Why It Matters: Education

Why examine education as a social institution?

Education spelled out with Scrabble pieces.

From the moment a child is born, his or her education begins. At first, education is an informal process in which an infant watches others and imitates them. As the infant grows into a young child, the process of education becomes more formal through play dates and preschool. Once in grade school, academic lessons become the focus of education as a child moves through the school system. But even then, education is about much more than the simple learning of facts.

Our education system also socializes us to our society through both formal processes and informal mechanisms. In addition to cognitive skills, we learn cultural expectations and norms, which are reinforced by our teachers, our textbooks, and our classmates. (For students outside the dominant culture, this aspect of the education system can pose significant challenges.) You might remember learning your multiplication tables in third grade and also learning the social rules of taking turns on the swings at recess.

Schools can be agents of change or conformity, teaching individuals to think outside of the family and the local norms into which they were born, while at the same time (as conflict theories will highlight) acclimatizing them to their tacit place in society. They provide students with skills for communication, social interaction, and work discipline that can create pathways to both independence and obedience.

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