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Parsons on Education


Last updated 25 Nov 2019

Talcott Parsons’ ideas are very much influenced by Durkheim. Again, he sees education as performing an important role in terms of establishing shared norms and values, but Parsons is particularly interested in how education facilitates role allocation. For Parsons, the education system helps society to be meritocratic.

Parsons on Education - Revision Video


Meritocracy describes a society whereby jobs and pay are allocated based on an individual’s talent and achievements rather than social status. Therefore, individuals that work hard will be rewarded in society, whilst those who do not will not be rewarded. Instead of people holding positions in society based on what their parents did and being born into a high or low status (ascribed status) people, through their efforts and their abilities, attain achieved status. Education sifts and sorts people into their appropriate jobs. Of course, one element of this is ascribed rather than achieved: natural ability, talent or intelligence. But this is fair and how it should be and has nothing to do with family background, gender, ethnicity, etc.

The education system teaches people the value of making an effort, because effort is rewarded. That is useful in itself but it also, according to Parsons, ensures that people end up performing the social roles to which they are best suited. The intelligent and hardworking get higher qualifications that give them access to the sorts of jobs that require those sorts of qualities.

Evaluating Parsons on education

Marxists criticise the functionalist view of role allocation and "sifting and sorting" arguing that the appearance of meritocracy is nothing but ideology. They call this the myth of meritocracy. They argue that the proletariat are persuaded to believe that the rich and powerful reached their positions through their hard work and natural ability rather than because of their privileged birth because this then leads them to accept inequality as fair. They argue instead that class inequalities are reproduced in the next generation and that the education system plays a key role in this. As such they argue that the myth of meritocracy plays an important part in developing a false class consciousness.

Bowles and Gintis conducted a study which demonstrated how IQ played a relatively small part in academic success and then whether academic success translated into economic success also greatly depended on social class, ethnicity and gender.

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