What Function in Education Does Inequality Serve?
Functionalists and conflict theorists agree that inequality exists within education. Yet these theorists differ on why it exists, what function it serves, and from what source it is derived. After a brief overview contrasting the basic premises inherent in functionalist theory versus conflict theory, these theories will be applied to three current issues involving educational inequality. An investigation will be rendered as to whether functionalist theory or conflict theory more productively addresses the issues of inequality between school systems, tracking, and the official versus the hidden curriculum.
In contemporary American society education is integrally linked to social stratification and upward mobility (Ballantine 48). In "Functional and Conflict Theories of Educational Stratification" Collins highlights how functional theory emphasizes trends in technical skill requirements in industrial societies (Ballantine 48). One of the first educators to apply sociological theory to the study of education was the French thinker Emile Durkheim. Durkheim argued that education was a central institution within society contributing to its societal cohesion and order. Durkheim's thought laid the groundwork for sociology's functional perspective (Ballantine 3).
In contrast, conflict theory was pioneered by the writings of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Durkheim contended that education disseminated a society's shared values. Marx countered that institutions are controlled by the wealthy and perpetuates the given class structure. Rather than helping students achieve their highest potential, too frequently educational systems are structured to maintain the status quo by catering to mediocrity rather than excellence. Bureaucracy does not respond efficiently to innovative challengings to its system. Conflict theorists favor an educational process which encourages volatili...