Education as Secondary Socialisation

Education has many roles in society. For example, education is often viewed as the most significant agency of secondary socialisation, especially for the first few years of a child’s education. The reason for this is that it is one of the first times in a child’s life that they have to interact so regularly with individuals outside of their primary group. This essay looks to assess the role education has as an agent of socialisation and also how this can link to class reproduction.

Children between the ages of three and five are gathered to spend their day in a classroom with twenty-nine other students and two teachers. Jackson (1968) claimed that this was the beginning of, not only the children learning to count and read, but also commencing an education in how to become a social actor. Being a social actor is the concept that there are expected ways to behave in different situations and with different people and that as part of socialisation, a child will learn how to act in each one. Before entering a school, a girl may have learnt what it is to be a daughter and how she is expected to act with her parents. She may have also experienced the role of being a sister and had to learn how this set of behaviour is different to the role of daughter. The behaviour learnt to play these roles will be different to the ones a boy learns to be a son, or a brother. Many children are also exposed to similar roles with other individuals who love and care for them like aunts, uncles and cousins.

The social education that Jackson talks of is predominately secondary socialisation and involves very different relationships. One of the merits of schools as socialisers is that kids have to act in a variety of roles every day. Some of these roles are similar to the roles that children already know. The behaviour expected of a child when playing with friends in school is almost the same as the behaviour expected of them when playing with siblings or friends at home, there might be different rules at school, but the concept is much the same. Through these peer relationships especially, a child can develop what Mead calls the ‘me’ of social development. This is the concept that we adjust our behaviour to what role we are in. The ‘I’ is unsocialised and reacts without thought of what others might think, but the ‘me’ decided how to act depending on the situations. In schools at this age children learn probably for the first time that the behaviour encouraged by their peers, and therefore expected of them in the role of ‘friend’ can sometimes conflict with the sets of behaviour that are expected of them as a ‘student’.

The role of student is a distinctly different one to any that most children will have encountered. Teachers are similar to parent in that they set and enforce the rules, but the ways they do this are often fundamentally different. Formal sanctions used by teachers are different from the more subjective and informal sanctions used in the family. The sanctions found in schools create an understanding that actions have consequences which will serve children through adulthood. Teaching children how to behave respectfully towards an authority figure shows schools to be a good secondary socialiser. Marxists claim that schools can act in this socialising role to do a number of things including preparing young people for the hierarchy and structures of work through the correspondence principal. This describes a situation where the school structure of authority and sanctions mirrors those in the workplace. The same work values of conforming to authority, punctuality and worth ethic are enforced in schools. Schools are also seen to help create a myth of meritocracy. This is done by creating an environment in which upper class students are likely to thrive and working class students are not, but making it seem as if individual successes and failures are entirely due to individual aptitude. This aids cultural reproduction and functions as part of Althussar’s Ideological State Apparatus by placating the proletariat class from uprising as they are told that their poverty is an effect of their own inability.

Parsons, a functionalist, however focuses on how the ideological function of schools are to create consensus. Schools enforce values in order to ensure that the next generation share value consensus.

Functional importance is an important functionalist theory. It is based on the suggestion that for society to work best, the most capable people need to do the most complicated jobs. These functionally important jobs like being a doctor, or a lawyer are incentivised with money, status and power to encourage these able people to do these jobs. Schools, in this theory, act as a filter, to sort people into those who are capable to pursue high-paying, functionally important jobs, and those who are not, in varying degrees. However, it is important to evaluate this theory in terms of the fact that functional importance is assigned subjectively. Why is being a lawyer more important than being a cashier? Is it simply because one is more complicated than the other? Does being more complicated make it more useful for society?

The gender socialisation taught to children by secondary socialisation like education can be understood by looking at Cooley’s ‘looking glass self.’ This theory explains, for example, a young boy might take an interest in hairdressing as a career, but the values that are projected by the school through what is taught and how the teachers describe different jobs make him think that boys are weird if they want to be a hairdresser so he doesn’t tell anyone and tries to be more ‘like a boy’. It didn’t matter whether anyone actually thought he was weird, but his imaginings socialised him to conform to the social norm and the society missed out on being shaped. The looking glass self theory claims we are socialised merely by what we perceive others will think of us, even if that perception is totally inaccurate.

To conclude, schools are invaluable tools of secondary socialisation that teach individuals how to behave with people who are not in their primary group and they help to provide opportunities for children to push the boundaries of what is acceptable as well as dealing with conflicts between the expected behaviour for different roles. In good schools, a healthy attitude towards authority can be nurtured, but in many schools, formal sanctions and a pressure to perform academically means that children are socialised into a rigid, controlled stream into adulthood and the workplace that inhibits societal change and free- thought.

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