In this post, I explore a key issue in understanding the social role that schools play: Why do we need schools anyway? For thousands of years, children grew up learning the skills, knowledge, and values they would need in order to be fully functioning adults. They didn’t need schools to accomplish this. The family, the tribe, the apprenticeship, and the church were sufficient to provide them with this kind of acculturation. Keep in mind that education is ancient but universal public schooling is a quite recent invention, which arose about 200 years ago as part of the creation of modernity.
Here I focus on a comparison between family and school as institutions for social learning. In particular, I examine what social ends schools can accomplish that families can’t. I’m drawing on a classic analysis by Robert Dreeben in his 1968 book, On What Is Learned in School. Dreeben is a sociologist in the structural functionalist tradition who was a student of Talcott Parsons. His book demonstrates the strengths of functionalism in helping us understand schooling as a critically important mechanism for societies to survive in competition with other societies in the modern era. The section I’m focusing on here is chapter six, “The Contribution of Schooling to the Learning of Norms: Independence, Achievement, Universalism, and Specificity.” I strongly recommend that you read the original, using the preceding link. My discussion is merely a commentary on his text.
I’m drawing on a set of slides I used when I taught this chapter in class.
This is structural functionalism at its best:
The structure of schooling teaches students values that modern societies require; the structure functions even if that outcome is unintended
He examines the social functions of the school compared with the family
Not the explicit learning that goes on in school – the subject matter, the curriculum (English, math, science, social studies)
Instead he looks as the social norms you learn in school
He’s not focusing on the explicit teaching that goes on in school – the formal curriculum
Instead he focuses on what the structure of the school setting teaches students – vs. what the structure of the family teaches children
The emphasis, therefore, is on the differences in social structure of the two settings
What can and can’t be learned in each setting?
Families and schools are parallel in several important ways
Socialization: they teach the young
Both provide the young with skills, knowledge, values, and norms
Both use explicit and implicit teaching
Selection: they set the young on a particular social trajectory in the social hierarchy
Both provide them with social means to attain a particular social position
School: via grades, credits and degrees
Families: via economic, social, and cultural capital
The difference between family and school boils down to preparing the young for two very different kinds of social relationships
Primary relationships, which families model as the relations between parent and child and between siblings
Secondary relationships, which schools model as the relations between teacher and student and between students
Each setting prepares children to take on a distinctive kind of relationship
Dreeben argues that schools teach students four norms that are central to the effective functioning of modern societies: Independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity. These are central to the kinds of roles we play in public life, which sociologists call secondary roles, roles that are institutionally structured in relation to other secondary roles, such as employee-employer, customer-clerk, bus rider-bus driver, teacher-student. The norms that define proper behavior in secondary roles differ strikingly from the norms for another set of relationship defined as primary roles. These are the intimate relationship we have with our closest friends and family members. One difference is that we play a large number of secondary roles in order to function in complex modern societies but only a small number of primary roles. Another is that secondary roles are strictly utilitarian, means to practical ends, whereas primary roles are ends in themselves. A third is that secondary role relationships are narrowly defined; you don’t need or want to know much about the salesperson in the store in order to make your purchase. Primary relationship are quite diffuse, requiring deeper involvement — friends vs. acquaintances.
As a result, each of the four norms that schools teach, which are essential for maintaining secondary role relationships, correspond to equal and opposite norms that are essential for maintaining primary role relationships. Modern social life requires expertise at moving back and forth effortlessly between these different kinds of roles and the contrasting norms they require of us. We have to be good at maintaining our work relations and our personal relations and knowing which norms apply to which setting.
Secondary Roles Primary Roles
(Work, public, school) (Family, friends)
Independence Group orientation
Here is what’s involved in each of these contrasting norms:
Independence Group orientation
Self reliance Dependence on group
Individualism Group membership
Individual effort Collective effort
Act on your own Need/owe group support
Status based on what you do Status based on who you are
Equality within category — Personal uniqueness — my child
a 5th grade student
General rules apply to all Different rules for us vs. them
Central to fairness, justice Central to being special
Narrow relations Broad relations
Extrinsic relations Intrinsic relations
Means to an end An end in itself
Think about how the structure of the school differs from the structure of the family and what the consequences of these differences are.
Family vs. School:
Structure of the school (vs. structure of the family)
Teacher and student are both achieved roles (ascribed roles)
Large number of kids per adult (few)
No particularistic ties between teacher and students (blood ties)
Teachers deal with the class as a group (families as individuals based on sex and birth order)
Teacher and student are universalistic roles, with individuals being interchangeable in these roles (family roles are unique to that family and not interchangeable)
Relationship is short term, especially as you move up the grades (relations are lifelong)
Teachers and students are subject to objective evaluation (familie use subjective, emotional criteria)
Teachers and students both see their roles as means to an end (family relations are supposed to be selfless, ends in themselves)
Students are all the same age (in family birth order is central)
Consider the modes of differentiation and stratification in families vs. schools.
Children in families:
Race, class, ethnicity, and religion are all the same
Age and gender are different
Children in schools:
Age is the same
Race, class, ethnicity, religion, and gender are different
This allows for meritocratic evaluation, fostering the learning of achievement and independence
Do you agree that characteristics of school as a social structure makes it effective at transmitting secondary social norms, preparing for secondary roles?
Do you agree that characteristics of family as a social structure makes it ineffective at transmitting secondary norms, preparing for secondary roles?
But consider this complication to the story
Are schools, workplaces, public interactions fully in tune with the secondary model?
Are families, friends fully in tune with the primary model?
How do these two intermingle? Why?
Having friends at work and school, makes life nicer – and also makes you work more efficiently
Getting students to like you makes you a more effective teacher
But the norm for a professional or occupational relationship is secondary – that’s how you define a good teacher, lawyer, worker
The norm for primary relations is that they are ends in themselves not means to an end
Family members may use each other for personal gain, but that is not considered the right way to behave
David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses on the historical sociology of American schooling, including topics such as the evolution of high schools, the growth of consumerism, the origins and nature of education schools, and the role of schools in promoting access and advantage more than subject-matter learning. He was president of the History of Education Society and member of the executive board of the American Educational Research Association. His books include: The Making of an American High School (Yale, 1988); How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (Yale, 1997); The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard, 2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago, 2017).
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