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Education and Society

Informal and Formal Education as Social Institutions

Education shapes societies and economies by transmitting skills, knowledge, norms, values, and social patterns and practices.

Education, formal or informal, teaches members of society necessary skills. It also socializes people, transmitting messages about socially acceptable behavior and values. Education is a social institution, a social force that encourages stable, valued patterns of behavior. Through education, people acquire not only knowledge, but also social and cultural norms and beliefs. In this way, education reinforces and passes on many of the patterns and practices that shape a society.

Education begins at birth. Family and society are a person's first—and constant—sources of education. This is a type of informal education. Children learn acceptable and unacceptable behavior through observation of elders and peers. Family and community members pass down knowledge, culture, traditions, and values to the next generation. Formal education, or schooling, continues and extends this process.

Formal education serves five key purposes that shape a society: socialization, fostering a culture of innovation, integrating or initiating members into society, transmission of knowledge and culture, and childcare for workers. It occurs in an institution, with the explicit purpose of passing down knowledge and skills. But schools also teach and reinforce social norms, values, and beliefs. Sociologists refer to this as the hidden curriculum, messages about society and how to behave as a member of society that are transmitted by schools. While formal education serves many of the same purposes as informal education, it standardizes the process. Formal education also ensures that young members of a society learn the skills that are seen as most beneficial to society. One example of this is the rise of formal education in the United States. Formal, compulsory education became standard in the United States as the country shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. Education became necessary to ensure workers had the skills to contribute to society and the economy. The need to formally educate members of society continued to grow as the country moved into the postindustrial era.

Formal education plays a critical role in shaping society. When some members of society have access to education, or to better education, they gain numerous social advantages. These advantages include better employment opportunities, higher income, higher social status, and greater political power and influence. Schools can function as gatekeepers, providing access to powerful or privileged positions in society to only certain groups. For example, children from high-income groups are more likely to have access to good schools, making them more likely to occupy jobs that confer social, economic, or political power. Children from low-income groups are more likely to attend struggling schools and to be influenced to pursue less privileged occupations. Schools can also function as cultural gatekeepers, transmitting ideas about what books, films, music, and other cultural products are most valuable. They can serve to pass down particular narratives about history, including some ideas, groups, and perspectives while excluding others.

On the other hand, education can increase social mobility, movement of people or groups between social classes. Higher levels of educational attainment are strongly linked to upward mobility. Equal access to education can decrease social stratification, inequality between and among groups, arising from different access to material and symbolic rewards including money, education, prestige, and rights.

Rise of Public Education in the United States

Free, mandatory public education arose in the United States in the 19th century, paralleling the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society.

Universal, mandatory education in the United States arose in the mid-1800s as a response to industrialization and the economy's changing needs and as a way to assimilate recent immigrants. Informal education was prevalent prior to this time. Early American settlers largely educated their children at home rather than in public schools. Some private, mostly church-based schools existed, although only fairly wealthy families could afford to pay tuition. In general, education was reserved for white children. Slaves were deliberately denied education, a measure intended to contribute to their ongoing subjugation. Antiliteracy laws were passed in the South to prevent enslaved African Americans from learning to read. Unequal access to education continued well after the Civil War in many areas. (Indeed, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, educational inequality has remained an issue). Many early efforts at providing free public education occurred in the North. Boston opened the Boston Latin School, the country's first public school, in 1635. It served only boys, and granted admission to those who could read a few Bible verses. In 1647, the Colony of Massachusetts passed a law requiring families in towns of 50 households or more to hire teachers to provide children instruction in reading and writing. In 1787 the African Free School in New York City opened, with a mission to provide education to African American children. The Free School Society opened public schools in New York City for poor children in 1805.

As industrialization swept the nation, states began to pass laws requiring communities to provide free public education and requiring children to attend school. Massachusetts was the first state to pass a such a law. In 1852 it made school mandatory for children from eight to 14 years of age. Other states followed suit throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries. Mississippi was the last state to pass a mandatory education law, in 1918. The development of mandatory public education throughout the country reflected social and cultural ideas about the new, modern age the country was moving into. Part of the push for universal formal education was also fueled by fear and xenophobia (fear of foreigners), as waves of immigrants arrived over the course of the 19th century. As the recent immigrant population grew, white Americans worried about the influence of foreign values and cultures. Public education was seen by some as a way to get immigrant children out of their parents' homes and into schools, where the general public could be sure they were taught "American" values.

Mandatory public education developed first in Northern states and mostly developed in the South after the Civil War. Many schools were racially segregated in all regions of the country. Educational opportunity was therefore often impacted by race, because schools for African Americans, Hispanics, and other children of color frequently did not provide the same quality of education that white children received. Laws kept many public schools throughout the country racially segregated until the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954) mandated an end to the use of policies of racial segregation by public schools. This case made it illegal for schools to deny entrance to students based on race. In practice, many public schools remained completely segregated well into the 1960s and 1970s. Some integration of public schools has occurred since that time, with integration waxing and waning alongside other political, economic, and cultural trends. The widespread de facto racial segregation of neighborhoods means that most public schools remain fairly segregated. In fact, data show that in the 21st century public schools are even more racially segregated than prior to the Brown ruling. This is in large part because of correlations between income levels and race, as well as related housing patterns. Racial and economic segregation of schools reflects larger patterns in American society but also serves to reinforce and exacerbate racial and ethnic stratification and socioeconomic stratification.