Education Serves Largely to Reinforce Existing Social Inequalities

Education is arguably one of anchors of our society and the bedrock on which it is built. The word Education comes from the Latin word "Educate”. which means to "bring out". Education begins as an informal process where an infant observes other people and learns from them through imitation. Progressively, the process becomes formal where the child is taken through the established schooling system which entails more than just the simple learning of facts and figures.

The role that education plays in a society to fulfil its needs, according to functional theory are numerous, one of which is socialization. Should children be imparted with the desired knowledge and desired values they need to function properly in their communities, then educating them is an essential process for gaining necessary learning. Schools not only teach the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), but they also teach a lot of the society’s values such as punctuality, individualism, respect for authority, patriotism and competitiveness. Education also serves as a social integration mechanism. Functionalists argue that for a in an effective society, people should have a shared set of beliefs to which they subscribe to.

Education also serves as a tool for social placement. One of the main characteristics of schooling is that students are categorized by their instructors and tutors as either as either sharp or less sharp or sometimes as educationally challenged. Children are then taught as per the identified level the suits them. This then prepares them for their later placement(station) in life. Education also facilitates Social innovations and cultural innovation. The basis of important scientific discoveries by our scientists is education.

Our artists and thinkers rely on education in the many subjects they need to know to come up with great works of art and poetry in their various paths. In addition to these above functions, education also has several latent functions that are not a direct function of education itself but rather are by-products of going to school. These include provision of child care (a child is taken care of for free in school or at a cost) and establishment of peer relationships (we make very many friends, and arguably most of our friends while in school).

However, it has been observed and extensively documented by many strategists and analysts that there is a major conflict theory with education. The general belief is that public schools and the established educational system does not reduce social inequality as intended. Rather, the belief is that system enhances social inequalities in our societies, inequalities that come about due to differences in social classes, race, ethnicity and gender. Where functional theorists view education in a more positive light, conflict theorists see it as a regressive tool to a fair, just and equal society. In some cases, this is by design and in other cases this is by accident. Inequality has overrun the system, and therein lies the problem. In this essay I shall examine how these societal inequalities have been exuberated by education in the three parts, race, gender and social classes.

Education and Gender Inequality

The links between access to formal education and gender are well documented. Women represent two-thirds of adults without basic literacy skills in the entire world and girls are more unlikely to complete their primary schooling education than boys and (Oxfam, 2003). It has also been observed by UNESCO that there still exist large gaps in access to education opportunities and materials between the two genders and learning achievements in many settings, on many occasions, girls are disadvantaged, although in some regions, boys are the disadvantaged group. It is estimated that 16 million women will most probably never be enrolled in the formal education system (UNESCO, 2004).

This is a very damning statistic. If women do not enroll in school and if they do not complete their education cycle, then the functional role of education to develop a proper and just society becomes redundant, it only reinforces the already existing social inequality instead of strengthening equity. Some of the factors that hinder women and girls from fully accessing education and completely reaping the benefits are minority status, early marriages, gender-based violence, pregnancy, poverty, traditional status of women, geographical isolation and disability. This leads to a society that is very unequal. However, in as much as the access to education by women and girls has been improving over time, both in terms of the lowering of illiteracy levels and increase in year spent in school (Stromquist 1989b), structural obstacles that have been put in place by the patriarchal and chauvinistic society still exist.

The situation has been improving, albeit not satisfactorily, women today have more education. Women enrolment in primary schools has been commendably over the past three decades. The growth rate of women has also been greater than that of men, as women have increased their average years spent in school by half a year more than men did in the past three decades (Horn et al, 1986). This is a progressive step that aims at providing equal opportunities for personal growth and development which shows that education has largely been serving to increase gender inequality.

Education and Racial Inequality

It has also been observed that over the years there have been variances in educational achievements amongst the different races of the world – whites, blacks and people of Asian origin. The disparity could be attributed to unequal access to education resources such as skilled teachers and quality curriculum. (Linda Darling Hamond, 1998). According to the 2017 report on completion by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that focused four-year public institutions, 2 year public institutions and other colleges it was observed that;

  • In 4-year public institutions, completion rates among the races were as follows black students (45.9%), White students (67.2%), Hispanic students (55.0%) and (71.7%) Asian students.
  • In 2-year public institutions completion rates among the races were as follows black students (25.8%), Asian students (43.8%), Hispanic (33%) and (45.1%) for White students.
  • In community colleges completion rates among the races were as follows black students (8.3%), Asian students (43.8%), Hispanic (10%) and (25%) for Asian students at the end of the 6-year study period.

These findings clearly show a mismatch against the blacks and Hispanics. This is quite biased since studies show that black students tend to have greater educational ambitions than their white counterparts (Ainsworth et al, 1998). How then do blacks who have the higher educational aspirations have the lowest completion rates? This can be attributed to the above-mentioned structural factors such as unequal access to education resources such as skilled teachers and quality curriculum. Social inequalities are moderate in countries where educational policies are inclusive such as Norway. The distribution of educational facilities affects social mobility and well-being of an individual’s well-being by providing resources necessary for the labour market and other intangible resources for life’s satisfaction.

Education is therefore a determinant of income, working conditions and unemployment risks (Chevalier and Feinstein 2006) and it consequently has a direct relation on the income status of individuals. This can probably explain the disadvantage that faces blacks and Hispanics in the USA. It has to be noted that there has been an improvement in the access to education by blacks and Hispanics which has been brought by a need for inclusivity and structural reforms. The American Council on Education report on Race and ethnicity in higher education, came to findings that point to an increase in undergraduate colored students from 29.6% in 1996 (20.8% share of student population) to 45.2% in 2016 (32.0% share of student population).

The largest increase has been by Hispanics whose population has increased by 13%. The blacks have increased by 1.1% for the 20 years (1996 to 2017). This shows that in as much as there is a general consensus that education fuels societal inequality and there is a need for equality in access to education across all races, there is general political unwillingness to implement this balance and therefore the system is still skewed and is unequal.

Education and Social Class Inequality

All over the world, issues of social class remain a major concern, although enveloped within the subtle language of ‘development crisis’, social disadvantages and ‘poverty’ (UNDP, 2003). The chained connections between access to education poverty and educational achievements are well established with United Nations report on the Population Fund which can show that here are clearly existing differences in wealth in school enrolment and achievements in almost all third world nations (UNFPA, 2002). Students who hail from a lower socioeconomic status are also generally not given equal opportunities as those who hail from a higher status, regardless of how great their academic prowess or thirst for knowledge is.

A student who comes from a working-class home may have to deal with helping out with the home chores, poor study environments, contributing financially to their family, inadequate facilities, and little or no support from their families. This is a difficult to contend with in the education systems that obey and conform very strictly to the set curriculum and that is easier to comprehend and finished by students from higher classes. What happens eventually is a reproduction of the social classes, this was studied and documented by Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist. He did research on how cultural knowledge (cultural capital) serves as currency to alter and change the opportunities and experiences that were available to French students from varied social classes.

This, he said, is through an education system that also teaches a hidden curriculum that emphasizes conformity to already established mainstream societal norms. Students of middle and upper classes have a better and more cultural capital than those of lower status. Consequently, the educational system rewards values of the dominant upper class and middle-class culture thus preserving the cycle. Tests and instructions cater for the main upper income class and middle-income class culture, leaving the recessive struggling or unable to identify with and learn the values that are outside and sometimes beyond their social class and comprehension. As stated earlier, one function of education according to functionalists is tracking (social placement of students on “tracks”, advanced versus low), it is this tracking that conflict theorists point to as a flawed system that enhances these inequalities yet these inequalities are to be bridged.

These social classes also lead to disenfranchisement of adults from the formal education sector probably due to them having to provide for the younger generation at their own expense and societal cultures. During the World Economic Forum of 2000 that were hosted by Senegal in Dakar city, one of the commitments that they resolved to attain ‘achieve an improvement of more than 50% in adult literacy levels by 2015, especially for women, and to ensure that there was equitable access to continuing and basic formal education for all persons legible to attend school (Matsuura, 2002). Adults too should not be alienated from the formal education system that they probably never had while growing up.


The conflict perspective therefore emphasizes that education only serves to reinforce and perpetuate the existing inequality in the larger society. We have established that this is through racial and ethnical profiling, social classification and gender profiling. In as much as education is a great tool to tackle inequality, in its present structure it must be altered as it is achieving the exact opposite of the intended provision of an equal platform of advancement. Structural reforms have to be put in places, for instance, public schools should be funded equally as private schools so that the decks are not stacked against the minorities, stacking should be done away with so that each student is able to explore their own limits without confinement and minority races and ethnicities to be provided with equal opportunities as well as both genders. This will in turn achieve the functional intended objectives of equality, however, there is still a long way to go.


J. W. Ainsworth-Darnell and D. B. Downey, “Assessing the oppositional culture explanation for racial/ethnic differences in school performance,” American Sociological Review, vol. 63, no. 4, pp. 536–553, 1998.

A. L. Harris, “Optimism in the face of despair: black-white differences in beliefs about school as a means for upward social mobility,” Social Science Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 3, pp. 608–630, 2008.

D. B. Downey, “Black/white differences in school performance: the oppositional culture explanation,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 34, pp. 107–126, 2008.

D. Downey and J. Ainsworth-Darnell, “The search for oppositional culture among black students,” American Sociological Review, vol. 67, pp. 156–164, 2002.

G. Farkas, C. Lleras, and S. Maczuga, “Does oppositional culture exist in minority and poverty peer groups?” American Sociological Review, vol. 67, pp. 148–155, 2002.

D. B. Downey, J. W. Ainsworth, and Z. Qian, “Rethinking the attitude-achievement paradox among blacks,” Sociology of Education, vol. 82, no. 1, pp. 1–19, 2009.

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