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Functionalist View Marxist View Education Benefits Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5287 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Education was not always free for everyone in Britain, nor does it look like it will remain free, at least with regard to higher education in Britain. Up until relatively recently (1871 Forster Act) education was only open to those who could afford it, the upper class and a section of the middle class. Public schools (those that you paid for) were one of the few forms of schooling. The working class child received a very short and simple education, usually in a religious run school, a Church school. Then with industrialization, education was gradually extended to all. It was argued that in order for Britain to succeed, that is, remain at the forefront of the worlds economies it had to have a literate and numerate workforce. Education for all came into being because the capitalist industrial system required certain abilities amongst the workforce and because the capitalist class was broadly supportive of it.

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The Ideological Functions of Education

For many Marxists education is seen as the ideological apparatus of the state, that is, it disseminates ruling-class ideology. It is a myth making machine, its very existence seems to foster the most absurd beliefs. This is very much the argument of the French Marxist and philosopher Louis Althusser. According to Althusser no class can hold power indefinitely solely on the basis of the use or threat of force. The Police, Army and the Prisons can only hold back the tide but not a tidal wave. Ideology provides the most effective means of control, by controlling what others think you control what they do. It is the most complete form of control.

Althusser believes that the education system has taken over from the Church as the main agent of ideological transition essential to the maintenance of the capitalist economic system. For example, in the past most people accepted their positions in life, no matter how unbearable, because they believed it was Gods will. They were poor because God wished it so, they were hungry because God wished it so, they were powerless because God wished it so. Such beliefs are now in decline, although many still hold them, much more common is the belief that everything boils down to the great God of education. Those who are smart and hardworking do well in education and gain educational qualifications and in turn do well in the world of work. Those who are unemployed and working in low paid jobs did not gain educational qualifications and were probably not academically gifted. This is, however, an ideological belief as it has been shown that the higher your parents social class so the higher your educational qualifications and duration spent in education. Class still determines where you end up in the majority of cases. The education system propagates the view, however, that success is all down to intelligence and hard work.

Schools directly transmit the ideological belief that capitalism is fair and just. For example, you might learn about free market economies and how their competitive nature creates great wealth for every American. You might learn about how companies compete in the market place, which in turn means that they try to under-cut rivals which in turn means constant innovation in efficiency and good value for the general public etc.

A good example, one that I heard while travelling on the train, is provided by those who go to the local elite school. I happened to overhear, much to my astonishment, a girl of about 13 or 14 years old actually selling shares in her “school business”. Her and some fellow pupils had set up their little business, at the bequest of their teachers, and were now busy selling shares to their fellow pupils. She explained it was a sound investment. Her fellow pupils, equally enthusiastic, snapped up the shares with greedy hands. The very fact that their teachers suggested and encouraged such activity would seem to suggest that those students involved in it, and around it, would come to see the private enterprise system as a just and fair system. The conception of the role of the teacher is, after all, one of fairness and equality.

Schools are also ideological in that they foster certain values which function to ensure the continuance of the capitalist system and perform certain other functions. Ideology consists not just of certain beliefs that distort reality but also of values which function to preserve the existing social order. One of these values, particularly prevalent in societies such as America and Britain, is that of competition. The school is an arena of competition, the teachers the judges and instigators. The use of certain sports in schools is part of this ideological function. For example, the playing of competitive games such as football, rugby, cricket etc. where there are two opposing sides, one side will be winners the other losers. One side must compete against the other, they must try to outscore their opponents. The winners, and those who perform best, are afforded prestige (the Jocks) while those who do not are openly mocked by teacher and student alike. Pupils are taught to compete rather than to help one another to each others mutual benefit. It is this sort of value attachment which is instrumental to the survival of capitalism and its “smooth” functioning. To put it simply, if the working class decided that instead of competing for the limited number of jobs that exist at any given time, thus ensuring that some have no jobs, that they would band together and demand full employment then capitalism, and with it the capitalist class, might be overthrown.

The education system also plays an ideological role in that it is through the school that much of our stock of knowledge, be it ideological or otherwise, about the world is gained. The school is one of the main agents of socialization. Only certain things are, however, taught in schools. This is not so much because teachers are reactionary middle-class types, although many are, but more because what they are allowed to teach is governed by the curriculum. What they teach is dictated by the the state. They may well wish to teach students about things such as Socialism, Anarchy and the evils of the free enterprise system but they dare not. For example, I learnt about Russian history without ever recalling hearing the words Karl Marx or hearing a single idea of Marx expressed in class. If someone had said Marx to me at age 15 I would have replied Groucho Marx? You are taught a sanitized view of history, one in which class conflict does not figure. History is taught as if history were nothing more than the product of certain charismatic individuals. You will also learn all about “democracy” but never about the alternatives to “democracy”, that is, socialist democracy. When you are told of socialism you are told of the Communist regimes of Russia, further perpetuating the ideological belief that these societies are socialist when it is evident they are not.

Bowles and Gintis

“Schooling in Capitalist America”

Bowles and Gintis, in one of the best known Marxist accounts of the education system, argue that there is a close correspondence between the social relationships that exist in the classroom and those of the workplace. This correspondence is essential for the reproduction of the next generation of workers appropriately schooled to accept their roles and position in society. Without this correspondence capitalism would not function quite so smoothly. There would be constant “rebellion” within the workplace and even many who thought that a new social order was required to realise full human potential.


One of the things that school and the workplace have in common (apart from being boring and monotonous) is that they are both hierarchically organised. A hierarchy basically means that they are organised in a way that is analogous to a wedding cake. There are different layers each one resting upon the other, each one smaller than the other, with each one in turn having more power or authority than the one below. At the bottom of the school cake rests the base of the pupils while at the top sits the pretty little cherry of the headmaster or headmistess, then above them there is another hierarchy. Pupils have little control over what they learn and when they learn it and how they learn it. This is decided in part by the teacher and in part by the curriculum. This corresponds to their later experience of work, which like school is organised in a hierarchy. Karl Marx describes the workplace as follows:

Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy officers and sergeants…(Communist Maniefsto)

In school pupils are encouraged, through various sanctions, both positive and negative, to conform to the existing hierarchy. Schools reward punctuality, hard work and obedience and discourage creativity and critical awareness. You can think but only about how better to do a given task (instrumental reasoning), Don’t ever think about the merits of the task itself. Such attributes, which school fosters in the majority of pupils, are what employers require and desire. They do not want workers who question authority or who come to work five minutes late or spend their time thinking about how better the economic system could be organised so that all may share the wealth it creates.

The Jug and the Mug

Schools also correspond to work in that schools offer little satisfaction or enjoyment to the pupil. For the majority of pupils school is a boring monotonous place, somewhere which takes away their free time and prevents them doing what they really want. Learning is conducted on the jug and the mug principle. The teachers are the jugs brimming with knowledge the pupils are the mugs ready to be filled with knowledge. The teacher pours their knowledge day after day in the same dreary fashion into the pupil. The pupil is encouraged to look towards other things such as educational qualifications as the aim of their study. Such educational qualifications, they are told, will mean more money in later life. They are encouraged to work through external rewards. Again this closely corresponds to work as work will for the vast majority be extremely monotonous and boring in the extreme. They will either be standing at a factory line repeating the same task day after day or sitting in an office completing the same task day after day. If education was itself interesting, stimulating and give a sense of satisfaction then pupils may then expect the same from work, they would be bitterly disappointed. They may even give up the whole notion of wage slavery, imagine that!

Inequality is Justified by the Education System

Capitalist societies are societies in which exists inequalities, particularly of wealth, power and opportunity. If ever such inequality was to be seriously questioned, in all its manifestations, then it could, lead to the erosion and replacement of the free market economy or capitalism. One way in which this situation is avoided is by promotion of the ideological belief that such inequalities are justified. Inequalities are to put it simply, right. Education makes inequality more socially acceptable by broadcasting the myth that it offers every student an equal chance. Nowadays in societies such as Britain and America all children are entitled to state education. The argument is that those who achieve top qualifications go on to top jobs and that they deserve their success because they are smarter and more hard working then their fellow class mates. The education system promotes this myth and leads people to think along such lines simply by its existence. Bowles and Gintis, however, point out that your chances of educational success are closely related to the class of your parents. The higher the social class of your parents so the greater the duration of your stay in education and the higher your qualifications.

But what about the evidence that suggests a correlation between educational success and intelligence. Various studies have shown that those who achieve educational success, higher education qualifications, have higher IQs than average. They are to put it simply, bright. Bowles and Ginits do, however, attempt to counter this argument. They argue that the relationship between these two variables is not a causal one. Intelligence does not determine educational success. If this was true then you would expect people with roughly the same IQ to have roughly the same educational success. Ginits and Bowles examined the educational attainment of those with roughly similar IQs and found widely different educational attainment levels. They argue that the higher than average IQ of those who have attained higher educational qualifications is a by product of their longer duration in education. Their higher IQs are a result not a cause of their educational attainment. Certainly the evidence would seem to suggest that this is indeed correct.

The Myth of Education

(Some Personal Observations)

Part of the dominant ideology of all capitalist societies would appear to be the belief that intelligence plus dedication equals educational success which in turn means success in the workplace. We can represent this chain of thought by the following equation:

Intelligence/Dedication =/+ Educational Success = Monetary Success

Material Resources

I will now deal with the first part of this equation, that intelligence and dedication equals educational success. This is simply not true. Bowles and Gintis argue that by contrast educational success is determined much more by the social class of the students parents. This is not to say that all those from a working-class background will not achieve educational success or that all those from upper or middle class backgrounds will achieve educational success. Ralph Miliband (“The State in capitalist Society”) puts it as follows: “It may not be essential, in order to achieve material or professional success, to be born of wealthy or even of well-to-do parents: but it is certainly an enormous advantage, rather like joining a select club, membership of which offers unrivalled opportunities for the consolidation and advancements of the advantages which it in any case confers.” Being born of well-to-do parents gives certain benefits, some of which derive from the better material circumstances of the family. But how is money translated into educational success? There are a number of ways in which this is translated.

Money can’t buy you Love but it can buy an Education

Material wealth allows parents to provide certain resources which in turn help their son or daughter gain educational success. They can for instance pay to send their children to public schools (fee paying schools) where no matter how undeserving the student they are almost certainly guaranteed educational success. In Britain rumour constantly circulates that the “Toffs” get their exams marked much easier than their state school counterparts. Whatever the truth of such rumours the environment and standard of teaching is certainly of a higher standard than an inner city comprehensive, poorly funded with demoralised staff.

Even if parents are not well enough off to send their children to public schools (ones that you pay for) there are still other ways in which material well being can help. Parents may not be able to afford to buy their children an education but they may be able to afford to send their children to private tutors to subsidize their state education. They can afford to pay the fees for private tuition on a one to one basis, which can make the difference between a pass and a fail. Such tuition done on a one to one basis, conducted over a substantial period of time, can often make the difference between educational success and failure. Also, the more you can pay so, in general, the better standard of tuition you will receive. In Northern Ireland you may pay as much as £30+ an hour for such tution from a professional body.

Lastly, parents can also afford to buy other resources which will increase the students chances of educational success. They can afford to pay for such things as extra textbooks, a resource which is increasingly expensive. They can also afford to buy children one of the most essential tools of their educational careers, a decent computer with a printer and internet connection. Despite what teachers may say to the contrary, and they say it repeatedly, presentation is just as important as content. Your content may be great but if presentation is poor then your marks will suffer. Those with computers and printers have no such problems. They can even run spell checks and grammar checks at the touch of a button. Their handwriting may be a scrawl but if you print your work no one need ever know. The internet is perhaps one of the most important factors in this element of educational success. Internet access is not equally spread throughout societies and the world. There are those who are connected and those who are not connected. Those who are not connected do not have access to the vast amounts of information that are stored on the servers of the world wide web. Even if there is a connection in school it is no substitute for a home connection. It can take literally hours to find the information you want, most schools have time limits.

Ideational Resources

Relations Within the Classroom

What are ideational resources I hear you ask. The term Ideational resources is simply another way of saying cultural resources. Classes (groups of people who occupy a common relatiohsip to the means of production)as you already know (don’t you?) have their own, more or less distinct, sub-cultures. That is, they have different norms, values, beliefs, stocks of knowledge, ways of speaking, customs or to put it simply ways of life. The average working class man or woman will not speak and behave in the same way as the average upper class British person. This can lead to certain biases (certain things are more likely to happen)within the classroom which in turn lead to certain types of students being less successful than others.

Basil Bernstein has conducted work with regard to what might be termed ideational resources. Bernstein is interested in speech patterns. We should remember that speaking is not something that comes automatically, speech is very much cultural not biological. Also, we should remember that certain ways of speaking, such as “speaking posh”, are also learnt. People are not born with marbles in their mouths others must put them there. Berstein identified two forms of speech code,: the elaborated form and the restricted form. The restricted speech code takes the form of short hand speech. Such speech is usually short and does not conform to common grammar. The meanings are also hard to grasp for those not part of the particular social group using the terms. The elaborated code on the other hand uses fully formed sentences with universal meanings. Such a speech code is context free, it can be understood by all those who know it whether friends of the speaker or not.

Bernstein also realized that the form of speech code used predominantly in the classroom was the elaborated speech code. The elaborated speech code was how the teacher expressed him or her self and it was the language in which the text book was written. The middle-class child to some extent learns and is fluent in both forms of speech, both restricted (which they use with parents and friends) and elaborated (which they use in the context of the classroom). The working-class child by contrast only learns and feels at home with the restricted speech code. This may mean that during lessons, which are taught in the elaborated speech code, they lose track and cannot understand what is being communicated to them. They will be misunderstood and will in turn misunderstand what is taught. Hardly a recipe for educational success.

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There are other ways in which ideational resources also play a part. The classroom is an arena of meaning, just like social life in general. People attach meanings (beliefs, purposes, intentions etc.) to objects, events and actions. They define the situation and act according to this definition whether it be true or false. The classroom is presided over by the teacher who is by virtue of their occupation “middle class”. The teacher is a member of a community and will as a result internalised many of the prejudices, both positive and hegative, of that community. This stock of knowledge (prejudices)enables them to apply certain labels to pupils. There is an ideal student and a disruptive pupil, an “intelligent” student and a “stupid” student. Research has shown that teachers are more likely to label middle class children as students likely to succeed while they are more likely to label working class children as failures or disruptive. This can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy. Because the teacher believes that a student is destined to fail they fail. This is because they may spend less time explaining things to the student and may also let them away with poor work, perhaps even with doing no work.

Knowledge and the Education System

(Pushers of Junk)

Its a commonsesnse assumption that all schools do much the same thing, that is, they teach. But this is only part of the story. What the student learns within the school, be it part of the curriculum or not, will vary with school. To put it simply, those who go to “elite” schools, schools for the well-to-do and the “intelligent”, learn different things to those who go to “normal” schools. Also, there is even a distinction, in Northern Ireland at least, between state schools. There are Grammar schools and technical schools. The elite schools, and to a lesser extent the grammar schools, instruct students how to be leaders. They are assigned positions of authority, they take part in games requiring leadership, they are groomed for leadership. They are also taught the mysteries of the free enterprise system. They learn about “business”, they are even given practical experience of running a business. Those who go to the Technical schools, the vast majority of whom are from wroking class homes, are taught to be “doers”. They are to be the hands for the thinkers, those who will lead them, their colleagues in the elite schools. They are chanelled by teachers, and by “career advisors” (pushers of junk) to follow certain paths, but virtually never encouraged to go down the academic path. The academic path is those from elite schools. How can you ever become a member of the capitalist class or even the various elites of capitalist society if you lack the knowledge of how the system works? How do you become, even if you wanted to, an entrepureneur when all you have ever been taught is to be a worker.

The very knowledge that is passed down to children across the generation may affect their chances of educational success. Schools teach pupils, they try to instill them with knowledge. They don’t teach them any knowledge, only certain things. For example, in the elite schools you will learn about things such as classical music, literature, art etc. or “high culture” as it is known. To a lesser extent this “high culture” is also present in the wider education system, its just diluted. The child from the upper or middle class has already internalised much of this sort of knowledge, it is part of their sub-culture. The working class child has also internalised certain knowledge but not of the same sort. They might know a lot about football or films or pop music but they do not know what the middle class child knows.

Perhaps the best example of this is the TV programme University Challenge (shown in Britain). In this poor excuse for entertainment two opposing university teams answer questions, the majority of which are about “high Culture”. The victors are universally regarded as “very smart” but they are smart simply because they know about “high culture”, because they can regurgitate a lot of facts that form part of their daily existence, their culture. To put it simply the student who can recite a Shakespearean sonnet is considered a “genius”, the pupil who recites the lyrics from a Rage Against The Machine song is an idiot who has wasted their time (Ya Gotta A Kuc*in Bullet in Ya Head). 

The Second Part of the Equation

So far we have only examined the reasons why the first part of the equation is not true but what about the second part. Does educational success really equal material and/or professional success?

Not all working class children fail miserably in terms of their education. Some go on to further education and gain degree level qualifications, some will even go on to form the ranks of the service class. They will be doctors, teachers, journalists, lawyers some may even become captains of industry. The percentage of those who do achieve this is, however, very small relative to the size of the working class. Across the generations the middle class tends to reproduce itself, middle class parents have children who in turn go on to gain middle class jobs and in turn have middle class children and so on. That there is token mobility does not mean that class is not important, indeed such token mobility may strengthen the existing social order. If the existing order is defined as just and fair there is less chance of its overthrow from below.

Middle class children are not just successful because they gain qualifications, this is only part of the story. Middle class children, and those from the upper class particularly, are successful in part not because of what they know but because of who they know, or who their parents know. They have connections, networks of “friends”. Let’s say there are two people who go for the same job, that of an accountant, one of them is from a working-class background, the other is from a middle class background. The middle class job applicant has a father who happens to be a member of the same Church, same Masonic lodge, same Golf Club as the Manager of the factory. Exactly who do you think will get the job? The working-class job applicant whose Dad is a refuge collector or the job applicant whose parents are middle class and form part of a network of “friends”, or to put it slightly different, have connections? Qualifications are important but they are only part of the story, connections are much more important.

In Northern Ireland nepotism (giving favours to family anf friends) has always been rife although it has declined slightly since Direct Rule. Mainland Britain also, however, has its own form of nepotism or pattern of bias in terms of the labour market hierarchy. In Britain it remains the case that the elite positions in nearly every institutional sector, be it in private industry, the state, the church, the Army etc. have been monopolized by people from a certain background sharing certain educational characteristics in common. Many sociologists point to the existence of an “old Boys network”. The British sociologist Anthony Giddens argued that in britain there is no major institutional sector where less than half of those in top positions are of public school (private funded school) background. For example the following percentages were found with regard to the varying institutions:

Percentage who attended public school.

Anglican Bishops 80%+

Army officers over rank of major-general 80%+

Top Judges 80%+

Conservative MPs 76%

Senior Civil Servants 60%

Directors of industrial corporations 73%

Directors of financial firms 80%

Labour Party 26%(It has probably increased)

As we can see there is a certain pattern with regard to those who occupy the top positions in organisations, be they the military or the company boardroom. Part of the reason for this pattern is down to connections, the old boy networks. Those who occupy top positions have been in many cases to the same school, perhaps at the same time. They have frequented in the same circles, gone to the same Universities (Oxford and Cambridge), and are members of the same societies etc. They feel a common sense of identity with those who are like them, those who have had an elite education. If you are an Eton man then you must be okay.

Part of the explanation for this pattern of bias with regard to the educational background is to be found in the networks that exist but also in part because of the higher prestige that attaches itself to certain educational institutions. Whether rightly or wrongly certain educational establishments, such as Eton public school and Oxford and Cambridge universities, have much greater prestige than a former Polytechnic in Manchester or a comprehensive in inner city London. This fact turns the whole argument of equality within education upon its head. Degrees are not viewed as equal although the same work goes into a degree from Oxford or Cambridge as in any of the “lesser” universities. How can their be equality of opportunity when even those who have equal qualifications are judged differently depending on where they gained such qualifications? 


I have attempted to show that education is something of a myth making machine. All the education in the world may not gain you entry to the ranks of the capitalist class. You must have the connections to make your education work for you. Also, the material disadvantages combined with cultural disadvantages all conspire to make the chances of the child from a working class background getting a good education much less. I myself would see material resources as of paramount importance when it comes to educational success. Other factors also come into play, such as the standard of housing and diet of the student, all of which are in favour of the middle class child. We should not, however, overlook the role that ideational or cultural resources play in determining educational success or failure either. Lastly, even when the working class child is successful in terms of education this by no means is translated into success in the labour market as witnessed by the large numbers of people with degrees and other higher qualifications who “underachieve” when it comes to paid employment.(“Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift” Bob Dylan). In conclusion it is not so much what you know that holds the key to professional and monetary success but who you know. Marxists would argue that true equality of opportunity, be it educational or otherwise, can only be created in a socialist society in which inequalities had ceased to exist. Raymond Boudon writes: “For inequality of educational opportunity to be elimanted, either a society must be unstratified or its school system must be completely undifferentiated.”


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