The dynamic between the individual and his role in society is molded by early education. How that dynamic is interpreted or criticized has been classed into three perspectives: functionalist, conflict theory, and interactionist. They each have different answers the questions: Who controls what is taught? What is the intent of the teaching? How does what is taught affect the individual and his or her place in society? None of these perspectives, however, adequately addresses these issues in their whole context.
Functionalists see education as “essential for an orderly and efficient society” (Webb p.199). Thomas Jefferson could be classed in this philosophical perspective. He promoted education to prepare young people to be responsible citizens of a democratic society. It is a top down view of the dissemination of information for the benefit of those without information. While the intent is justified and admirable, the content of education is dictated by those in power.
Which brings us to the conflict theory: Jefferson did not promote public education for girls, Indians, or slaves. Knowledge was to be disseminated to those deemed worthy of the ruling class (white male democracy). This justifies the conflict theory perspective that the educational system perpetuates social inequality (p. 189). And while conflict theorists opposed the hidden curriculum of capitalist class reinforcement, the tables have turned in modern education where the hidden curriculum reflects socialist principles of government-mandated equality, which undermines individual achievement and identity.
Which brings us to the interactionist perspective: the individual is seen as being influenced by the models of socialization that exist in the microcosm of classroom and school, which by grading and achievement stratification, perpetuates socio-economic stratification.
None of the perspectives address who has the authority to distribute knowledge and how it should be delivered. Truth is free and independent of the agents of dissemination. We live in the information age. Human beings have never had the access to knowledge that we do now. And yet, people are unable to afford formal post secondary education. Because the government sanctions the restriction of knowledge via university accreditation, the government must fund formal education for those who wish to go but are unable to afford it. Furthermore, people like myself, who have read textbooks from used bookstores and made learning a lifelong pursuit are not viewed as being educated because we lack a government authenticated degree.
I enjoy taking classes and am willing to pay for knowledge because I am a capitalist and believe that those who have taken the time to gain knowledge and record or share it should be compensated for their time. However, not having formally completed those courses required by a particular school under their specific format prevents me from being fairly acknowledged for my own independent studies and research. As a result, I lack the formal degree which prevents me from getting a job which would potentially alter my economic status.
For example, for each paper I write at Ashford, I am required to cite a minimum of two sources from scholarly journals. On my last final I was marked down from a perfect score because, even though I met the citation requirements, the instructor assumed that I, as a non-degreed student, could not have formulated the ideas I presented and asked me to give references for my own original words—written before I even did my research.
The reference requirement sends a subtle message that only those with a degree have the authority to credibly speak on a given topic and they must do it through the medium of an obscure journal which is only read by people in that specific field. However, opinion reinforced by opinion does not make it fact, nor should it establish credibility, lest when a president says “And that’s not just my opinion, there are many others who feel this way” naïve students perpetuate the error in logic that “Professors say A, therefore A.”
There is a value in formal authentication of personal study. Yet, the great thinkers of the past were only great because they studied and drew conclusions no existing book could teach them. Newton did not learn his theories at university. He learned them from the universe and THEN taught them at the university.
For the government to assume authority for the restriction and/or sanctification of information through curriculum agenda undermines the most basic elements of democracy. I am applying Lockean and Jeffersonian philosophy of social contract theory to knowledge and education. Jefferson held that public education would promote a “natural aristocracy of virtue and talents and eliminate the artificial aristocracy of wealth and birth” (Honderich p. 428). The power of an educator to teach is derived from the consent of the learner. Each man (woman and child) has the divinely appointed right to learn and to choose the nature of that learning. Education must be of the people, for the people, and by the people; from the bottom up, not the top down.
Teaching children from a young age that they must accept what the government has deemed necessary and beneficial for their education contradicts the principles of democracy. It reinforces the power of the state and disenfranchises individual conscience. Many political scientists and social commentators lament the apathy of the American voter. I tell you, we learned apathy in twelve years of mandatory schooling where we were unequivocally taught to work within the system.
As you can see, I relate profoundly to the conflict theory contention against the “prestige hierarchy of schools” (p. 199), and subscribe to a critical view of the hidden intent of public education. However, I also subscribe to the interactionist philosophy that top-down education is not solely responsible for conditions within public school systems, but that teachers reinforce students’ self-perception through their daily activities which has an immeasurable impact on the course of the person’s life.
Bringing it full circle, the course of the person’s life must be acknowledged as uniquely his own. When school is used as a medium to reinforce the value of individual choice in the context of his responsibility to society (functionalist premise) he will more readily acknowledge the consequences of his actions and make responsible choices that will, more often than not, lead him to be a productive and conscientious citizen within his community and the nation.
Clearly, my views do not represent any of the described philosophies. Though attitudes from each theory are present, my perspective warrants its own classification. Therefore, universalist perspective can be stated thus: Knowledge is free to all who endeavor to learn. When governments hinder the flow of knowledge or proscribe educational goals to the general population they restrict natural human liberty. Public education must facilitate perpetual learning in a modern and changing society to prepare the individual for a lifetime of learning by providing resources and teaching study methods. This is the key to a strong democracy and a productive economy.
Honderich, Ted (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press
Webb, D.L.; Metha, A; & Jordan, K.F. (2003) Foundations of American Education 5th ed. Pearson, New Jersey.