Durkheim and Educational Systems

Steve Hoenisch

1 Introduction

In Emile Durkheim's view, educational systems reflect underlying changes in society because the systems are a construct built by society, which naturally seeks to reproduce its collectively held values, beliefs, norms, and conditions through its institutions. Thus, as time unfolds, educational systems come to contain the imprint of past stages in the development of society, as each epoch leaves its imprint on the system. By uncovering these imprints and analyzing them, the development of a society can be reconstructed from the educational system.

The reflection of such changes, however, would not be possible if educational systems were not mirrors of society, albeit on a miniature scale. Changes in society manifest themselves in the educational system because it is constructed by society's members to, in Durkheim's words, "express their needs." In short, society constructs its educational system to promote and reproduce its ideal of what a human should be, especially of what a human being should be as a part of society. In this way, the educational system also becomes a "constraint," a term that Durkheim uses in the sense of "cultural determination and the influence of socialization."1 For Durkheim, education becomes a constraint, Steven Lukes explains, "when certain socially given ideas and values are internalized by individuals who thereby acquire certain beliefs, wants and feelings and act in certain ways."2 Lukes quotes Durkheim as saying that education is thus "`a continuous effort to impose on the child ways of seeing, feeling and acting at which he would not have arrived spontaneously.'"3

2 Common Beliefs

The ideal of what the child should become, for Durkheim, arises from the common beliefs of society's members, even though individuals or groups of them may have different beliefs. To an extent, Durkheim says, there is a set of underlying beliefs common enough among all stratum of society to allow their manifestation, though sometimes the manifestation takes a slightly altered form to suit the nature of the institutions.

Because the system of education arises from the common beliefs of society's members, it is a product of collective, not individual, thought. Thus, a system of education, being a product of the collectivity, necessarily embodies those values that are expressed by the conscious collective. As a society's collective values change, the educational system reflects these changes. Durkheim points out this tendency as he comments on the relationship between education, religion, and society's ideal view of a human being: "Our conception of the goal has become secularised; consequently the means employed themselves must change."4

Otherwise, the system would be teaching values inconsistent with society, possibly leading to its own demise. "What point is there," Durkheim asks, "in imagining a kind of education that would be fatal for the society that put it into practice?"5

3 Group Values

Yet, various social groups or strata may have different beliefs. The parts of the educational system that are geared toward a particular group will reflect that social group's values more than those of the other groups. The ideals common to all the groups, however, will most strongly be reflected because, Durkheim believes, "society can survive only if there exists among its members a sufficient degree of homogeneity; education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the mind of the child, from the beginning, the essential similarities that social life demands."6

If the values of a society change in a subtle manner, they may become manifest in the educational system in a more readily perceptible manner. For instance, if the norms of a society shift toward placing a greater emphasis on merit, the educational system may reflect the change by instituting a system of examinations to determine a student's place in the social organization of society. Similarly, obvious changes in society's values, on the other hand, may become manifest in the education system only in subtle ways.

4 Changes over Time

The major changes that occur over time tend to leave an imprint on the educational system. If, for example, during a certain era, society had made social status contingent upon birthright, the educational system would likely reflect this, perhaps by admitting only those from the higher social levels into the prestigious educational institutions. Later, society may come to value merit, with each person gaining access to the higher-level or prestigious institutions through examination rather than birthright. Yet the imprint, the residue, of the aristocratic system is likely to still exist in the educational system in some subordinate manner or marginal form. Perhaps there was, for example, a useful aspect of the old system that has been retained by the new.

Systematically tracing the imprints left by such changes in the educational system reveal underlying shift's in society's organization and values. Indeed, Durkheim would say, the aspects of the old educational system retained by the new one are those that are still representative of society's values, although perhaps only marginally. The past has contributed, as Durkheim points out, to the formation of the principles that guide education. The principles that guide education, in turn, reflect the values of society. Thus, Durkheim believed, "studying the history of education, relating educational change to wider cultural, social and economic changes, would enable one to `anticipate the future and understand the present.'"7

5 The Influence of Teachers

There are also specific means through which the educational system reflects underlying changes in society. One of the these is through the work of the system's teachers, who are representatives in the schools of the greater culture and who would thus embody its transformations and pass them on. "Teaching," Durkheim writes, "is merely a shortened version of the intellectual culture of the adult."8 Teachers inculcate the ideals and knowledge of society in their students. Thus, changes in both the method and content of teaching necessarily embody many important and substantial changes in the greater culture.

The church also led educational systems to reflect changes in society, for the church served as a channel through which societal change became manifested in the schools. The educational system, in turn, also significantly reflected the role of the church in society.

6 Modernization and Malaise

Yet while Durkheim was interested in the ways institutional systems embody and reflect the values of society, he was also concerned with how such systems as education could foster a society better suited to deal with the changes wrought by modernization and industrialization. For Durkheim, it's not enough to merely identify society's past and present values, but to discover those values that best coincide with the conditions of society. Durkheim thus gives his analysis of society a normative feature.

Thus, as with many other aspects of Durkheim's sociology, his approach to analyzing educational systems was both empirical and prescriptive. Many of a system's existing values would have been handed down by history or dictated by such formerly powerful institutions as the church. In France, Durkheim analyzed whether such values were appropriate for a France being changed by modernization. Durkheim sought to clarify them and to investigate their compatibility to the kind of society that was unfolding in France as a new century loomed.

More specifically, Durkheim felt that many of the values inherited from the past had begun to lose their appeal, and the result was a dissolution of moral beliefs that led to malaise.9 The question for Durkheim, then, was to identify a new set of moral beliefs that could again bind society, allaying its malaise. What, Durkheim wanted to discover, were the common beliefs required by a France in the throes of modernization and industrialization? Once these ends were pinpointed, education would be a vehicle through which they could be systematically disseminated. Education, then, not only reflected changes in society, but could also be used to impel society to change. Indeed, it was for Durkheim one of the paths to the reintegration of society.

To conclude, in the ways noted above, Durkheim found education to reflect underlying changes in society. As such, he used educational systems as a window into society's organization and values, both past and present. As Lukes puts it, Durkheim "made a systematic attempt to identify broad historical continuities, interpreting them as evidence of cultural trains or as answering fundamental social needs."10

7 Notes

1 Steve Lukes, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 12.

2 ibid. p. 12.

3 ibid. p. 12.

4 Emile Durkheim, Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Anthony Giddens (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 208.

5 ibid. p. 204.

6 ibid. p. 203.

7 Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, p. 380.

8 ibid. p. 205.

9 ibid. p. 354.

10 ibid. p. 386.

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