Social Efficiency versus Democratic Equality

By: Tsahai H. London Sandrock

Larabee describes social efficiency as an educational framework in which the school sees its role as that of preparing the students to become workers. Curriculum responds to society's needs in a pragmatic manner; hence, it is seen as a public good designed to meet collective needs. Society depends on the school to meet its human capital needs in all phases of economic life. In this model, schools must necessarily adapt to existing socioeconomic and social structures. While maintaining the status quo, they realize their full educational, political, and cultural impact.

Society has the responsibility of enhancing productivity in all phases of life. This means that schools must seriously prepare students of all levels, for all levels. However, some very interesting assumptions are taken for granted. It is implicit that all societal positions are not equitable. The objective of social efficiency is not to elevate or demote people socioeconomically, or socially. It is the overall, collective benefit of the public that is being served. Hence, schools are induced to replicate, with unerring accuracy, society’s hierarchical form and complete structure. Tasks in the society need to be done by everyone. So it is everybody’s place to contribute and do what needs to be done for the public good.

To get this model to work, certain institutions had to be artificially contrived. Tracking, on the basis of perceived abilities and preferences, vocationalism, ability testing, educational standards, and other forms of stratification were all instituted with one aim. They separated students into different groups to fill different societal roles. Many of the roles were based on society’s historical perceptions of which groups of people should be performing what tasks, or on actual abilities and talents the students possess. Hence, the question came down to whose children should be educated for what roles in society. People upholding the social efficiency ideology can be perceived as blocking chances for social mobility and political equality.

As said earlier, social efficiency is not designed to alter the status quo of society members. In other words, children of the elite will not be trained to fill societal roles not already consistent with their status. Nor will children of people working in menial positions be expected to be trained for those held by the elite. These would be taught vocational skills for different array of jobs, and would be channeled directly into these jobs. In this sense, education can be seen as a duplication of what already exists. The education is designed to predict working class job roles for working students and to prepare them so precisely as to render all other options impossible. Some would see this as not being unfair since it does not rob those who already have nothing. What specific groups had previously is what they continue to have. Society’s needs are met, and things continue to run as they always have.

But not so, some say. Democratic equality must prevail. It must be interpreted to mean equal access to all students for all possible positions. Here as everywhere else, the philosophical framework of educators, parents, the community at large, and the students come into play. Certain questions emerge as important: What responsibility do teachers have toward their students in terms of pushing them towards a type of education that does not coincide with the the student’s social background? How motivated should a teacher be to push certain students toward more advanced classes? How inclined should a teacher feel or feel impelled to make available certain types of information that may permanently and favorably alter the student’s future? Which students get pushed toward a more vocational education? Which ones get steered toward a more academic program?

The position that principals, guidance staff, the community, etc. take depends on their philosophical stance. If these educators are operating from a social efficiency perspective, they may not very well consider themselves immoral, or unethical for choosing not to inform students of certain channels leading to positions that would enhance their lifestyle. They may feel that as long as they equip the students with the tools to help them fill positions like those held by their parents, they are fulfilling their obligation to their charges.

Joel Spring describes the type of community in which the labor market does not depend on a high level of education. He refers to these communities as inert. The primary consideration of educators with regard to inert communities is to provide the best possible basic education to students to fill just these needs.

Apparently, many schools adopt the social efficiency model for their students of color. This model is also being used in several African American and Hispanic communities which have come to expect that their members will hold only certain types of menial positions, simply because that is what they have always held. Hence, only certain professional expectations are developed and enmeshed within the community. Moreover, the dominant community overtly and covertly expect that members of the subjected community will continue to hold those positions.

Notions about what roles members in these societies will hold are reinforced and maintained by teachers responding to stereotypes about the quality of thinking, work ethic, disposition, etc. of minority students. Teachers can also make deliberate efforts to maintain the status quo of students’ potential social positions through their attitudes and behaviors, overt and covert. These behaviors and attitudes reinforce within students self-defeating ideas and help them enliven self fulfilling prophecies.

Defining or understanding concepts such as social efficiency and democratic equality is relatively easy. Being in a position of educator and knowing how to act fairly towards students depends on the educator’s embraced philosophy and sense of fairness and responsibility towards all students.

Larabee, D. Public goods, private goods: the American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal. Spring 1997, vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 39-81

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