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Classic Texts: Talcott Parsons "The School Class as a Social System" 1961


Last updated 23 Apr 2019

This functionalist study of the role of schools and education developed the work of Durkheim in relation to socialisation, and also investigated the way in which the education system helped allocate people to their roles in society. Parsons argues that this is done in a meritocratic way.

To understand Parsons' study of school we need to understand a number of key terms:

Socialisation: the process through which we learn the norms and values of society

Primary socialisation: the first part of the socialisation process, that happens primarily at home and through the family, where people learn their own family or local community's norms and values.

Secondary socialisation: the next phase of the socialisation process, where people learn the universalistic values of the whole of society. This takes place through a number of agents of socialisation such as the education system, the media, religious institutions, etc.

Meritocracy: A meritocratic system is one which rewards people for their efforts and/or ability (on merit). That is, a system where people achieve their status through their own efforts, rather than having their status ascribed to them as a result of their family background.

Parsons argues that school acts as an agent of secondary socialisation. It is in school that children learn not the just the particularistic values of their own family, but also the universalistic values of the whole of society. At home, children are only judged by the standards of that household, but at school they begin to be judged by standards that apply to everyone and to learn the norms and values of society.

One of the important values of contemporary society, according to Parsons, is meritocracy. He argues that in our society, there is equality of opportunity, and people reach their position in life through hard work, rather than through privilege. School both teaches this (through both the formal and hidden curriculum) and is part of the process that makes it happen. In school, hard work and natural ability are rewarded, rather than titles or rich parents. And this continues in society as a whole, with children who achieve well at school going on to get the highest paid and most responsible jobs.

Many question whether this is really true. First of all, there is lots of evidence to show that coming from a wealthy background is a huge advantage in school. Second, lots of people get good qualifications and go on to carry out jobs that are not among the highest paid, and some of the most responsible jobs have low pay (e.g. childcare). For Marxists, Bowles & Gintis, for instance, schools manage to teach the ideology of meritocracy but it is really a myth. It makes inequality seem fair, because there is a myth that everyone had the same opportunities.

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