At birth, babies are entirely dependent upon adults for their every need. As they grow, and very gradually gain independence, they learn not just how to meet their physical needs, but how to do so in ways that conform with social norms and conventions. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott defines this process as, ‘an apprenticeship to adult life’. However, socialisation is rarely explicit. Children internalise the behaviours, attitudes and values of those around them unaware that this is what they are doing. 

The family, as the institution into which children are born, plays a key role in relation to socialisation. Through immersion in the lives of their parents and siblings, children imbibe habits, attitudes and values while simultaneously learning behaviours such as how to communicate, how to dress and how to interact with other people. As Oakeshott makes clear, ‘The human family (whatever form it may take) is a practice devised, not for the procreation of children, nor merely for their protection, but for the early education of newcomers to the human scene.’ In other words, socialisation is the primary purpose of the family.

But as parents have only partial knowledge of the ‘human scene’, education also plays a key role in relation to socialisation. As the American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey notes: ‘Beings who are born not only unaware of, but quite indifferent to, the aims and habits of the social group have to be rendered cognizant of them and actively interested. Education, and education alone, spans the gap.’ Yet just as within the family home, socialisation through schooling is rarely an explicit process. As Dewey suggests, ‘The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge. It takes place through the intermediary of the environment.’

If we consider education to be primarily concerned with the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next, then through the selection of knowledge worthy of passing on, and the process of introducing children to their intellectual birthright, education can be seen as the formal means by which a new generation comes to understand the world. Through the school curriculum, children gain important knowledge and, at the same time, insight into what it means to be a member of society. History lessons, for example, teach children the story of their nation. Indirectly, they also teach children how to feel about this story: they may generate a sense of belonging, intergenerational connection or even national pride. Alternatively, they may cultivate feelings of shame or simply indifference. In this way, the transmission of knowledge is inherently an act of socialisation. 

The relationship between education and socialisation is further linked because the transmission of knowledge primarily occurs within schools. Starting school brings children out of the home and into the public realm. Children are forced to confront the world and see themselves in relation to their peers. Attitudes, values and behavioural norms are instiled through the interactions that take place in the school. Pupils are not given lessons on the need to respect adults; instead, they are taught to call teachers ‘sir’ or ‘miss’ and to be quiet when teachers are talking. They are only rarely lectured on the importance of hard work; instead, they see their efforts rewarded with good grades. As the primary purpose of the school is the transmission of knowledge that cannot be gained from within the family, rituals enacted and rules enforced within the institution are not ends in themselves. Discipline is a means of ensuring children submit to the intellectual authority of the teacher. 

Although education and socialisation are intrinsically connected, and come together in the location of the school and the role of the teacher, they have distinct goals. Education aims at the transmission of knowledge as an end in itself. Children are introduced to their intellectual birthright but what they do with this knowledge is for them to determine. Socialisation, on the other hand, aims to instill pre-determined attitudes and behaviours. Values, and even ways of behaving, can be inculcated as a result of learning but real intellectual growth cannot occur because of socialisation alone. Bending the transmission of knowledge to the primary purpose of socialisation prevents it being of intrinsic value. For this reason, when socialisation becomes the primary goal of schooling, schools can no longer truly be described as educational institutions. Nonetheless, this move away from education and towards socialisation as the purpose of the school has been underway for almost two centuries. 

When schools give up on transmitting knowledge, they prompt not just an intellectual crisis but a crisis of socialisation. The rules and rituals of the school environment are no longer a means of ensuring deference to the authority of the teacher, but become an end in themselves. Socialisation, no longer a by-product of the school’s intellectual role, must now occur explicitly. New subjects such as citizenship and sexuality education aim to transmit values and behavioural norms directly. Rather than socialisation occurring implicitly, through family life, the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and interactions within the school environment, these new lessons represent an attempt to convey attitudes and behavioural norms explicitly. The perceived need for such lessons suggests elite educators lack confidence in both parents and subject knowledge to adequately convey appropriate values. 

Whereas the transmission of knowledge leaves children to reach their own moral conclusions, in line with their experiences and the values of their family, direct instruction in behavioural norms and attitudes offers no such freedom. When it comes to relationships, or attitudes towards the nation, children are taught ‘correct’ answers. Many also learn that the values promoted by teachers are different from the values of their parents. Adult authority is no longer perceived to be collectively held and united in common purpose, instead, children come to recognise it as individualised, contested and weak. Rather than children coming to internalise the behaviours, attitudes and values of those around them, children learn that neither their parents nor their teachers have the authority to impose their will. They learn that there are few commonly held values and most behavioural expectations are negotiable.

To resolve the crisis of socialisation we need a clearer demarcation between the roles and responsibilities of parents and teachers: teachers must be authorities in subject knowledge and leave parents to be the experts in their own children.