Emilie Durkheim and Karl Marx and how the social theory links to vocational education
The reason for use of theories is to primarily explain the prevalence of certain phenomena. Theories are therefore used as tools for conceptualizing the world and they are systematically developed from the knowledge that exists and then tested against empirical evidence to ascertain their credibility (Slavin 1995). Sociological theories can be used to explain a range of scenarios including education; from why some succeed and other fail, problems with financing education, and daily interactions in the classroom. According to Sever (2012), it is often difficult to assess and categorize the importance of sociological theories in education mainly because particular groups among them educational administrators, educational stakeholders, the government, and researchers in the various academic disciplines all conduct research for varying reasons or the theories on education are either highly diversified and scattered in nature of are simply absent from the research. Some of these sociological theories are by Emilie Durkheim and Karl Marx. This paper therefore discusses the link between the theories by Durkheim and Marx and vocational education. This will be done through review of relevant materials.
Durkheim is considered to be the founder of sociology of education and sees education as a social fact that is external to an individual and constraining to his or her behavior (Lucas & Claxton 2013). In examining their usefulness, Durkheim argues that social facts are more useful to the society than the individual and they have to find an appropriate way in which to serve the needs of social organism. Based on this argument, it them turns out that the primary role of education in general is to provide necessary social glue so as to maintain solidarity, supply the society with the required technical knowledge and skills in line with the needs of the workplace as well as the changing technological space, and to reorient and humanize humankind by provision of cognitive and normative frameworks that they might lack (Weis 2004).
Durkheim sociological theories are considered to be within structural functionalist analysis. As one of the first writers to develop an explicit framework for sociology, he made the examination of educational systems core to his societal analysis (Goldstein 1976; Durkheim, 1895). In his study on sociology, Durkheim was guided by an important problem that lies at the heart of structural functionalism i.e. why the individual, while becoming more autonomous, still depended more on the society (Durkheim 2009). This concern remains still significant to date and it arose from the need to explain the phenomena that, even though there is an increase in individualisms, self-interests, and individual rights, there was still a basis for cohesion that kept these societies from disintegrating. According to Durkheim, education is an important integrative and regulatory mechanism that binds persons together and helps to develop their consciousness to their responsibilities and relationships within the wider society. According to Durkheim, society, just like individuals have a unique characteristic that has a major role in setting them apart from others (Goldstein 1976; Durkheim 1895). Education therefore has a role in providing each person with the knowledge and capabilities that are necessary for meaningful participation in particular societal contexts.
Durkheim argues that, the role of sociological theories in relation to education and other social facts is to lay bear and specifically, the normal features for any society with the aim of ensuring closer integration between the society and every individual and each and every person within the society (Durkheim 2007). Durkheim’s writings on education have attracted high attention among sociologists compared to his other writings. However, his themes on education and its role in ensuring and promoting social solidarity have only gained prominence in the recent past as a result of the concern to cement social solidarity and education as the most viable tool towards this objective. Durkheim’s them bears the assumption that there is a core set of social factors that is shared within any given society, and this assumption is a key and defining feature of structural functionalist and liberal analysis.
Durkheim’s work has been used in extension by various sociologist writers among them Parsons on analysis of the American social system. Parsons represents the functionalist view of social institutions like the education system plays a major role in the maintenance of social order. Based on the views by Parsons, educational institutions play a more crucial and complex role than simply passing information, values, and knowledge. For instance, the information, values, and knowledge passed has to be internalized by the individuals to become part of their personalities (Peters 2003). As a result, the properly schooled is that who can intuitively be productive based on the expectations, behaviors, and rules that are expected and render shape to social life.
Marx has influenced sociology in a great way, through his thought that, people should try to change the society. Marx believed that the driver for human history is class conflict, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Bourgeoisie are capitalists who own the means for creating wealth, and they are in perpetual conflict with the proletariat who are exploited workers who don’t own the means for wealth creation (Marx 1992a). Marx argues that this continuous and bitter struggle can only end when those in the working class unite through revolution to cut loose the chains of bondage placed on them by the capitalists. The result of this would be a classless society where all people are working based on their capabilities and received in accordance with their needs (Marx 1992a; Marx 1992b).
Even though Marx supported revolution as the only way for workers and the proletariat in general to gain control of the society, it is argued that he didn’t develop communism as a political system (Marx 1992a; Lucas & Claxton 2013). Even though the ideas of Marx have been applied to create communism, there is a difference between Marxism and communism. Marx has written extensively on philosophy, economics, and political science. Even though Marx didn’t consider himself a sociologist, through his insights on the relationship that exists between the social classes and in particular the class struggle between the haves and the have-nots, he is considered to be one of the major contributors to sociology through his conflict theory.
Marx theory holds that, the ruling class has the power to control the working class, but not through the use of force, but ideas. These ideas are meant to justify the dominant position of the ruling class and conceal the true source of their power as well as their exploitation of the working class. According to Marx, the idea of capitalist is exploitation of the working class by the ruling class, and this ruling class ideology is more effective in controlling the subject classes than the application of force, and it is hidden from the consciousness of the working class (Peters 2003; Sever 2012).
Linkage to vocational education
Durkheim sociological theory is a functionalist approach and has been described through an application of the famous analogy between human body and the society. This analogy supposes that the society just like the human body is made up of various organs that have a particular role and for the complete functioning and sustenance of life in the body; each organ should play its role duly. In case of any malfunction on a single organ, the entire body is affected and its harmonious functioning affected. Similarly, vocational education is considered to be a social institution and thus, part of the social organism. Vocational education, even though subset of the educational system, has a key role and is connected to the economy, political, religious, and even family systems (Sever 2012; Billett 2003).
Vocational education has its own specific functions within an organized whole. In this regard, the knowledge that is included in the curriculum is only acceptable and justifiable and considered legit if it only subscribes to a certain part of a common culture. In other words, such information in vocational education must work as well as be seen to work towards solidarity and integration and not pluralism and differentiation (Lucas, Spencer & Claxton 2012). This is driven by the fact that, and in accordance with Durkheim’s theory, that the societal needs are always paramount to those of the individuals. Based on this understanding, it therefore implies that tutors and lecturers in institutions of vocational education are agents of this legitimate knowledge, information, and value transfer. In addition, these professional are the models of morality as well as moral beings for the future generations. As a result, and as required by Durkheim, they have a responsibility to practice constrain as to teach only what is good for the society.
In transmitting knowledge and values, tutors and lecturers in vocational education institutions are required to be committed as to present the rule, as an own personal doing, but as a moral power that is superior even to themselves, and of which the ‘teacher’ is nothing more than an instrument, and not the author (Durkheim 2007; Durkheim 2009). In such a set up, students are seen as black sheets, tabula rasa, passive beings who are ready to be filled with the common social good for the society, by the agents of the society, who ate the tutors and lecturers in vocational learning institutions.
For modern societies, the main link between social structure and vocational education is through the economy. As a result of this link, it is essential that vocational schools do respond to the economic changes through implementation of the role of selection and training of the appropriate manpower (Stevenson 2005; Young 2004). In addition, vocational education has a role to stimulate economic change through research. Functionalist theory based on Durkheim’s theory has been criticized in a number of ways and thus, it is being replaced with other radical theories of education in general, and some mainstream perspectives for example, the human capital theory. The first basis of critic is neglect of the role of ideology and conflict in the society (Weis 2004; Peters 2003).
Essentially, education and the school system in its entirety is not defined as being independent therefore, the idealized functionalist definition of schools has been considered to be an inadequate approach as a result of the solid explication of that makes certain schools to be considered as being successful or how these can be this much responsive without posing any problems to the social needs and the working class (Bailey & Berg 2009; Weis 2004). The main legacy of structural functionalism is educational institutions being neutral places however, as from the second half of the 1960s; this has been largely challenged by several studies. As a result, majority of the effort has been on social stratification and the attainment of status problems and determination of the extent to which the social background of a student affects his/her access to schooling experiences and how success and failure in school affect later life opportunities (Weis 2004). The challenge on the legacy of this approach has dealt it a major blow and even though it still holds, it has seen Marx’s critical theory largely overshadow it in explaining vocational education.
Critical theory is differentiated from the traditional mainstream social science through its multidisciplinary approach and its effort to develop a material and dialectal social theory. The role of critical theories is; mapping educational injustices, tracing the source of these injustices, and searching and proposing remedies for those injustices (Stevenson 2005; Lucas, Spencer & Claxton 2012). In vocational education, this theory starts by defining inequalities. Individuals from working class or certain minority groups form the bulk of the majority in vocational education compared to middle or upper class counterparts. Marx held the belief that consciousness and theorizing and institutions are the result of basic economic structures, and education is considered to be a result of the existing class structures. This therefore means that in practice, the ruling class controls and determines the content of vocational educations, institutional development, and educational policy.
Marx argues that education has a social context and this is both direct and indirect. Marx stated that education is social in that it is determined by the social conditions in which to educate, by an intervention direct or indirect of the society (Marx 1992b). However, Marx didn’t directly consider education in his theory and this has been largely expounded upon by the later Marxists. One of these is the idea of ideological hegemony. This ideology argues that the ruling class determines what passes to be the truth or as knowledge to application in vocational education. This ideology is perpetuated by a range of societal players among them; the church, the state, the media, and other institutions to become the state ideological apparatus. The knowledge and the means through which this knowledge is passed, taught, and distributed unto the individuals in vocational classes are determined by the class structures. This concept has been used to shape not only vocational education, but the entire educational system in the 20th century across continents and in particular, in outliers like Cuba and North Korea.
Today, and even in light of the increased participation in vocational education, Marx theory has significant effect on vocational education especially through social constructivist theory. Social constructivist has triggered strong practices and beliefs pertaining the function of teachers and collaborative learning and the belief that social context lies at the core of problems in vocational education (Young 2004; Stevenson 2005). In this case, it is clear that Marxist class consciousness has been overshadowed by social consciousness. Based on this approach, it has been argued that Marxists ideology is no longer shaping vocational education, but in its place are ideas that are clothed in sociology and social psychology outfits.
Today, technology has been completely integrated in vocational education. Marx remarkably foresaw the massive impact of technology on the division of labor, unto which vocational education mainly targets. Marx foresaw a classless society in which divisions would disappear and according to him, education would lead the change (Weis 2004; Peters 2003). To effect this change, education would breakdown that traditional academic and vocational would break free individuals from one-sided feature to the modern division of labor where every individual would be impressed. As a result of education, Marx argued that individuals will have several careers and pass from one branch of production to another in line with the needs of the society or even their own inclinations. Based on this, Marxism allows for class mobility and breaks the societal barriers that restrict mainly upward class movement.
Durkheim sociological theory is a functionalist approach and has been described through an application of the famous analogy between human body and the society. Vocational education, even though subset of the educational system, has a key role and is connected to the economy, political, religious, and even family systems. Vocational education has its own specific functions within an organized whole. In this regard, the knowledge that is included in the curriculum is only acceptable and justifiable and considered legit if it only subscribes to a certain part of a common culture. In transmitting knowledge and values, tutors and lecturers in vocational education institutions are required to be committed as to present the rule, as an own personal doing, but as a moral power that is superior even to themselves. For modern societies, the main link between social structure and vocational education is through the economy. As a result of this link, it is essential that vocational schools do respond to the economic changes through implementation of the role of selection and training of the appropriate manpower. The role of critical theories is; mapping educational injustices, tracing the source of these injustices, and searching and proposing remedies for those injustices. Marx stated that education is social in that it is determined by the social conditions in which to educate, by an intervention direct or indirect of the society. Today, and even in light of the increased participation in vocational education, Marx theory has significant effect on vocational education especially through social constructivist theory.
- Bailey T, & Berg P (2009). “The vocational education and training system in the United States”. In: Bosch, G.; Charest, J. (eds). Vocational training: international perspectives. Oxford: Routledge.
- Billett S, (2003). Vocational Curriculum and Pedagogy: An Activity Theory Perspective, European Educational Research Journal. Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 6–21.
- Durkheim, Émile (1895), The Rules of Sociological Method, 8th edition, trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John M. Mueller, ed. George E. G. Catlin (1938, 1964 edition)
- Durkheim, Émile (2007). “The rules of sociological method (1895)”. In Appelrouth, Scott; Edles, Laura Desfor. Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Text and Readings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
- Durkheim, Émile (2009) .Sociology and philosophy. Routledge Revivals. Translated by D. F. Pocock, with an introduction by J. G. Peristiany. Taylor & Francis.
- Goldstein, M. A. (1976), Durkheim’s Sociology of Education: Interpretations of Social Change Through Education. Educational Theory, 26: 289–297. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-5446.1976.tb00737.x
- Lucas B, & Claxton C, (2013) Pedagogic Leadership: creating cultures and practices for outstanding vocational learning. London: 157 Group
- Lucas B, Spencer E & Claxton C, (2012) How to teach vocational education: a theory of Vocational pedagogy. London: City & Guilds
- Marx, Karl (1992a) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, tr. by Ben Fowkes Penguin.
- Marx, Karl (1992b) Early Writings, tr. by Rodney Livingstone, Penguin
- Peters M, (2003). “Introduction”. In L. C. Peters M., Olssen M. (Ed.), Critical Theory and the Human Condition: Founders and Praxis. New York.
- Sever M, (2012). A critical look at the theories of sociology of education. International Journal of Human Sciences, 9:1.
- Slavin R E, (1995), Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research and Practice. (2nd). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Stevenson J, (2005). The Centrality of Vocational Learning, Journal of Vocational Education and Training. Vol. 57, No. 3, pp. 335–354.
- Weis L, (2004). Class Reunion: Remaking of the American White Working Class. New York & London: Routledge.
- Young M, (2004). The Importance of Vocational Pedagogy. Paper for a research seminar on Vocational Pedagogy, 22nd September 2004.
Assess the Marxist View of the Role of Education in Society
According to Marxists, modern societies are Capitalist, and are structured along class-lines, and such societies are divided into two major classes – The Bourgeois elite who own and control the means of production who exploit the Proletariat by extracting surplus value from them. Traditional Marxists understand the role of education in this context – education is controlled by the elite class (The Bourgeoisie) and schools forms a central part of the superstructure through which they maintain ideological control of the proletariat.
Firstly, Louis Altusser argued that state education formed part of the ‘ideological state apparatus’: the government and teachers control the masses by injecting millions of children with a set of ideas which keep people unaware of their exploitation and make them easy to control.
According to Althusser, education operates as an ideological state apparatus in two ways; Firstly, it transmits a general ideology which states that capitalism is just and reasonable – the natural and fairest way of organising society, and portraying alternative systems as unnatural and irrational Secondly, schools encourage pupils to passively accept their future roles, as outlined in the next point…
Secondly, the second function schools perform for Capitalism is that they produce a compliant and obedient workforce…
In ‘Schooling in Capitalist America’ (1976) Bowles and Gintis suggest that there is a correspondence between values learnt at school and the way in which the workplace operates. The values, they suggested, are taught through the ‘Hidden Curriculum’, which consists of those things that pupils learn through the experience of attending school rather than the main curriculum subjects taught at the school. So pupils learn those values that are necessary for them to tow the line in menial manual jobs.
For example passive subservience of pupils to teachers corresponds to the passive subservience of workers to managers; acceptance of hierarchy (authority of teachers) corresponds to the authority of managers; and finally there is ‘motivation by external rewards: students are motivated by grades not learning which corresponds to being motivated by wages, not the joy of the job.
A third Marxist idea is that schools reproduce class inequality. In school, the middle classes use their material and cultural capital to ensure that their children get into the best schools and the top sets. This means that the wealthier pupils tend to get the best education and then go onto to get middle class jobs. Meanwhile working class children are more likely to get a poorer standard of education and end up in working class jobs. In this way class inequality is reproduced
Fourthly, schools legitimate class inequality. Marxists argue that in reality class background and money determines how good an education you get, but people do not realize this because schools spread the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – in school we learn that we all have an equal chance to succeed and that our grades depend on our effort and ability. Thus if we fail, we believe it is our own fault. This legitimates or justifies the system because we think it is fair when in reality it is not.
Finally, Paul Willi’s classic study Learning to Labour (1977) criticises aspects of Traditional Marxist theory.
Willis’ visited one school and observed 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school and attitudes to future work. Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. They attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’ and that the objective of school was to miss as many lessons as possible.
Willis argued that pupils rebelling are evidence that not all pupils are brainwashed into being passive, subordinate people as a result of the hidden curriculum. Willis therefore criticizes Traditional Marxism. These pupils also realise that they have no real opportunity to succeed in this system, so they are clearly not under ideological control.
However, the fact that the lads saw manual work as ‘proper work’ and placed no value of academic work, they all ended up failing their exams, and as a result had no choice but to go into low-paid manual work, and the end result of their active rebellion against the school was still the reproduction of class inequality. Thus this aspect of Marxism is supported by Willis’ work.
Traditional Marxist views of education are extremely dated, even the the new ‘Neo-Marxist’ theory of Willis is 40 years old, but how relevant are they today?
To criticise the idea of the Ideological State Apparatus, Henry Giroux, says the theory is too deterministic. He argues that working class pupils are not entirely molded by the capitalist system, and do not accept everything that they are taught. Also, education can actually harm the Bourgeois – many left wing, Marxist activists are university educated, so clearly they do not control the whole of the education system.
However, the recent academisation programme, which involves part-privatisation of state schools suggests support for the idea that Businesses control some aspects of education.
It is also quite easy to criticise the idea of the correspondence principle – Schools clearly do not inject a sense of passive obedience into today’s students – many jobs do not require a passive and obedient workforce, but require an active and creative workforce.
However, if you look at the world’s largest education system, China, this could be seen as supporting evidence for the idea of the correspondence principle at work – many of those children will go into manufacturing, as China is the world’s main manufacturing country in the era of globalisation.
The Marxist Theory of the reproduction of class inequality and its legitimation through the myth of meritocracy does actually seem to be true today. There is a persistent correlation between social class background and educational achievement – with the middle classes able to take advantage of their material and cultural capital to give their children a head start and then better grades and jobs. It is also the case that children are not taught about this unfairness in schools, although a small handful do learn about it in Sociology classes.
In conclusion, while Marxist theory might be dated, all of the four major ideas still seem to have some relevance, especially their ideas about the reproduction and legitimation of class inequality, so I would say Marxism is one of the more accurate perspectives which helps us understand the role of the education system today, both nationally and globally.
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