The Education Field

Everyone shall have the right to education. Education to 18 years of age shall be compulsory. (...) Education in public schools shall be without payment.

(Article 70, Constitution of the Republic of Poland)

Importance of the Field

Public and private capitals are closely entwined within the field of education. This is because capital, in all its different forms, is ultimately a product of human actions, more precisely of labour. The emergence of capitalism involved the move from agriculture and small commodity production, to the mass creation of complicated manufactured goods. Work was divided into separated although interconnected specialist tasks, through an increasing division of labour, which was identified by Adam Smith as being the fundamental force of economic development. Education helps to create a workforce which has the required skills and attributes needed in a particular economy. Within early industrial economies, the role of education was primarily to instil the discipline and basic skills required for working within factories. The move towards more hi-tech and service based economies, meant that workers needed to have greater and more diverse knowledge and skills.

Education also helps to allocate people a position within the division of labour and its accompanying system of social stratification. For functionalist sociology it is a meritocratic means for ensuring that the most important and challenging jobs are occupied by the most talented and educated people. (Davis and Moore, 1970) On the other hand some critical sociologists believe that behind the formal

curriculum in school education lies a hidden curriculum that is designed to make

people accept their position within an unequal society and not question the system of power that lies behind it. (Bowles and Gintis, 1976) Bourdieu agreed that education helps to legitimate social inequalities, primarily through the acquirement of cultural capital. According to Bourdieu, whilst education is a means to increase one’s cultural capital, the education system is constructed in such a way as to benefit those from privileged backgrounds (i.e. those from families with high economic and cultural capital). According to this perspective, education becomes the primary way in which social privilege and inequality are reproduced.

Modern capitalism requires the existence of universal school education and expanded higher education, as this indirectly aids the creation and valorisation of private capital. However, the private sector is unable to provide this by itself and therefore public capital expands within the field of education. Simultaneously, this drive towards the provision of universal education comes from within society and challenges the notion that education should be restricted to narrow and privileged social groups. The growth of a public education system therefore became a necessity within modern capitalism, whilst challenging many of its existing social structures of wealth and privilege.

The growth of a public education system allows large sections of society to significantly expand their own cultural capital far beyond what had previously been possible. This occurs at all the three levels of cultural capital identified by Bourdieu: institutionalised, embodied and objectified. Education qualifications represent institutionalised cultural capital that can be traded on the labour market with the hope that this will bring a return of better employment with higher salaries. A person’s embodied cultural capital is enhanced through gaining expanded knowledge, skills and abilities. New objects of cultural capital (books, art, technology, etc.) become accessible and can be utilised by wider layers of society. Greater cultural capital potentially expands a person’s social ties and grants access to previously closed social networks. (Mohr and Dimaggio, 1995) Although privileged social groups still try to maintain their greater accumulation of cultural capital and pass this on to their children (through funding and attending private schools, paying for private tuition, etc.) the growth of public capital within the field of education has helped to reduce inequalities and weaken the relationship between private economic capital and cultural capital.

A social contract was established within modern capitalism, whereby the gaining of higher educational qualifications allowed for greater social mobility, forming the social backdrop to an economy that was becoming more service based and dependent upon the exchange of knowledge. A new professional middle class expanded as children of working class parents became the first in their families’ history to graduate from universities and work in white-collar skilled jobs. This has led to a rising number of people entering higher education. For example, the proportion of 30-34 year olds with a higher education in the European Union has risen from 27.9% in 2005 to 36.6% in 2013, with a target set to expand this to at least 40% by 2020 as part of the European Union’s strategy of building an economy based upon research and innovation. (Eurostat, 2014a; European Commission, 2014) To some extent this contract has maintained itself, with unemployment rates of those with a higher education still significantly below those with lower education qualifications. However, this rate has grown in recent years (from 3.6% to 5.6% between 2005 and 2012), particularly in those countries that have been hardest hit by the economic crisis (Greece 17%, Spain 14%). (Eurostat, 2014b) Increasingly, young graduates have become part of the twenty-first century’s new social class, the precariat, as they struggle to find secure, permanent employment and the securities of middle class life (home ownership, decent pensions, etc.) enjoyed by their parents.

 
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