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Social Cohesion and Education

Background: Social Cohesion and Development, Social Functions of Education

Social cohesion is said to be high when nearly all members of a society voluntarily "play by the rules of the game," and when tolerance for differences is demonstrated in the day-to-day interactions across social groups within that society. But how does social cohesion occur?

Background: Social Cohesion and Development

One principal lesson of history is so obvious that it is sometimes ignored. Economic development is made possible through human cooperation. Cooperation offers the possibility for individuals and nations to accumulate or maximize economic gains that have resulted from creative enterprise and the trade that that enterprise engenders. Because of the complexities of measurement, this branch of economics, institutional economics, is not the most well known, but basically concerns the study of these mechanisms for human cooperation and how they work.

Two elements seem to make cooperation possible. First are the institutional rules that guide all types of organizations. Second are the stabilizing traditions within the organizations themselves.

Institutional rules include codes for public conduct, norms for private behavior, manifest statutes, common law, and contracts among individuals and organizations. An organization consists of groups of individuals bound together for a common purpose. Stabilizing traditions within each organization differ from one another. There are many types of organizations, but, in general, they can be reduced to four basic categories: (1) political organizations (the honesty and transparency of courts, legislatures, and the executive branches of government); (2) social organizations (shared moral principles of church groups and voluntary associations); (3) economic organizations (the quality of corporate governance, the adherence to legal procedures when acquiring and promoting employees); and (4) educational organizations, schools, and universities).

Each type of organization makes its own contribution to social cohesion. Political organizations arrange the debate and establish the means for public policy. Economic organizations arrange entrepreneurial endeavors and generate income. Social organizations sponsor altruistic endeavors that bind people to moral norms. A discussion follows regarding the social function of schools and why nations invest in schools.

Social Functions of Education

Some, such as Robert Bates, suggest that the inability of societies to develop low-cost and effective self-regulating mechanisms for enforcement of social contracts prevents economic development.

The social contract. The concept of a social contract is broader than a legal contract. A social contract includes for instance, a willingness to pay taxes and fulfill other public obligations; it may include the willingness to participate in public affairs, maintain cleanliness of one's property, act responsibly, or be a good citizen. In instances where a society's general philosophy, such as racial tolerance for one's fellow citizens, conflicts with one's private opinion, the social contract of racial tolerance is expected to take precedence, particularly in public forums. Countries that lack economic development are often associated with an environment in which contracts are not enforceable by any mechanism, and most certainly are not self-regulating.

People are more likely to adhere to social contracts under certain conditions. They are more likely to adhere to contracts when they do not consider each other as cultural "strangers"; that is, when they have more understanding of each other as people, as citizens of the same country or as citizens of a "similar" country where it is believed that the same norms and expectations govern social contracts. People are more likely to adhere to social contracts when they have a greater understanding of the reasons for those contracts, and are more knowledgeable about the sanctions that may be expected in the event of noncompliance. The most common mechanism for achieving compliance is through the state, particularly through the state's authority to sanction. But states can become tyrannical. In a tyranny, those who run the state may force compliance in their own interest at the expense of the rest of society. The challenge then is to achieve compliance without tyranny.

The most effective check against tyranny is a public consensus on the definition of tyranny; on the rights of those who believe they are the objects of tyranny; and on the obligations and responsibilities of those who use coercive power. Such a consensus makes it more difficult for tyranny to occur because it can be more easily identified and controlled. How can this public consensus come about, and more importantly, how can it be passed to the young?

The mechanisms of education's social functions. Education should contribute to social cohesion in four ways. First, schools ought to teach the rules of the game: those that govern interpersonal and political action. They consist of the social and legal principles underpinning good citizenship, obligations of political leaders, behavior expected of citizens, and consequences for not adhering to these principles. Schools can also facilitate a student's appreciation for the complexity of issues related to historical and global current events and, in so doing, may increase the likelihood that a student will see a point of view other than his or her own. By teaching the rules of the game in this manner, schools foster tolerance and lay the groundwork for voluntary behavior consistent with social norms.

Second, schools are also expected to provide an experience roughly consistent with those citizenship principles, in effect, decreasing the "distance" between individuals of different origins. The educational experience derives from a wide variety of activities, whether in the classroom, the hallway, schoolyard, playing field, or bus. The degree to which a school may do this well depends on its ability to design the formal curriculum, its culture, and the social capital of its surrounding community. The purpose for providing experiences that are consistent with the principles of citizenship is clear. Both formal and informal social contracts require elements of trust among strangers–to the extent that the socialization of citizens from different social origins allows them to acknowledge and respect each other; that is, decreasing the "distance." If the educational task is done effectively, this allows political institutions to adjudicate differences and economic institutions to operate efficiently.

Third, school systems are expected to provide an equality of opportunity for all students. If the public perceives that the school system is biased and unfair, then the trust that citizens place in various other public institutions is compromised. For instance, the willingness of adults to play by the rules of the game may be compromised if fairness in the system appears suspect.

Fourth, public schools are expected to incorporate the interests and objectives of many different groups and at the same time attempt to provide a common underpinning for citizenship. Often there are disagreements over the balance between these objectives. These disagreements must be adjudicated. Adjudication can be accomplished through many mechanisms–public school boards, professional councils, parent-teacher associations. The success of a school system is based in part on its ability to garner public support and consensus, and hence its ability to adjudicate differences over educational objectives.

Adjucation is not an easy task. Schools vary in the manner by which different groups' interests are accommodated. This is particularly the case when teaching local history. Some teachers avoid areas where problems are likely; some address sensitive areas more fully; others proactively seek out opinions and views to ensure that consensus is reached over what and how to teach. Schools differ also in the success of these efforts. For example, while it is true that the Alamo constitutes an important juncture for Texas and U.S. history, it is also true that motives–on both sides–were multiple and conflicting. And while it is true that civil rights in the American South can be characterized as a struggle for minority inclusion, it is also true that courage on that issue could be found among whites as well as minorities. This ingredient of education's contribution to social cohesion concerns the degree to which schools help students understand and weigh alternative explanations and incorporate the lessons of multiple points of view without losing a common moral rudder.

These four mechanisms constitute the manner by which education might contribute to social cohesion. But given that education is but one of four categories of social organizations that can make a social cohesion contribution, the degree to which education makes a larger or lesser contribution than political, social, or economic institutions has not been calculated. What is known is that social cohesion itself is quite important for the future stability of nations, and the more research available to quantify the constructive mechanisms necessary to effect it, the more likely it is that citizens can live in a harmonious environment.

Education and Social Cohesion in the U.S. Context

Thomas Jefferson first argued for a literate citizenry in America's fledgling democracy: democracies require that citizens understand political institutions and evaluate the claims of politicians–capacities that would protect the democracy from various forms of demagoguery. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the role of education had expanded. As immigrants began arriving from non-Protestant countries, educator Horace Mann's advocacy for the common school was one among several efforts to build a system of public schools that could create one nation from many peoples–peoples who differed not only in class origins, but also in their ethnic and racial origins, and religious commitments.

In the early twenty-first century, however, the foundations for social cohesion have shifted. Well into the twentieth century, Americans understood social cohesion as the outcome of assimilating peoples of diverse religions, ethnicities, and social groups into a nation with common values and language. That perception has changed. The use of Spanish by both presidential candidates in the year 2000 campaign confirms a new understanding of social cohesion–taking shape since the 1970s–that fosters accommodation, not simply assimilation, of diverse groups. The number of Hispanic and Asian persons in this nation has, according to the most recent U.S. Census, increased by more than 50 percent. Diversity in ethnicity and religion is pervasive in small towns as well as large urban areas. Social cohesion must be built among these increasingly diverse populations: a cohesion that constitutes a pervasive commitment to voluntary compliance to broadly constituted social norms and to active tolerance for differences among social groups.

Paradoxically, American concern with the apparent breakdown of social cohesion is not a simple extension of the growing diversity. Rather, the focus of concern and debate is within schools that on the surface have considerable racial and social homogeneity, but reveal many social fractures that presumably lead to antisocial behavior. Although national statistics show school violence has decreased, its distribution and causes appear different; namely, more suburban and rural incidents occur that are unrelated to gang activity. School violence in Colorado, California, and Arkansas, to name a few states, led to considerable debate in the media regarding the relative effects of school organization, American culture, and parenting practices on the behavior of adolescents. In the early twenty-first century, lawmakers in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have legislation pending that would require each school district to have a policy directed at student bullying. Similar legislation has already passed in Georgia, New Hampshire, Arkansas, and Delaware. Some states require mediation, others give new powers to schools to discipline students.

Yet antisocial behavior, such as bullying, is not new. It is an ancient phenomenon, and it provided a classic character in much of children's literature. What has changed, though, is the institutional charter accorded to schools in the United States. The discretion in 1932, for instance, that Willard Waller's teachers had to inculcate roles and responsibilities of citizenship has been greatly attenuated by court decisions and the often-adversarial role assumed by parents as documented by Gerald Grant in 1988. The links between community and school have been weakened through different catchment areas for schools and dual-income families. Even the framework for providing welfare benefits has affected how families can be involved in their children's schooling. Other scholars emphasize (usually with different rank orderings) weak parenting skills, fractured school cultures, anomic communities, technological access to hate-group propaganda (such as the Internet), and easy access to weapons. Yet, the level of social cohesion in schools is not manifest simply by presence or absence of antisocial behavior, it is also manifest in positive actions of civility, reflecting trust and tolerance across social groupings of students.

Social cohesion is a desired outcome of schooling, but its significance extends beyond that. Social cohesion can also affect the academic achievement vulnerable students–those whose commitment to schooling is weak and is further compromised by schools with weak social cohesion.

Educators and commentators have argued that schools contribute more to the well-being of children and the larger society than academic achievement, yet the introduction of massive systems of accountability have diminished the value of other contributions. This work will create a measure of social cohesion outcomes, and therefore may broaden the discussion over the contributions of schooling, allowing the national debate, for the first time, to include the other important outcomes, which the public expects from its education system.

International analyses of citizenship in emerging democracies provide a greater appreciation of the role of schooling in building social cohesion. A growing consensus has emerged globally on the nature of the civics education curriculum. With many new nations aspiring to become stable democracies, the varying conditions that challenge social cohesion are more apparent. Thus, the educational contribution to social cohesion and the measure of social cohesion performance must be culturally specific to the challenge at hand. In the United States, heterogeneity, geographic mobility, and impersonal social relations present relatively unique challenges to social cohesion.

New Challenges

In the early twenty-first century school systems face social cohesion challenges that have little historical precedent. Expectations for what students should know and be able to do are not determined simply by economic needs, but also by what it takes to perform the responsibilities of citizenship adequately. Participating in political discourse in the eighteenth century did not require as much understanding of science or statistics. In the twenty-first century citizens need to make judgments about issues with strong statistical underpinnings–the evaluation of competing claims over health and the environmental risk, the use of genetically altered foods, choice of sexual behavior. In essence the citizenship standards for literacy and numeracy have risen.

Also, the foundations for social cohesion have shifted. Well into the twentieth century, social cohesion was understood to be the outcome of assimilating peoples of diverse religions, ethnicities, and social groups into a nation with a common language and values. That has changed. A new understanding of social cohesion fosters accommodation, not simply assimilation. It often requires compromise and redefinition of the "typical citizen" from many sides, including by the majority as well as minority population.

In some parts of the world, challenges to social cohesion are not a simple extension of growing social diversity. Street violence in Rio de Janeiro, corruption in public service in Asia, the provision of social services by drug lords in South America and by mafia figures in Italy and Russia, the egocentric consumerism among suburban youth–these trends pose problems of a different sort. In these instances, the task of the public schools is much broader than forging ethnic harmony.

The twenty-first-century challenge of education in eastern and central Europe and the former Soviet Union might be analogous to that faced by education in Europe and North America in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries. New nations must be forged, at peace within themselves and tolerant of their often divergent neighbors. But so far the record of success is mixed.

In fact school systems are neutral as to the direction of their influence. They are like a sharp tool–a knife or a saw. School systems can fashion views, which lead to social cohesion, or they can do the opposite. In the case of Sri Lanka, pedagogical materials as early as the 1950s led to the opposite situation. The dominant historical image portrayed in textbooks was that of a glorious but embattled Sinhalese nation repeatedly having to defend itself and its Buddhist traditions against the ravages of Tamil invaders. Tamils were portrayed as historical enemies. National heroes were chosen whose reputations included having vanquished Tamils in ethnic-based wars. Segregated in their own schools, Tamil textbooks emphasized historical figures whose reputations included accommodation and compromise with the Sinhalese. In neither the Tamil nor the Sinhalese texts were there positive illustrations drawn from the other ethnic group. There were few attempts to teach about the contribution of Tamil kings to Buddhist tradition, or the links between Sinhalese kingdoms and Buddhist centers in India. Language texts were largely monocultural with few positive references to other ethnic groups.

Because texts were culturally inflammatory and because there was no effective effort to balance the prejudice stemming from outside the classroom with more positive experiences, the Sri Lankan schools can be said to have achieved the opposite of the intention of good public systems. Instead of laying a foundation for national cooperation and harmony, they helped lay the intellectual foundations for social conflict and civil war.

The former Yugoslavia provides a more recent illustration. Here is a 1994 civics textbook intended for twelve-year-olds in Bosnia:

Horrible crimes committed against the non-Serb population of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Serb-Montenegrin aggressors and domestic chetniks were aimed at creating an ethnically cleansed area where exclusively Serb people would live. In order to carry out this monstrous idea of theirs, they planned to kill or expel hundreds of thousands of Bosniaks and Croats…. Thecriminals began to carry out their plans in the most ferocious way. Horror swept through villages and cities…. Looting, raping, and slaughters … screams and outcries of the people being exposed to such horrendous plights … Europe and the rest of the world did nothing to prevent the criminals from ravaging and slaughtering innocent people. (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, 1994)

Whether the events occurred or not is an issue separate from whether the text is appropriate. The public school experience is intended to mold desired behavior of future citizens; therefore citizens of all different groups must feel comfortable about the content. If one group is uncomfortable then the school system has abrogated its public function. This is an example of where that abrogation of public responsibility occurred.

The lessons could hardly be clearer. Many organizations have taken an interest in the problems of social studies and civics education out of professional concern about the possible implications of interethnic and national tension. These organizations include the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the European Union, the Council of Europe, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Soros Foundations, and many others.

So sensitive have been the threats to peace and stability that military organizations have developed a new concern over education on the premise that interethnic tensions expressed through education could well constitute a risk to peace in the region. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for instance, established a High Commissioner on National Minorities, based in The Hague. The High Commissioner has already issued recommendations pertaining to the education of the Greek minority population in Albania, the Albanian population in Macedonia; the Slovak population in Hungary, the Hungarian population in Slovakia, and the Hungarian population in Romania. In 1996, the High Commissioner requested assistance from the Foundation on Inter-Ethnic Relations to work on a possible set of guidelines governing the education rights of national minorities. After considerable discussion and consultation, these guidelines, known as The Hague Recommendations, were published in 1997 and can be added to the many other international conventions and regulations that attempt to identify and to protect the educational rights of children and various subpopulations. These include the Polish Minorities Treaty of 1919; the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education in 1960; the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child in 1959; the subsequent UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989; the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1950; the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 1995; the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities in 1992; the Council of Europe Charter on Regional or Minority Languages in 1992; the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice in 1978; the Copenhagen Declaration of the Conference of the Human Dimension in 1990; and the UN Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 1993.

In general these covenants and conventions pertain to the problems of populations that may be subjected to discrimination and prejudice. They concern the right to be educated in one's native tongue, the right of fair access to more selective training in higher and vocational education, freedom from discrimination, cultural bias, and the like. Although these issues are indeed important, effectively they address only one-half of the problem.

The other half of the problem pertains to the rights of the majority or the rights of the national community. Their educational interests are no less compelling: the Kazakhs in Kazakhstan; the Latvians in Latvia; the Romanians in Romania, and so forth. What protects the national community from extremist versions of history as portrayed by curricula designed by minority populations? What are the rights of the national community for having a sense of compromise and historical dignity ascribed to their national culture by minority populations in their own country? What protection does the national community have against the possibility that a minority community within the same country may encourage loyalty to another nation where their ethnic group is more numerous? The problem of civics education has multiple sources, and therefore must involve multiple solutions. Not all solutions can be incorporated under the auspices of the "rights of minorities." None of these conventions address this other side of the equation.

Final Thoughts

Although the notion of public schooling was established in seventeenth century, it is not true to suggest that the educational challenge in modern era is analogous. The fledgling nation-states of the seventeenth century required social cohesion, but they often used a central authoritarian system to achieve it. The techniques of nation-building in Africa, Latin America, and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union today are not uniform, but for the most part they have emerged from an era of extreme authoritarianism into one more tolerant of divergence and local opinion. This complicates matters considerably. Not only are nations in the early twenty-first century faced with achieving cohesion, they are faced with the difficulties of achieving it, for better or worse, through widespread participation in the rules of engagement and flexibility as to its direction.


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