In the conflict perspective of education, schools and educational systems are seen as tools of society. Educational systems are considered integral to the reproduction and reinforcement of the hierarchical nature of capitalist societies and maintain the domination of society's elite classes. Conflict theorists posit that the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of social stratification within capitalist societies is reproduced and perpetuated by subtly teaching subordinate groups that they are inferior, reinforcing existing class inequality within the social stratification, and discouraging alternative societal paradigms. This is done in part through a hidden curriculum, the inculcation of standards of proper behavior for the society or culture. Conflict theorists also posit that education reform can only come about if the capitalist economic system is first reformed. Although research has shown some support for conflict theories of education, much of this research can be interpreted differently.
Socioeconomic Status (SES)
Within the United States today, education has become a major industry. Increasing percentages of the population are now obtaining high school diplomas, college degrees, and advanced or professional degrees compared with just a few decades ago. The outcomes of education include learning and the acquisition of knowledge, gaining the skills necessary to successfully compete for jobs, and acquiring the ability to be able to compete in the global marketplace. These outcomes are important for society to be able to maintain or improve its way of life. In addition, education has a role in socializing individuals by reinforcing what is considered proper or acceptable behavior within the society and culture as well as by helping to eliminate those attitudes and actions that are not considered appropriate.
In sociology, conflict analysis interprets social behavior through the perspective that social behavior is best explained and understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups. Therefore, conflict theorists tend to see the educational system as a tool of society (in particular, the elite classes within society that have the most power) that socializes individuals to stay within their classes. Conflict theorists emphasize the disintegrative aspects of education in opposition to the fundamentalists who emphasize the unifying potential of education. Rather than viewing educational systems as benign institutions, therefore, conflict analysis views them as institutions whose purpose is to maintain the domination of the elite classes within society. To do this, school systems subtly teach subordinate groups that they are inferior, reinforcing existing class inequality within the social stratification, and discouraging alternative societal paradigms. From the conflict perspective, educational systems are tools that socialize students to accept the values that are dictated by the more powerful classes within society. Concomitantly, conflict theorists posit that educational systems emphasize maintaining order over encouraging individualism and creativity. As a result, they contend, the norms, values and common structure of society tend to remain the same with little significant growth or change.
The Hidden Curriculum
According to conflict theorists, one of the ways that education maintains an elite class system is through the promotion of the hidden curriculum within the educational system. The hidden curriculum refers to the standards of proper behavior for a society or culture that are taught within the school system. The hidden curriculum is not part of the articulated curricula for schools, but is taught subtly through the reinforcement of behavior and attitudes that are deemed appropriate by the society or culture. According to conflict theorists, the hidden curriculum rises in part from two factors.
• First, in addition to teaching, teachers also need to maintain discipline in the classroom so that they can get the concepts contained in the articulated curriculum across to students.
• Second, educational systems tend to be highly bureaucratic in nature.
As a result, teachers can find themselves focusing on obedience to rules rather than teaching the articulated subject matter of the curriculum. For example, children are taught to raise their hand before asking a question, are required ask permission before going to the restroom, can only work on certain subjects during certain hours of the day, cannot talk in class, and are required to obey the rules that most teachers find essential for maintaining order in the classroom. Learning these concepts helps reinforce the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of society. Further, in many situations, students who have a better grasp of material are prohibited from helping those two are struggling to learn. When such situations arise, conflict theory posits that the emphasis in the classroom shifts from learning the material prescribed by the curriculum to pleasing the teacher. To some extent, obedience to authority is a necessary and desirable thing. For example, it is important to obey traffic laws if one hopes to avoid causing an accident while driving. However, in situations in which obedience to authority is overemphasized, creativity and independent thinking can be suppressed.
Increasing Levels of Education
As mentioned above, an increasing number of individuals in the United States are earning high school diplomas, college degrees, and advanced or professional degrees. Although from a functionalist perspective this is a desirable situation that benefits both the individual and society as a whole, conflict theorists take a more cynical view of such statistics. According to conflict theory, the fact that education bestows status on individuals helps to perpetuate social stratification. In addition, conflict theorists believe that educational systems typically deny disadvantaged students from getting the same educational—and resultant job—opportunities as other children. When this happens, the stratification of society is preserved in succeeding generations.
According to conflict theorists, tracking is another way that social stratification is reinforced and supported by the educational system. Tracking is the educational practice of placing students into different curriculum groups based on achievement or aptitude test scores, prior performance, or other criteria. For example, students may be placed in a "gifted" track, a "remedial" track, or placed with the main body of students for that class or grade. Typically, tracking begins early in a child's educational career, often when students are first taught to read and are put into reading groups. Students from more influential backgrounds tend to have been taught the alphabet and the basics of reading at home and have been exposed to educational games, computers, other materials and technology that increase their reading readiness. Students from disadvantaged families that cannot afford or do not have access to these things are, therefore, less prepared to start reading than the other children. As a result, children who are less advantaged tend to be put into separate reading groups that focus on less advanced materials while the more advantaged children are segregated into other groups that help them to excel more. According to conflict theorists, therefore, rather than offering equal opportunities to all children, tracking only serves to reinforce and perpetuate the distinction between social classes.
Conflict theorists not only believe that tracking systems reinforce social stratification and difference between social classes, they also tend to believe that tracking systems are actually designed to meet the needs of capitalist societies by preparing the skilled labor force necessary for capitalist societies to continue. This is done through what they refer to as the correspondence principle: The tendency of schools to promote the values expected of individuals within each social class in order to prepare...
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