Is the education system an instrument of capitalism and the ruling class, a central mechanism for reproducing social inequality, the means to achieve a more egalitarian society, or a hotbed of subversive, radical thought? The answer to this question, of course, is that it can be any or all of these things, depending on a variety of factors, and depending on which aspects of education one chooses to emphasise. Politicians and other decision makers are acutely aware of the political, economic and social significance of education. Battles are often fought over the curriculum in primary and secondary schools. The disciplines of history and English are especially fertile grounds for disputes around the supposed promotion of particular political and ideological viewpoints. Some will argue in any case that schools by their very nature are tools of indoctrination of the state, so it’s hardly surprising when changes to the educational system are the subject of these kinds of controversies and arguments. Although it has become an accepted aspect of life in modern society, it is actually quite significant that at the age of five children are legally obliged to be herded into compulsory educational institutions, where the State will be responsible for deciding what knowledge and skills they acquire for the next thirteen years. These educational institutions then have the potential to mould either future compliant workers, active and involved citizens, or radical agents of social change. In this respect, education plays several important roles in society. Durkheim was one of the first theorists to provide a uniquely sociological perspective on education. In doing so, he engaged with the question of education not simply on the level of the individual and their learning outcomes, but the function of education for society as a whole. Durkheim noted that one of the key functions of educational institutions is to act as an agent for socialisation, and foster social solidarity from a young age. Schools teach children about society and nation through the formal study of subjects that impart a sense of shared identity, such as history. Children are thus taught to feel a part of something bigger than themselves and their families, and begin to form a sense of themselves as part of a larger social structure. American sociologist Talcott Parsons termed schools a site of “secondary socialisation”, complementing parents and families as the site of primary socialisation of children. This is done by providing a bridge between the particularistic values given to children by their families through attention to their individual skills and weaknesses, and the ‘universalistic’ values of a society where the same rules apply, in principle, to everyone. Another mechanism of education as socialisation is the transmission of key cultural norms and values to children through what is termed ‘the hidden curriculum.’ The hidden curriculum is distinct from the official or explicit curriculum, in that it imparts messages to students that are not formally identified in lessons, but are built into the activities children engage in and the way those activities are structured. Often this issue is referred to in terms of the distinction between the manifest functions of education – the official curriculum – and education’s latent functions – the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum includes unintended or implicit values that are cultivated and imparted through the practices, rules and discipline exercised in the classroom. For example, schools may teach students to be punctual, obey authority, meet deadlines and delay gratification. These values and attitudes are not taught via the official curriculum. They don’t appear in textbooks, for example, but instead through the cultural transmission of a hidden curriculum which is enacted via structures and rules of educational institutions. In his collection of lectures titled Moral Education, Durkheim offered several examples of this hidden curriculum, including the expectation that students attend class regularly, having done their homework and learned their lessons well, and that they do not disrupt the class. Durkheim reiterated the importance of education in its role of discipline when he stated, “It is through the practice of school discipline that we can inculcate the spirit of discipline in the child”. Formal education also helps to develop a trained labour force, by providing people with the skills and knowledge necessary to undertake the jobs that keep society running. Some sociologists argue that if society is to be meritocratic, with people rewarded on the basis of merit, ability and talent, rather than on wealth or class, educational institutions are the best way to ensure that the most qualified people get the most desirable and prestigious jobs. Schools are thus not only a mechanism for training people for the workforce, but they also act as a vehicle for reducing social inequality. From a very young age, students are identified by teachers as being more or less bright, motivated and diligent. Some would argue that children are thus taught at the level that is thought to suit them best. On the other hand, others would say that children are being assigned labels early in their lives, from which they are then not able to escape. Children are also taught their social placement through the school system. For example, they may be given their rank in their class based on their grades, or they may be selected or rejected for gifted and talented programs or selective schools. Through these structures, children are taught where they could expect to find themselves in the workforce after leaving school. A contrasting argument is that we do not, in fact, live in a meritocratic society, but that schools perpetuate the myth of meritocracy to justify existing social inequalities. American sociologists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argued that the main role of education in a capitalist society was the creation and maintenance of an efficient and malleable work force. They contended that this is because capitalism requires an industrious and obedient workforce that is too divided to ever unite together to confront the authority of the ruling class. They argued that educational institutions foster such social divisions by teaching competitiveness and transmitting the ideology of capitalism, placing the highest values on individualism, competition, and hierarchy. Furthermore, the hidden curriculum trains future workers to submit to authority. Thus, according to Bowles and Gintis, education supplies a workforce with the type of personality, attitudes and values that are most useful to capitalists – pliant and hardworking. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu later developed this line of argument to observe that the ‘hidden curriculum’ includes physical appearance, demeanour, dress, forms of speech, body posture and movement, accent, and that schools tend to privilege the middle-class versions of all these aspects children’s behaviour, while devaluing their working-class expressions. This, for Bourdieu and many other sociologists of education, is how the education system operates to reproduce existing class relationships from one generation to the next. These critiques of formal education highlight that, regardless of what content is being taught in schools, the very nature and structure of schools can be said to mesh with the requirements of the governing authorities and a capitalist economy. How you understand the way the education system operates in society, then, depends to a large extent on your more general perspective on the existing structure and dynamics of society.