Our public schools are the primary site of social reconstruction. Children enter school and are socialized according to the rules of society, and the privileged ones go on to be ‘good’ adults who have children and begin reconstructing the society at another primary site: the home.
Put simply, parents prepare their children according to the social rules they have learned to enter school where their true socialization takes place in a cycle which creates and recreates our society. In school, students learn the sanctioned behaviours that will make them good employees in a capitalist economy – punctuality, attendance, engagement, etc – and the basic skills deemed necessary to live an ordered life, such as communications and technology literacy.
The Hidden Curriculum
But they learn more about how to exist with others. Usually forced into a room with 30 strangers controlled by a single authority, the teacher, the student is socialized according to the rules of division defined by society, building the foundations of the next generation’s social structure. For example, the student whose parents are poor and unable to provide basic nutrition or extracurricular development is vastly more likely to be unsuccessful in school, leading to poor employment prospects, and the reinforcement of the cycles of poverty as their children experience the same barriers.
Students learn which attributes and behaviours our society finds beneficial and which ones are deemed destructive or anti-social implicitly in the hidden curriculum. They learn how to fully accept this without question, thus ensuring the survival of society, or at least that is the justification. In reality, society exists exclusive of any constitution, law, or education system. Society exists even in the total absense of these things because society is simply the ways we learn and choose to exist with each other.
Schooling was invented and funded publically in the interest of perpetuating the new and exciting ideas of democracy that came out of the enlightenment and the post World War II era. The people who were in charge of policy and the adult education movements necessary to establish public schooling thought they were doing what was best by advocating for systems which served the function of perpetuating the ‘new’ status quo. To them, it would have been crazy to not want to recreate the glorious society that emerged in the West. And they were fearful that without concious control society would digress back to feudalism, or worse, progress into-gasp!-communism!
In that context, a schooling system, which according to Egerton Ryerson, was meant to create ‘cheerfully obedient subjects,’ was a necessary tool to ensure the continuity of liberalism in modern societies. Schools were seen as a way to control the reconstruction of liberal society in the social existences of citizens, thus perpetuating the best kind of society. Unfortunately, neoliberalism, the culmination of selfishness and greed, has hijacked almost all social institutions, including our schools.
Conditioned for Destruction
Just look at the society that we keep creating! Vast inequality, racism, sexism, violence, ignorance, environmental carelessness, and institutionalized greed are social facts that we do not need to keep recreating, but we do nonetheless. Why? Because our conditioning in school is very powerful and difficult to overcome. That socialization is controlled by the interests of the elite, and classism, racism, etc., serve those interests very well. People like Ryerson neglected these social realities when evaluating how great society was. It was great for people who fit the dominant culture of white, English-speaking patriarchy. What about everyone else?
Since all of our lives, from the homeless on the street to the kings of capital, are based upon our understanding of how to be with others (sociology), and all of our lives are impacted, guided, and restricted by these understandings, why do we not structure education around sociological, rather than classical, modes of thinking, learning, and being?
Sociology Teaches Everything
The physical sciences, while undeniably useful, are a poor basis for creating social human beings. The so called hard sciences have formed much of the foundations of our modern schooling, but the hard sciences teach us to look at anything and everything but our social realities. They also continue to teach students that bias is something we as humans can control, but evidence has existed for awhile that debunks that myth. A person can no more separate from their bias than they can their lungs or heart. We must be aware of our bias, but that awareness need not be about pretending that our bias doesn’t inform our thoughts which lead to our modes of questioning.
Sociology teaches us that. It also teaches us to look at and consider the things which have the most impact on our lives from cradle to grave, such as privilege, economy, politics, and institutions like religion and banks.
Biology may teach us to memorize the names of microscopic structures, or chemistry can teach us about chemical reactions, but our reality is not biological or chemical. It is social.
Sociology encourages the critical examination of the structures which create our reality. It encourages individuals to explore the nature of the relationships in their lives with other people, with their communities, and with the institutions of society.
Newton’s laws of motion don’t teach us that. But we can learn Newton’s laws, and anything else the hard sciences have to offer us through a sociological lens. Biology cannot tell us why people acquiesce to power, but sociology can teach us how and why our biological understanding developed the way it did, and it can go further to explore the impacts of power and inequality on the development of biological principles.
Sociological analysis can teach us the complexities of science and simultaneously offer us the opportunity to focus scientific research and progress for the benefit of the everyone and gain new insights into ourselves, our cultures, our species, and our entire planet.
Moving Productively Forward
This is why I advocate for a greater emphasis of sociological thinking in the way we structure schools and curricula. What good is being able to name all the past presidents names if you can’t understand the impacts the presidential administrations through history had on our social development? What good do we get from privileging a class of people who purposefully narrow their perspectives to the hard lines of science such as doctors and lawyers who can name every part of the body or cite precidents in law from memory, but can’t recognize the social impacts their professions and assumptions and privileges have on the rest of us?
Everything happens in a context. Sociology is the study of that context. That’s why we need to overhaul public education. Our future generations have a right to know they can control the circumstances of their lives, that they can affect positive change for themselves and others, and that systems in our society which oppress or devalue human life are cancerous tumours that require immediate surgery.
Our current education system is such a cancer. Kids are socialized to ignore the social reality of their lives and think singularly of the vocational aspect of their future. The self-centered thinking leads to a myriad of problematic things. Suffice it to say, the neoliberal ideal of individual success through selfish progress is contrary to our experience as human beings, and yet forms the basis of our emmerging society.
The only tool we have to combat this landslide of perpetual ignorance is to teach people to think sociologically, critically, and holistically instead of systematically, institutionally, and divisively.
Since students are implicitly learning the rules of existence through socialization in schools no matter what, it can only help them to process these things through a deeply ingrained understanding of themselves as social animals in social systems, thus developing themselves with mindfulness and self-awareness. Eventually these traits would seep into the social structures that define our culture, and some day kids will enter school with a thirst for knowledge and learning that nurtures creativity and diversity and is supported and encouraged through adulthood and into the grave.
So let’s teach sociology in public school- not as a subject to be compartmentalised and marginalized, but as the foundation for understanding all things, as a framework for developing relevant discourses and critical creative solutions, and a mode for recognizing and harnessing the power of human diversity in any academic or non-academic discipline.
The society we have is not as great as neoliberalism keeps insisting. People are more disconnected, more disillusioned, and more addicted that at any other time in history. We can fix this. And we must fix it.
Randy Edward Nicholas