other studies in this field reinforced their own conclusions and led them to conclude that “schools foster types of personal development compatible with the relationships of dominance and subordinacy in the economic sphere” and “the only significant penalised traits are precisely those which are incompatible with conformity to the hierarchical division of labour.”
- Students have very little influence over the school curriculum; knowledge is fragmented into subjects and students have very little opportunity for self-fulfilment in their work. They work, it is claimed, not because school work is intrinsically interesting but in order to secure the approval of the teacher and/or the good grades whose allocation is controlled by the teacher.
- Bowles and Gintis therefore see education systems as preparing especially working class, low stream pupils to be obedient , submissive, and able to come to terms with alienation which prepares them for work which is also hierarchically organised, fragmented, lacking in intrinsic satisfaction. and alienating and they claim that the capitalist system depends for its survival on unskilled workers with exactly these characteristics.
- Bowles and Gintis also dispute the Functionalist claims that formal educational systems and subsequent occupational roles are meritocratically determined. They claim that educational success or failure is determined primarily by class background rather than educational ability and subsequent occupational roles, according to Bowles and Gintis, calculations also depend more on social class background than on measured academic ability. Nevertheless working class children who have been educationally unsuccessful are indoctrinated to believe that they have had a fair chance and that their relative failure derives from their own personal limitations rather than from any failure of the formal education system itself.
- Although there is some working class upward social mobility via educational achievement the education system serves mainly to channel working class children into working class jobs and the existence of a limited amount of upward social mobility helps to sustain the myth that the formal education system is actually fair and meritocratic whereas in practice it is designed to ensure that most working class pupils will be relatively unsuccessful.
- At the same time, the myth of equality of opportunity within the education system helps to defuse protest both against the education system and against the capitalist system as a whole. The education system helps to sustain the more important myth that the great inequalities of income and wealth which exist in capitalist societies are actually fair because it is primarily the talented and hard working people who receive accumulate great wealth via high incomes so that they can be said to deserve it. That is : the myth of educational meritocracy legitimises gross economic inequality.
- Because of the fundamental correspondence between the organisation of formal education systems and the organisation of capitalist economies Bowles and Gintis argue that the necessary reforms of the formal education can occur only in conjunction with broader, radical policies leading to the transition from capitalism to socialism for , according to Bowles and Gintis, it is only in a socialist society that an education system can be designed which will truly meet the real needs of the people.[ This point may be used as an important Marxist criticism of all of the education reforms which have so far been introduced in the UK although, of course Bowles and Gintis’ views are also subject to important criticisms]
Schooling in Capitalist America: Evaluation
Bowles and Gintis provide a powerful Marxist criticism of formal education systems but their study has nevertheless attracted several significant criticisms including the following.
- Bowles and Gintis have failed to prove that the Hidden Curriculum serves to inculcate obedience and submissiveness among school students. Many secondary school pupils are extremely rebellious and their rebellion has been explained partly in terms of streaming and banding streams operative in most secondary schools[ as indicated, for example, in Social Relations in a Secondary School by David Hargreaves] and partly in terms of the rebellious anti-school attitudes which derive mainly from significant aspects of students’ own working class culture [as, for example, in Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids get Working Class Jobs [Paul Willis 1977]. Whereas Bowles and Gintis claim that the operation of the Hidden Curriculum serves to indoctrinate mainly working class pupils to believe that they must accept low skill, low paid manual work because they are suitable for little else Paul Willis , using a mixture of Neo-Marxist and Interactionist approaches, argues that some working class boys actively choose physically demanding , low skill manual work as a means of confirming their sense of their own masculinity. These boys have recognised in the context of the 1970s that even if they gained good CSE grades these were in any case second rate qualifications with limited potential to improve career prospects and given their preferences for low skill manual work they reject school-based knowledge as irrelevant to their future employment and rebel against schooling processes at every opportunity. Thus the Willis study suggests that Bowles and Gintis have overstated the power of the Hidden Curriculum to mould working class pupils’ attitudes and behaviour and that these pupils have more freedom than is implied in Bowles’ and Gintis’ perhaps excessively Structuralist account to make their own choices. Nevertheless the pupils’ own apparently freely made decisions do nevertheless ultimately result in their own future exploitation in employment.
- It has been argued that Bowles and Gintis have overstated the impact of the Hidden Curriculum and have underestimated the scope for open minded analysis and criticism of existing social arrangements. which may be provided within the Academic Curriculum . Thus there may be substantial opportunities for social critique within Arts and Humanities curricula while Science curricula may give opportunities for the consideration of the possibly negative environmental consequences of excessive industrial expansion.
- They do not explain why and how education should be organised to meet the oppressive demands of the capitalist system given that many [and perhaps the vast majority] of individual teachers have absolutely no wish to use education for this purpose. Thus it may be that formal education systems are more independent of the capitalist economic system than Bowles and Gintis suppose and that schools may operate with a certain amount of “relative autonomy” : that is, for example, teachers may have some autonomy to encourage critical thinking and collaborative rather than competitive attitudes among their students but these same teachers at the same time are constrained by examination syllabi and the pressures to ensure examination success so that their autonomy is only “relative” in the sense that it must operate within the constraints of an education system which is itself heavily geared to the requirements of capitalism. You may wish to discuss the concept of relative autonomy with your teachers.
- In general it seems likely that Bowles and Gintis have overstated the extent to which the Hidden Curriculum promotes obedience and subordinacy and that they have understated opportunities within the formal curriculum for social criticism. Furthermore since the publication of Bowles and Gintis’ study a range of progressive anti-sexist and anti-racist initiatives have been introduced which to some extent have significantly transformed some elements of the Hidden Curriculum in ways not predicted by Bowles and Gintis although, of course, the effectiveness of these initiatives should also not be overstated.
- More generally it may be that Bowles and Gintis have overstated the power of ideological conditioning and are guilty [along with Functionalist sociologists] of working with a so-called “over socialised conception of man” [Dennis Wrong] which understates the capacities of human beings to understand their own world . Even if it is accepted that all elements of the superstructure including formal education systems are involved in the transmission of a ruling class ideology designed to legitimise capitalist inequality and reproduce capitalist class structures we cannot automatically assume that this ideology is powerful enough to indoctrinate the populace and promote subservience. Instead it has been suggested that many individuals [even if a minority] subscribe to a radical, socialist ideology and that many others are well aware of the injustices of capitalism but are forced into grudging acceptance of their situation by the pressures of every day survival not because of the power of a dominant class ideology imposed partly via the hidden curriculum. Yet others may support the capitalist system more positively because it appears to offer them reasonable living standards and civil liberties.
- It has been argued that Bowles and Gintis have given insufficient attention to the differential effects of formal education systems on male and female students and upon students form different ethnic groups.
Fordism, Post-Fordism , Neo-Fordism and Education
It has been claimed that the type of correspondence theory developed by Bowles and Gintis in the 1970s might well apply to the Fordist phase of capitalism which was based upon routinised factory production requiring a large proportion of relatively unskilled workers who were not required to exercise their own initiative or creativity within the production process.
However from the 1970s onwards it came to be argued that capitalism was entering a Post-Fordist phase in which production processes would increasingly be computerised and that this would generate greater demand for so-called core workers [professional workers , technicians and skilled craft workers] who would increasingly be consulted by management and given greater opportunities to exercise their own creativity within the work environment. As a result, it was claimed, productivity would increase and there would be less likelihood of conflict in industrial relations . It was also recognised that there would also be unskilled or semi-skilled peripheral workers who would be relatively poorly paid and might be employed on part-time and/or temporary contracts peripheral but it was hoped that Post-Fordism would result in the relative expansion of employment for core workers.. Thus it now became highly desirable that the formal education system should encourage the development of individuality and creativity, prioritise the value of team work and problem solving in new vocationally relevant courses and prepare increasing numbers of students for access to higher education. Thus the organisation of the education system should indeed correspond to the organisation of the economy but NOT simply by encouraging deference and respect for authority in the ways suggested by Bowles and Gintis.
During the 1980s there were several studies which sought to analyse the extent to which Post- Fordism was indeed replacing Fordism which led to disputes as to the relative growth of Core and Peripheral workers and the extent to which the Core workers were or were not becoming increasingly skilled , consulted by management and more content in their working environments .Commenting on these studies in the 1990s M. Haralambos [4th edition ] noted that the extent of change varied from industry to industry and from occupation to occupation.
Click here for an article on Core and Periphery [John Atkinson 1984]
In his critical assessment of the UK education system Patrick Ainley [Betraying a Generation : How Education is Failing Young People 2016] has argued that the extent of transition from Fordism to Post-Fordism has been much overstated and that although some parts of the economy may have developed in a Post-Fordist direction others could be described as operating under conditions of Neo-Fordism. Thus he argues that although increasing numbers of students have graduated from university many have failed to secure graduate level employment because of the relatively slow growth of graduate-level jobs: they are essentially GRINGOS [ graduates in non-graduate occupations]. Meanwhile the service sector of the economy has seen the growth of routine, tightly supervised, poorly paid jobs [ often on zero hours contracts offering very limited job satisfaction in call centres or fast food outlets or in social care where at least the level of job satisfaction may be much higher even if working conditions are difficult.
Thus according to Patrick Ainley the education system has become increasing examination based and competitive but given the limited growth of graduate level employment only a minority of students [ mainly from more privileged backgrounds ] can expect that their educational success will lead to well paid and satisfying employment . Furthermore Marxists would argue that the formal education system continues to fail to provide opportunities for the fundamental critique of capitalism despite the fact that it is the capitalist system itself which threatens the actual survival of the planet. Of course many would argue the exact reverse : environmentally sustainable capitalism will actually save the planet. Scope for some discussion here!
To download a short review of Patrick Ainley’s book – Click Here
The Marxist Perspective: Overall Evaluation
[Some of this information is adapted from my short essay on the Functions of Formal Education Systems. Also more detailed information on the sociological perspectives outlined here will be provided in subsequent documents]
Even if we accept the above limitations of the Bowles and Gintis study we might [but might not] nevertheless still be inclined to accept also that once points such as the greater influence of individual human agency , the relative autonomy of the education system and the more limited power of the dominant class ideology are incorporated into a kind of Neo-Marxist model , such a model would still provide a very useful explanation of the functions of formal education systems within capitalist societies. However, as always in Sociology, we must recognise that any given sociological perspective may be evaluated using other sociological perspectives and on this basis we may consider the following broad criticisms from other sociological perspectives of the Marxist perspective on the Functions of Formal Education Systems.
Functionalist sociologists reject Marxist criticisms of the capitalist system and the Marxist analysis of the functions of formal education systems within the capitalist system. In the Functionalist perspective industrial capitalist societies are seen as relatively meritocratic, democratic and economically efficient which means that they can provide good living standards for the majority of their members and offer a political framework which safeguards individual liberties. Consequently there will be a broad consensus that these societies do operate in the interests of their members and institutions such as families, schools, the Church, the mass media, political parties and pressure groups fulfil the useful function of socialising individuals in various ways to accept the norms and values which help to sustain the consensus in support of liberal democratic capitalism.
Functionalists also reject the Marxist view that formal education systems deny equality of opportunity while nevertheless persuading students to accept to accept the myth of equality of opportunity and encouraging primarily working class students that they should accept without question unskilled, poorly paid , unfulfilling work since their limited abilities mean they are suitable for little else..
Instead in the Functionalist view formal education systems are seen as fulfilling several important functions which are beneficial to capitalist societies as a whole and to individual members of capitalist societies. They transmit useful knowledge and skills, ease the transition from the family to the wider society, encourage individuals to accept the norms and values of society which will help to promote social stability and rising living standards and ensure that individuals are allocated to appropriate work roles on meritocratic principles which again will in crease social stability and economic efficiency.
New Right theorists also reject the Marxist criticisms of capitalist and agree with Functionalists that industrial societies should ideally be organised as capitalist societies and that education systems should ideally operate to meet the needs of capitalism . However these New Right theorists also argued in the 1970s and 1980s that in practice state education systems were often organised inefficiently and not necessarily meritocratically and that both their formal and hidden curricula were not geared to meeting the needs of industry. New Right theorists argued therefore in favour of the expansion of private education: in favour of education policies which would enable effective schools to expand at the expense of ineffective schools as a means of improving overall standards and the educational opportunities of disadvantaged pupils : in favour of increased emphasis within the formal curriculum on the transmission of knowledge and skills specifically relevant to the needs of industry and commerce, and against ” liberal progressive” social ideas and teaching methods.
Thus as well as rejecting the Marxist analysis of capitalism New Right theorists argue, contrary to Marxist theory , that students should be prepared more effectively for their roles as future workers in the capitalist system . New Right theorists do argue for educational reforms theoretically designed to increase equality of educational opportunity but critics of the New Right would argue their ideas have since 1979 resulted in the introduction of market- based educational reforms by Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments which will actually generate greater inequality of educational opportunity and that it is difficult to see how New Right theorists can square their support for increased equality of opportunity with their acceptance of the continued existence of expensive private schools.
Whereas Marxists emphasise the extent to which formal education systems are geared to meet the needs of capitalism, Feminists emphasise the extent to which they discriminate against women in the interests of patriarchy or capitalism or both. Thus, Feminists have argued persuasively that female students have been steered toward the traditional housewife-mother role rather than a career and have been discouraged from some subjects such as Maths, Sciences and Engineering with good career prospects. They may also be indoctrinated with personality traits which restrict their career prospects as well as their chances for personal happiness. Insofar as all of this occurs, women may help to stabilise the capitalist system by performing domestic tasks for little money thus enabling firms to pay lower male wages and consequently to retain higher profits.
It is generally agreed that recent changes in education policy involving more attention to equal opportunities issues and better careers advice have enabled many females to improve their educational qualifications and career prospects and Liberal feminists especially would argue that further gradual reforms of education and of society general can bring further improvements in women’s situations. However, Marxist/Socialist and Black Feminists would note the difficulties that many working class and ethnic minority females continue to face within the education system and in society generally while Radical Feminists would argue that the Hidden Curriculum continues to ignore systematically their analysis of the detrimental effects of patriarchy which still operate in the education system and in the wider society.
The Social Democratic Perspective
The politics of the British Labour Party are influenced heavily by the ideology of Social Democracy which itself is flexible enough to encompass the differing strands of moderate and more radical “left-wing” opinion existing within the Labour Party. Social Democrats have traditionally been critical of the extreme inequalities of wealth, income, power and opportunity associated with unregulated free market capitalism but they believe also that economic efficiency, economic growth and rising living standards for all can best be achieved in a mixed economy containing a large capitalist private sector which is regulated by government in various ways combined with an effective Welfare State through which the inequalities associated with unregulated capitalism can be much reduced.
Social Democrats claim ,therefore, that the Marxist-inspired overthrow of the capitalist system is unnecessary and undesirable because the Social Democratic variant of “Socialism” can best be achieved gradually via the development of a mixed economy in which the extreme inequalities of free market capitalism are much diminished as a result of Social Democratic reforms. However the Social Democrats’ support for a mixed economy with a large private sector lead them to believe that some income inequalities remain necessary to incentivise workers and this implies that capitalist class structures [albeit with somewhat reduced economic inequalities ] are seen as perfectly acceptable by many Social Democrats although some would criticise recent Labour administrations for their failure to reduce the extent of economic inequality which currently exists in the UK.
Social Democrats would argue that formal education systems should ideally encourage individuality, independence and creativity, prepare pupils for their future employment roles and socialise pupils to accept the norms and values of their society and that in the interests of both social justice and economic efficiency formal education systems should operate in accordance with meritocratic principles . However they have also recognised that equality of educational opportunity has been inhibited traditionally by the continued existence of private schools, the disadvantages of Tripartite Secondary Education and the operation of processes of negative labelling throughout the British education system [although many Social Democrats do support systems of streaming, setting and banding which could be seen as major factors contributing to negative labelling.
Consequently they have supported increased state expenditure on education, the growth of Comprehensive Secondary Education and a range of compensatory education programmes ranging from the EPA programme of the 1960s to the Education Action Zones and Sure Start Programmes of the 1997-2010 era but many social democrats recognise also that such reforms have not as yet led to significant increases in working class relative social mobility but they are nevertheless hopeful that in principle more effective educational reforms targeted especially on disadvantaged students will in future promote greater meritocracy so that the formal education system can help to reduce the extent of class inequality.
Many Social Democrats have criticised recent Labour Education policies involving the continued existence of private education and Grammar Schools and Labour’s retention of policies initially introduced by the Conservatives involving the development of so-called quasi- markets within the state education system all of which may have helped to entrench class inequalities in educational achievement and hence to restrict social mobility and entrench social and economic inequality. Furthermore some Social Democrats argue that the potential power of educational reforms operating in isolation should in any case not be overstated and in this respect they support Basil Bernstein’s earlier 1970s claim that “education cannot compensate for society” which means that more egalitarian economic and social policies will also be necessary if meritocracy is to be achieved and once again Labour’s record between 1997 and 2010 of halting [almost] the growth of income inequality but failing to reverse it attracts criticism from more radical Social Democrats.
Since Social Democrats support the continued existence of a reformed, humanised capitalist system they see it as essential that formal education systems should help to prepare pupils for their future employment roles within the capitalist system and have often argued that in practice schools have failed to carry out this function effectively. Some Social Democrats might agree that certain aspects of the Hidden Curriculum have tended [for example via processes of streaming, banding setting and labelling] to dampen the aspirations of working class pupils and thereby to prepare them for “working class jobs” within the capitalist system but at the same time they are likely to believe that there are also opportunities within the education system for pupils to discuss such issues as international and national poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia and environmental issues all of which can in principle encourage pupils to develop critical attitudes to their own society rather than to succumb simply and more or less automatically to capitalist authoritarianism as is suggested in the correspondence theories of the Marxists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis.
Nevertheless , of course, the Marxists argue that the social democratic analysis of capitalism is flawed and that their tentative optimism in relation to the potentialities of education within a capitalist system is misguided.
This concludes my description and evaluation of the Marxist Perspective on formal education systems. However students will notice that there is nothing here so far on the evaluation of the Marxist Perspective from a Postmodern Perspective and I hope to add some information on this aspect fairly soon.
Study guide on Marxism and Education containing excellent information on the Postmodern critique of the Marxist view of education and much more.
Now perhaps you may like to look at the following exercise.
|Exercise : You may like to attempt this exercise now especially if you already have some familiarity with the Functionalist Perspective on Formal Education Systems or alternatively postpone the delight until you have studied the Functionalist Perspective more fully!For an Exercise on the Comparison of Functionalist and Marxist Perspectives on the Roles of Formal Education Systems in the Socialisation Process– Click Here|