Term Paper: Education Sociology

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Education

Sociology and Education

While all three of the major sociological paradigms of the 20th century have provided valuable insight in the ways that education shapes human life and society, ultimately it is the theory of symbolic interactionalism that offers the most liberating and positive view of the human mind for educators today. Education may be defined as the systematic transmission by professional educators of formalized skills -- but how a sociological theory defines professionalism, and what skills it deems necessary for an individual to learn varies widely, depending on the philosophical bent of the theorist or, for that matter, the politician deciding educational policy and funding. The paradigm's view of the student and his or her mind likewise impacts the nature of how a sociological theory is put into practice by teachers. Symbolic interactionalism encourages teachers to view students as active parts of the pedagogical process.

In many quarters of educational policy the theory of functionalism continues to dominate. Although it is one of the oldest sociological theories, dating back to Emil Durkheim's focus on the relationship of human beings to social institutions, the theory of functionalism still bears considerable influence upon the way administrators and teachers view education. Functionalism's stress upon the scientific method "leads to the assertion that one can study the social world" in the same ways as a scientist studies the phenomena of the physical world and thus educators can manipulate the variables within the institution, such as the curriculum and the students, to achieve a desired outcome much as one would in a scientific experiment (McClellan 2000).

The functionalist paradigm is currently manifest attempt to monitor education in a supposedly objective, positivistic, and value-free manner through the medium of standardized tests, as in the current No Child Left Behind initiative. Schools are punished if students do not meet crucial benchmarks, determined by outside authorities, as a way of forcing schools to ensure that their students are learning what is deemed correct and necessary to function in society. According to functionalism, social institutions, such as those that impart the building blocks a citizen's education, are necessary to maintain the "organic unity of society" and the purpose of education is to convey what is necessary for a social system to exist, such as America's civic ideals of democracy or the necessary scientific knowledge to compete internationally (McClellan 2000).

Functionalism's assumptions imply that social institutions should satisfy collective rather than individual needs. Deviations from the norm are discouraged through the use of social controls -- for example, passing a standardized reading or mathematical exam is weighted with more value than a school's offering unique programs tailored to every student's learning styles and multiple intelligences. For functionalists, society seeks to preserve itself, and maintain a state of homeostasis even though this may mean occasionally ostracizing those who deviate from accepted methods of functioning and learning in school. Also, deviation can be measured by objective studies like tests, or through comparative, statistical social (as opposed to anecdotal, anthropological) research. "Functionalists have tended to be less concerned with the ways in which individuals can control their own destiny than with the ways in which the limits imposed by society make individual behavior scientifically predictable" (McClellan 2000).

Much as they did at the beginning of the 20th century many functionalists see education in America as uniquely beneficial as an agent of social change only so far as education encourages and enables people to join preexisting societal groups: "These [functionalists] all asserted a causal linkage between amounts of schooling and the economic advancement of both individuals and societies. They also implied that, with industrialization, the need for technologically educated labor progressively undermines class" and social stratification in general, and that educational credentials and technical knowledge promotes social mobility and creates a more fair society by encouraging class mobility, without destroying the capitalist class structure (Marshall 1998). By opening up education to new social groups, as in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, society can change by socializing individuals in a more inclusive fashion, and bring all Americans in line with conventional norms and behaviors. In functionalism, there is a perceived desire amongst individuals as well as a society to feel validated by the group. Thus by engineering and improving social institutions in a mathematically precise way, one can change society.

Functionalism does not necessarily have to be conservative, as its influence can be seen in George Counts and Theodore Brameld theory of reconstructionalism in education, which suggested: "education must commit itself here and now to the creation of a new social order" even while Counts and Brameld said that new social order should "fulfill the basic values of our culture and at the same time harmonize with the underlying social and economic forces of the [democratic] modern world" (Kneller 1962). But always, in functionalism, it the child who must "conditioned inexorably by social and cultural forces" while "the teacher must act as advocate, and "the means and ends of education must be completely re-fashioned to meet the demands of the present cultural crisis and to accord with the findings of the behavioral sciences" (Kneller 1962).

In contrast, conflict sociologists see conflict, rather than homeostasis as the baseline of all societal institutions, including education. "A group which was entirely centripetal and harmonious -- that is, 'unification' merely -- is not only impossible empirically, but it would also display no essential life-process and no stable structure," wrote Georg Simmel (1903). In contrast to the conformist potential of education espoused by functionalism, conflict theory postulates that tension between groups is inevitable, and society is dynamic by nature rather than striving towards stasis and self-preservation, as in functionalism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, conflict theory became most popular during the 1960s, where conflicts between students and teachers, as well as other authority figures came to the forefront of the media. Students were perceived as needing their consciousness 'raised' but mobilized and outraged students were also viewed as essential, dynamic components of the change process, particularly for conflict theorists of a leftist bent.

Conflict theory is not simply relevant to education in terms of conflicts between students and teachers. It also touches upon how educators, such as college professors, may offer theories that conflict with certain moral values espoused by the student's parents and home environment, as during the political correctness 'cultural wars' of the 1990s, and education can provide a kind of counter-cultural influence to the conventional assumptions modern society. Also, within schools, disparate groups may have different conflicting interests, like administrators and teachers, different factions of the student body, and students of varying background. Conflict-focused Marxist sociologists in particular have been concerned about disparities in economic opportunity, as sociological studies have noted a "wide range of material, cultural, and cognitive factors likely to depress intellectual development....patterns of schooling reflected, rather than challenged, class stratification and racial and sexual discrimination" in many instances, and must be altered (Marshall 1998). Conflict is seen as necessary and potentially healthy for all societies existing in a state of inequality, but the educational gains of one group require other groups to sacrifice class privileges, willingly or unwillingly, as in the case of affirmative action, for example. Social engineering for reform, rather than for social homeostasis is the goal.

Conflict theorists believe educational policy can be progressive or regressive. Instead of liberating students with opportunities, education has the potential to preach conformity and stifle dissent or to expand opportunities and promote dissent. Marxist theorists who saw society as existing in an inexorable tension between haves and have-nots saw a kindred spirit in educational reformer John Dewey: "Dewey's theories blended attention to the child as an individual with rights and claims of his own with a recognition of the gulf between an outdated and class-distorted educational setup inherited from the past and the urgent requirements of the new era. [Dewey believed] the educational system had to be thoroughly overhauled, he said, because of the deep-going changes in American civilization. Under colonial, agrarian, small-town life, the child took part in household, community and productive activities which spontaneously fostered capacities for self-direction, discipline, leadership and independent judgment. Such worthwhile qualities were discouraged and stunted by the new industrialized, urbanized, atomized conditions which had disintegrated the family and weakened the influence of religion" (Warde 1960).

Rather than stressing the human being's relationship to society, or conflict with society, the sociological theory of symbolic interactionalism views the socialization process in developmental terms, in a manner that may be particularly fruitful for educators in the field. The needs of the individual and his or her development process are paramount, not the needs of society. The founder of symbolic interactionalism, George Herbert Mead, believed that humans structure their consciousness through the identification of symbols, like letters and words -- but also the symbols that convey authority, or membership within a certain group. Symbols are based upon mirroring or copying others, such as when a child mimics or copies the behavior of a parent or teacher but then builds upon… [END OF PREVIEW]

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