The functionalist theory focuses on the ways, that universal’ education serves the needs of society. Functionalists first see education in its manifest role: conveying basic knowledge and skills to the next generation. Durkheim (the founder of functionalist theory identified the latent role of education as one of socializing people into society’s mainstream. This “moral education,” as he called it, helped form a more cohesive social structure by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds, which echoes the historical concern of “Americanizing” immigrants.
Functionalists point to other latent roles of education such as transmission of core values and social control. The most important value permeating the American classroom is individualism the ideology that advocates the liberty rights, or independent action, of the individual. Going to school in a capitalist nation, American students also quickly learn the importance of competition, through both competitive learning games in the classroom, and through activities and athletics outside the classroom.
Functionalists point to the ironic dual role of education in both preserving and changing culture. Studies show that, as student’s progress through college and beyond, they usually become increasingly liberal as they encounter a variety of perspectives. Thus, more educated individuals are generally more liberal, while less educated people tend toward conservatism. Moreover, the heavy emphasis on research at most institutions of higher education puts them on the cutting edge of changes in knowledge, and, in many cases, changes in values as well. Therefore, while the primary role of education is to preserve and pass on knowledge and skills, education is also in the business of transforming them.
A final and controversial function assumed by education in the latter half of the 20th century is replacement of the family. Many issues of career development, discipline, and human sexuality once the domain of the family now plays a routine part in school curriculum. Parents who reject this function of education often choose to home school their children or place them in private schools that support their values.