Does School 'Socialise' Children?

By Susan Wight, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia

One of the meanings of the term "socialisation" is the process by which the accepted culture is passed on to the next generation. For centuries this process was a natural one performed by families and an increasingly wider circle as children grew to adulthood. Children learnt about the world by living and working in it. The culture passed on was always relevant to the particular child and the community in which he/she lived. The industrial revolution changed all that. Huge numbers of people flocked to cities and a time of unprecedented social change ensued. The Factory and Education Acts in the nineteenth century defined children as a separate, non-adult population and excluded them from adult work and adult work-places. With the advent of school a large portion of children's time came to be spent outside the home and important social links were lost by the removal of children from their full-time place in the family.

From the 1890s, the influential educational philosopher and social activist, John Dewey claimed that modern society was at a serious disadvantage in communicating its purposes and skills to the next generation. In School and Society (1899) he said that earlier societies had been able to do this because most of the adult behaviour was visible and served as a model until the children understood not only how to perform a task, but how it fitted into the larger goals of the society in which they lived. Clothing was made in the house; the family sheared sheep and were familiar with carding and spinning wool and the plying of the loom. Animals were killed, candles made, the supply of many foods and building materials and furniture even metal ware was in the immediate neighbourhood in shops which were open to inspection. "The entire industrial process stood revealed, from the production on the farm of the raw materials till the finished article was actually put to use. Not only this, but practically every member of the household had his own share of the work. The children, as they gained in strength and capacity, were gradually initiated into the mysteries of the several processes." The industrial revolution, Dewey said, had weakened the traditional parental and church influence on children. He urged schools to take on the responsibility for socialising children.

Part of Dewey's vision was for schools to recreate that lost society within themselves. In his experimental school, the emphasis was taken away from academic subjects and his students were exposed to those processes which children of two generations before had experienced as part of their daily life. He found that learning from life experience could be psychologically instrumental in children's growth as they discovered information for themselves in the course of practical activities. The difference between his education and the traditional home-based education was that his was defined and directed by the teacher rather than by the necessities of daily life.

In an industrial democracy such as America's, Dewey claimed, progress depended on generating productive and adaptive citizens. The job of schools, he believed, was also to remake each individual in morals, social relations, and politics. Schooling presented an opportunity for social guidance on a national scale. He asserted that schools must no longer concentrate primarily on transmitting knowledge; but serve as agencies of cultural amalgamation, dedicated to breaking down barriers of class, race and national territory and fostering a broader community interest. In Ethical Principles Underlying Education, Dewey wrote that whilst 'reverence for parents' was valuable in principal, in practice it led to a citizenry with a variety of morals. Children's moral and social development should not be left to the chance of individual parents but taken in hand by schools. Schools should set the moral agenda to prevent thinking from developing in 'positively wrong ways' and leading to 'false and harmful beliefs'.

Dewey wrote at a time when there was a huge influx of immigrants to America and he was not alone amongst American educators and social reformers in considering the importance of school's socialising mission. For example, struck by the high crime rates and the slow process of assimilation in Southern and Eastern European immigrant communities, social reformer Jane Addams saw schooling as the single hope for creating a cohesive community. The kindergarten movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was built on the premise that American educators could not "catch" a child too early to bring him into a new social order. "The kindergarten age is your earliest opportunity to catch the little Russian, little Italian, the little Pole… and begin to make an American …out of him," an early New York preschool educator boasted.

In Assault on Parenthood, Dana Mack writes, "so influential were such theories that before long educators were busy making over what had been a varied, locally controlled, traditional and academically rigorous public education system in the Dewey et al image of progress." She claims that reluctant teachers were manipulated into this revision process by assertions that it was democratic and that everyone was expected to participate. She argues, however that the process was not democratic but coercive. "Once teachers had 'participated' in the revision process, they had an investment in the 'consensus' that supported the new pedagogy." And so schools deliberately took on the role of socialising children. Citizens were to receive their moral training at the hands of the state and be schooled in a chosen set of values.

Consequently, from the late nineteenth century in America, and in Australia from the early twentieth century, curriculums were amended to emphasise "citizenship" and "object lessons" (morals).

This trend has continued into the present with changes of language as time has passed. Dewey's vision of school having the social responsibility of children's morals has been realised but without the life-experience learning he saw as essential. Schools are isolated from the business of the grown-up world and children are thereby excluded from the real activity involved in the daily life of adults. Socialisation has come to mean the learning organised by 'qualified' adults for children to prepare them to live in the adult world. Schools not only teach academic subjects but motivation, communication skills, consumer education, drug education, sex education and so on. Many of these subjects raise moral issues and schools are unable to maintain today's political correctness and moral guidance simultaneously. Many of the programs aspire to be "non-judgemental" and "value-neutral". Influential educators James P Shaver and William Strong advocate 'values clarification' to counter the efforts of parents to 'impose' values on their children. Mack contends that this type of teacher objectivity in moral issues "is prone to disorientating children's moral compass, and to promoting of the unhealthiest peer influences on moral development." She provides evidence to suggest that American drug programs have had little success and that some of them, in fact, result in increased drug use. Similarly, she describes sex education in America as one of full information covering not only reproduction but extending into methods of enhancing sexual enjoyment, instruction on how to masturbate and the handing out of free condoms. In Brooklyn in 1992 parents were alarmed to discover that the curriculum evinced a preoccupation with promoting sexual diversity and exhorted teachers to refer to lesbians and gay men in all curricular areas as early as kindergarten. In some states equal time must be devoted to heterosexual and homosexual instruction. She argues that such comprehensive sex education, removed from the traditional morals and values taught at home, reduces sex to casual encounters without moral implications and she offers convincing statistics that such an approach results in increased sexual activity of school students, teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

At the same time schools are increasingly moving into the area of pseudo-psychological assessment with teachers making diagnoses of children as ADD, learning disabled etc. In 1991 Rita Kramer (author of Educational School Follies) discovered that student teachers received virtually no training in any of the academic subjects. Instead, they concentrated on practising classroom techniques that closely resembled psychotherapy.

By being in the company of a large group of children under the guidance of responsible adults, children are expected to learn to conform to society's expectations and display appropriate behaviour. As home educators we reject the concept that school teaches appropriate behaviour. The research of Hargreaves (1967) and Lacey (1970 in secondary schools revealed at least two subcultures within schools. There was an official one - sanctioned by the staff and another generated, valued and sanctioned by the students. In a study of eleven-year-old students all of whom had been academically successful at primary school and began secondary school together, Lacey found that they polarised during the first year into those who were academically oriented and those who found themselves alienated from the school. "The lower status groups tried to construct moral identities giving them some claim to status, to regain the loss felt through alienation from the school." More recent studies have echoed Lacey's findings. In the absence or disapproval of adults, students turn to their peer group for support and guidance and peer culture becomes essential to their survival. As a result, peer pressure and bullying have become accepted aspects of school life. In 1981 John Holt wrote of the harmful effects of the peer groups school forces children into and concluded: "Of course, children who spend all their time in groups of other people their own age, shut out of society's serious work and concerns, with almost no contact with any adults except child-watchers, are going to feel that what 'all the other kids' are doing is the right, the best, the only thing to do."

But what of the guiding influence of teachers? Within each classroom one of the major concerns of the teacher is classroom management and crowd control. Certain behaviours are discouraged because of the sheer size of the group. But teachers also attempt to teach values and provide children with moral guidance. At the same time teachers must conform to the school and education department policies and are often bound to teach values which are not their own but are "politically correct". This results in little more than hollow slogans. Even teachers who are able to successfully negotiate the minefield of guidelines and still incorporate their own values into their teaching are not necessarily teaching the same values as those of the children's homes and culture. They then have each child for one or two years before the child moves on. In the meantime, as John Gatto points out, the other large influence on children's lives is television so children end up with a mish-mash of politically correct slogans and consumer values with a variety of values from individual teachers and peer culture thrown in.

Entrusting the socialisation of children to schools divorces the teaching of values and morals from their natural family setting and makes them into something abstract and hypothetical. The values taught are those of the accepted mainstream culture with politically correct allowances for minority groups. They are mass-produced and decided on by a small group of bureaucrats who are influenced by politicians, lobby groups, corporations, media and a social culture in which ideas go in and out of fashion as fast as clothing.

Homeschooling parents by contrast are in a position to be able to clearly state what they believe in and live according to their beliefs. There is no Principal, no union and no department to answer to - only their conscience. Their children know what it is that adults do all day and they take an active part in the adult life of the family.

The teaching of values in the home happens naturally and incidentally as relevant situations arise. Children constantly have the model of their parents' behaviour and that of other adults they come in contact with as a guide for their own behaviour; they also have endless
opportunities to discuss behaviour and issues with people who love them and respect their opinions.

There is a good reason for the public perception that school 'socialises' children - the responsibility for that was assumed by schools almost a century ago although there has never been any democratic process awarding schools the social and moral authority they have nor to agree on what ideas schools should promote. Socialisation came to mean the learning organised by adults (not their parents) for children to prepare them to live in the adult world. By home educating we are reclaiming that responsibility and restoring it to its natural state.

We live in an age of mass production. Mass produced schooling prepares children to live in the resultant society and accept its values.

Our very decision to home-educate questions those values. I believe that a society that can condone such television programs as Big Brother and Wife Swap is not qualified to set the agenda for socialising our children. We can do better in our individual homes.

Archambault, Reginald John Dewey on Education: Selected Writings The University of Chicago Press 1974
Feinbery & Torres Democracy and Education in Education and Society (editor Zajda, Joseph) James Nicholas Publishers 2001
Holt, John & Farenga, Patrick Teach Your Own Perseus Publishing 2003
Mack, Dana The Assault on Parenthood: How our Culture Undermines the Family Simon and Schuster 1997
Musgrove, P.W. Socialising Contexts - A Subject in Society. Allen & Unwin 1988
Palmer, Joy A Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: From Confucius to Dewey Routledge 2001
Zhang, Lizhong Educational Dialogues Between China and the West: Cui Yuanpei and John Dewey Compared Bilingual Press 2001

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