Schooling and Society: Interrelated Aspects

The relationship which exists between schooling and society has been explored by many thinkers including Emile Durkheim.  Our identity as individuals and develops in context with educational settings and their links with the broader landscapes.  In formal spaces there can often be a tendency to lose track of the autonomy of the individual and how important that autonomy is in renewing a healthy environment.


individual in society

No society can continue unless those born into it acquire a social identity, that is to say, become persons or social beings. In the absence of such an identity, no new generation will be able to take over from the preceding one those roles (for example, of citizen, worker, parent, etc.) and their associated institutions, of which social life and society are constituted. This social identity is acquired by one generation learning it from another, and adapting and developing it as circumstances require.


Education is concerned with the transmission of social identity and with the cognate notions of intergenerational continuity and of social reproduction. It has a central role in shaping a society, and it is in its turn, shaped by the society of which it is a constituent and which it helps to shape. The general problem, then, to which the enterprise of education is addressed is ‘What preparation is to be given to the young so as to enable a society to sustain itself ?’


This problem has at least two important features. The first is that it is a political problem in the sense that any answer to it involves some view about the nature, organization, quality, and direction of society. Answers to question about what best form a society might take and about how it might be best ordered presuppose a political theory, and any such political theory will, in its turn, contain an educational theory, since it will require that the preparation of the youth be of such a kind as to sustain the society in the form it favours (Hollis, M. 1971 ‘The pen and the purse’, Proceedings of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain 5,2:153-69).


In addition, issues about the nature of the justly ordered society and of an educational system appropriate to it involve questions about what constitutes the good life for members of a society, that is to say, a life that is satisfying and morally acceptable. Answers to these questions involve judgements about the interests of members of a society, for a central element in the justification of any view of the nature of a justly ordered society will be that it best serves its members’ interests and maximizes the opportunities for each of them to live a good life.


The ability to live a good life, to make something of a life, and, hence, of oneself, depends to a large extent on those modes of living and on those roles a society permits and enables its members to prepare for, and on access to them (access which may well be affected by differences in class, status, power, and wealth). A second important feature of this general educational problem is that it is an enduring one. Enduring problems are recurrent and often continuous problems to which there is no permanent solution. Solutions to them consist in developing strategies and responses that enable those who face them to make the best of the predicaments they pose.



The preparation that is to be given to a society’s young will alter as a society changes from, say, an agriculturally based one, as a society becomes more or less culturally diverse, as its political institutions change, and as it sustains more or less unemployment. If all this is true, then education is not an enterprise that can have one specific definitive form. It is, rather, variously interpretable.


These differences in interpretation will arise from differences about how the notion of preparing the next generation for sustaining a society is to be interpreted. To say this is to say that education is an enterprise which admits of different conceptions. Embodied in these different conceptions are different views about how best the general educational problem identified above it to be solved.


These conceptions will differ in part because different people and groups will hold different political views about the good society, the good life, their interests, and so on – views that will be affected by their own cultural background, religious, and other beliefs. It will be subject to revision, as changing circumstances render its view of a suitable preparation for the young outmoded or inappropriate.


On the conception of education described by Hartnett and Nash, schooling is primarily intended to produce people who participate in the process of production and in the market. The social identities which it is concerned to impart are those of worker and consumer. The views of interests and the good life underpinning its practices are market-based. Schooling is, under these terms, a service industry to the economy and an investment, like any other, whose worth is judged solely by the economic return it brings.


It gives little weight to imparting any social identity relating to a political role that a society’s citizens might play in its affairs. This privileging of the role of worker and consumer over that of citizen is not, of course, the mark of schooling in capitalist societies only. It is, at first sight, however, surprising to see it in capitalist democracies, where it is commonly claimed that democracy and its liberties, on the one hand, and capitalism and economic prosperity, on the other, sustain each other. But such a system of schooling and the political economy it serves is at best compatible only with an ‘equilibrium’ or ‘pluralist elite’ conception of democracy (Macpherson, C. A. 1977 The life and Times of Liberal Democracy, Oxford,: Oxford University Press, Chapter 4).


Here democracy is conceived on ‘an entrepreneurial market analogy’. It takes its tone, form, and view of human nature (men and women as naturally acquisitive and competitive) from the political economy of capitalism itself. The role of citizens in such a democracy is not to decide political issues but to choose between competing elites who will decide them for them. Citizens are seen as political consumers, choosing between the political ‘goods’ the elites variously offer them. There are grounds for thinking that this conception of democracy is a limited one (ibid.).


In the first place, for it to deliver whatever degree of political, economic, and social stability it can (a central merit claimed for it) seems to require a politically apathetic citizenry; in the second, it is a democracy where political power and influence are likely to be proportional to wealth, and hence it is likely to sustain or increase inequalities. Other conceptions of democracy are possible, however, in which citizens have a more active role in the political life of their society and its institutions. For the sake of brevity these can be called ‘conceptions of participatory democracy’ (Macpherson 1977, chapter 5).


Any such conception of democracy makes economic demands in that it is incompatible with those inequalities of wealth generated by the political and economic system discussed earlier. Such a conception would require there to be institutionalized in the schooling system a conception of education that, whatever place it contained for preparation for adult work roles, would be primarily concerned to further in each student ‘social participation as a member of the public through the development of interpretive understanding and normative skills’ (Feinberg W. 1975 ‘Educational equality under two conflicting models of educational development’, Theory and Society 2,2:183-210).


This would be ‘a general education’ that ‘prepares students for a common life, regardless of the nature of their vocation (ibid.) The social identity that schooling is here concerned to impart is that of ‘free persons… who are… capable of making unmanipulated judgements on the basis of reason and theoretical understanding, but who also find solidarity with their fellow human beings’ (Feinberg W 1983 Understanding Education: Toward a Reconstruction of Educational Inquiry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).



So here curriculum aims, content, and distribution; modes of teaching, of learning, of school organisation (White P. 1977 Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, London: Saxon House) aspects under which things are taught; and the style of teacher education and professionalization (Scheffler I. 1968-9 ‘University scholarship and the education of teachers’, The Record 70:1-12) are all chosen with a view to reasoned public participation in the political life of society (Gutmann, A. 1987 Democratic Education, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press).


As Feinberg’s work suggests, at least three important conditions are required for this public participation to be effective, and for the general education associated with it to be a substantive, and not token or merely formal, preparation for adult life. The first is a political condition that the distribution of power is such that no group can impose its will on another group ‘independently of an understanding’ of that group’s perspective; the second is an economic condition that, with allowances made for individual incentive, wealth is distributed in a way ‘that is consistent with the development of unmanipulated judgement’; and the third is a knowledge condition that the relevant forms of knowledge ‘be developed and exercised in the context of interpretive and normative understanding’.


These conditions cannot be brought about by changes in schooling alone, if at all. They require, for a start, changes in the prevalent distribution of political and economic power in capitalist democracies, as well as in the view of interests and of the good life underpinning it. The difficulties of getting an alternative view of society, of democracy, and of education and the role of schooling onto the public agenda and then institutionalized are severe (Edgley R. 1980 ‘Education, work, and politics’, Journal of Philosophy of Education 14, 1:3-16).


But only a democracy with substantial elements of public participation is compatible with a fully open society. And only in such a society is there any chance of there being a free and equal debate, with unmanipulated opinion and an unmanipulated agenda, about political and other communal problems, and of the proposed or actual solutions to these problems being assessed on their merits by the public use of reason rather than being imposed, irrespective of the weight of argument in their favour, by and in the interests of one or other dominant group. It is only in such a society that political traditions of communal problem-solving and the educational traditions associated with them can be sustained in good order, and a central role of schooling in this society is to do what it can to ensure that they are so sustained.


This is a digest of Schooling and Society an essay presented in the Handbook of educational ideas and practices (ISBN: 0415020611; pp 12 – 23) by Anthony Hartnett and Michael Naish.  Anthony Hartnett was Senior Lecturer, Department of Education at the University of Liverpool and Michael Naish was a senior lecturer in Education at the University of Liverpool.

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