Vanderstraeten on the Education System

In “The Social Differentiation of the Educational System” (Sociology, Vol. 38, No. 2 (April 2004), pp. 255-272), Raf Vanderstraeten, among other things, takes on the argument that the educational system simply reflects and reproduces social class structures. A fundamental principle of systems theory is that no function system can control another function system; in other words, a function system cannot transcend itself and apply its code to other function systems.  This is the answer to the Marxist argument that all all social relations are shaped by the economic order. As Vanderstraeten writes,

Our society no longer has a centre or apex from which communication in society can be controlled. Functional differentiation, in Luhmann’s view, needs to be understood as the establishment of autonomous, ‘autopoietic’ subsystems and not as the limited advantage of a division of labour, as has been the case in the past. (256)

Thus, the public educational system cannot be a mere tool of capitalism. It cannot simply serve the economic system. Education cannot be dominated or controlled by the economy, politics, the mass media, or any other function system. According to Vanderstraeten,

it is often argued that assessments in education reproduce and legitimate external conditions – such as class distinctions. These analyses presuppose too much correspondence between the level of education and the level of society. They depict the school as a kind of ‘trivial machine’, which reliably transforms a specific input into a corresponding output, and which internalizes and reproduces the principles of the dominant cultural elite.

Whatever the education system does is determined by the needs of the educational system, not the needs of the economy, politics, or anything else. The educaion system reproduces the education system, not social class structures or anything else. Vanderstraeten writes,

One might say, therefore, that education makes use of its own code, namely the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable patterns of behaviour, approval and disapproval, right and wrong, etc. There are numerous situations, particularly at school, which call for selective evaluations. Students are continually confronted with questions, remarks, tests, exams, and other communicated expectations.

So schools establish norms and expectations–not what is but what should be. We might say they stabilize expectations; they reproduce a dynamic stability in expectations. As Baraldi and Corsi write in Niklas Luhmann: Education as a Social System, the education system solves a problem in society by transforming human beings into persons that are able to access  all of the function systems of society. The problem is that the family or kinship group alone cannot teach people how to access all of the function systems. Education creates the pupil, going beyond family socialization. Once a human being has become a person, then we can all expect a standard of knowledge or competence from one another. We don’t have to check whether someone, particularly an adult, can read and before before we ask them to review and sign a contract; we save time by proceeding on the assumption that they can read and write. If it turns out that our expectation is disappointed, then we can make adjustments. But we begin with that expectation.

The legal system works the same way. The function of the legal system is to stabilize social norm expectations; the legal system doesn’t actually stabilize the norms themselves, but it stabilizes norm expectations so that society knows what is expected (Luhmann, Law as a Social System). Expectations may be satisfied or disappointed, but no society can function without normative expectations. 

Schools establish expectations for behavior, academic work, appropriate communication, etc. They determine what is educationally relevant, or what is meaningful to the educational system. The educational system makes selections, including some types of communication and excluding others. Thus, children enter school as equals, according to the education system. The system ignores differences in socialization (e.g., whether a child has access to books and good parenting) at the start of schooling. Very soon, however, the education system starts making selections. Through its assessments, it selects which students may proceed with their age group through twelve years of the basic curriculum and beyond to higher education.

Of course, language-based communication is not enough; school requires more than linguistic communication; a symbolically generalized communication medium is needed. So what is that medium for the educational system?

Roth and Schultz argue that medium is the curriculum vita:

The function of Education is formation. Educational programs, curricula (Luhmann, 2002, p. 195), decide which forms are to be placed in the context of which forming of the educational medium. . . . The medium of Education is no longer only the child, but the (entire) vita (Luhmann, p. 93). The code of education is un-/placeable (Luhmann, p. 59), which refers to the placement of both learning content to learners and the placement of learners to particular positions in society (26). . . In the case of education we are invited to observe a shift from the child to the (curriculum) vita(e) as the medium of education. (“Ten Systems,’ 27)

One might argue that the political system established public education in the first place, given that it funds public education; however, it might be more accurate to say that the political system, in the late 18th-early 19th century, recognized a function system that had already differentiated itself. Though I have no research to support this speculation, we might say that the educational system was already there–it had already differentiated itself from society–and the political system recognized it, saw  that it could use useful, and therefore supported it. The educational system established itself when it closed its communication loop. The political system, along with the economic system and other function systems) then started to take advantage of the education system. But the state, as an organization of the political system, cannot carry out educational functions. As Vanderstraeten argues,

The state can introduce compulsory education and use tax revenues to bear the costs of schools and universities, but, as an organization of the political system, it cannot educate itself.

The differentiation of the education system followed upon the social construction of childhood. As Vanderstraeten writes:

The extension of educational services to whole populations, which occurred in most Western countries in the 19th century, would not have been possible without the social construction of childhood. The demarcation of childhood, as distinct from adulthood, made it possible to respond to the environmental changes with the formation of a system of education.

Education became professionalized first in Germany.

in the course of the 18th century, increasing attention was paid to school teachers and curricular issues, and to the relation between education and society. The very first university chair in education was established in 1779 in Halle (Germany); this can be seen as an indication of the professionalization of teaching. . . .

The morphogenesis of the modern educational system thus encompasses a number of interrelated changes: the inclusion of whole student populations, the professionalization of teaching, and the development of new curricular principles. Since the 19th century, the autonomy of the educational system is unmistakably connected with the omnipresence of state-controlled schools and universities (Vanderstraeten 262)

Vanderstraeten emphasizes classroom interaction, rather than the contribution schooling makes to society, as in providing workers for the economy. The education system invented and reproduces a particular kind of communicative interaction in classrooms. He speaks of the classroom as the shop-floor of the education system.

This perspective emphasizes the (often neglected) shop-floor of education, the face-to-face interaction of teachers and students. It is well known that the course of this interaction cannot be programmed in political or organizational headquarters. An ‘interaction order’ develops its own intangible particularities. It ‘has a life on its own and makes demands on its own behalf’ (Goffman, 1966: 113). Educational interaction is a very demanding and difficult form of interaction (Vanderstraeten, 2001a). In fact, the question is how education is able to ensure its own reproduction.  (263)

Interaction is a social system, along with organization, function systems, and protest movements. Education invented a unique kind of interaction in the classroom setting. We might call this invention a programme, at is gives content to a code. It is this unique “interaction order” that the educational system produces and reproduces. Just as it easy to identify tennis as tennis or elevator conversation as elevator conversation, we can easily identify classroom interaction. In other words,

it is easy to identify classroom education and to distinguish it from other activities and experiences in everyday life. It forms the heart of the system, even if (and also because!) it remains a black box with only limited transparency. ( Vanderstraeten 263)

Classroom interaction is a black box from the perspective of other systems because it uses its own code. Politics and economy, for instance, cannot force the education system to produce particular results, though this does not stop politics or economy from trying to steer or take over education.


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