Norms and Social Order

It could undoubtedly be argued that the teaching of norms has the potential to both help maintain social order and also hinder progress in society. The teaching of norms essentially helps us ensure that citizens are aware of not only their various roles in society, but also customs, common social practices, power relations, economic exchanges, rules for interpersonal interaction, etc. Understanding and accepting norms such as rules, conceptions of fairness, social etiquette, or those outlined by Robert Dreeben, such as independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity, all help people to function successfully in society. Our social order is maintained because people learn and accept the shared values of society, thus learning how to act in society. However, if we wish our social order to evolve or progress—if we find ourselves unsatisfied with the status quo and craving growth as a diverse and ever-changing society, then the teaching of traditional norms may become a hindrance. Due to this duality of the function of norms, an understanding of norms may be both essential for maintaining social order and detrimental to society.

In On What is Learned in School, Robert Dreeben explains that we learn norms in order to have full participation in society. He believes that society is held together by shared experiences and a shared repertoire of practices. He identifies four main norms: independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity, that he believes individuals accept as “legitimate standards for governing their own conduct in the appropriate situations” (Dreeben, p. 63). School is the main environment in which students learn these and other norms. While in practice this may not always be so, schools are intended to prepare students for the workforce, create citizens, teach values, morals, and social skills, while also encouraging intellectual pursuit and specialization [vocalization]. As institutions, schools are part of the infrastructure of society; they represent one dimension of our social structure and they help promulgate normative expectations. Schools have the potential to provide experiences that are not available in other social settings, and “these experiences, by virtue of their peculiar characteristics, represent conditions conducive to the acquisition of norms” (Dreeben, p. 84).

The school plays an important role in the teaching of norms because “industrially oriented societies tend to have occupational systems based on normative principles, different from those of kinship units” (Dreeben, p. 64). What this means is that the role of the school is to facilitate the transition from family member to worker and other societal roles. The school facilitates this transition by teaching societal norms. While certain norms are learned in the family setting, Dreeben believes that norms vary based on context:

…we can imply that if the education of children were carried on primarily within the jurisdiction of the family, the nature of experiences available in that setting would not provide conditions appropriate for acquiring those capacities that enable people to participate competently in the public realm. (Dreeben, p. 65)

I’m sure we can all think of norms that we want our students to learn and embrace—social etiquette, sense of civic duty, morals, etc. Education, through the teaching of norms and other skills, helps children to adapt to the society in which they live and also prepares them for their roles in society. The ability to adapt to, and function successfully in, society is certainly indicative of personal development and fulfillment. As students learn to be independent, deal with success and failures, and operate within not only society, but also a particular societal role, they develop as people and as citizens. While not all people will gain fulfillment from this process, the norms taught to children can be thought of as tools to use on a quest to fulfillment and further personal development.

Many view teaching norms as a necessity for maintaining social order and the understanding of norms as beneficial to people whom wish to successfully function in society. In fact, as Lisa Delpit points out, “parents…want to ensure that the school provides their children with discourse patterns, interactional styles, and spoken and written language codes that will allow them success in the larger society” (Delpit, p. 285). With regards to these examples, the teaching of norms contributes to personal development and fulfillment; however, in other instances the teaching of norms can oppress minority culture and inhibit diversity, because of this, some people have a negative outlook on the teaching of norms in schools. As Michael Apple explains, there is

…rapid growth of evidence on how schools act as agents in the economic and cultural reproduction of an unequal society. Nor is there any lack of evidence that a hidden curriculum in schools exists, one that tacitly attempts to teach norms and values to students that are related to working in this unequal society. (Apple, p. 87)

An argument made by Michael Apple and other critical pedagogues is that the norms taught to children are the norms of the “majority”. From this standpoint, minority norms are often oppressed and students are taught the norms necessary to successfully function in a society dominated by majority norms, whether or not those norms are shared values, culturally relevant, etc. In contrast to Apple, Durkheim argues, “It is not a question of recognizing the right of the majority to impose its ideas on the children of the minority”, and that “in spite of all the differences of opinion, there are at present, at the basis of our civilization, a certain number of principles which, implicitly or explicitly, are common to all, that few indeed, in any case, dare to deny overtly and openly” (Durkheim, p. 81). Nevertheless, Dreeben, Durkheim, Apple and other authors seem to agree that different cultures and subsets of the population have at least some different norms. While these various norms may be essential to maintaining social order within subgroups of the population, certainly given how our society operates at present, not all of these diverse norms are essential to maintaining the social order of society as a whole, and therefore not all norms are equally represented (or even represented at all) in school.

The question is then, what are the norms being taught in our schools? Are schools only teaching the norms that are at the basis of our civilization, or do they teach the norms held by the majority of society? Perhaps schools aren’t even successfully teaching societal norms–considering today’s ‘driven-by-data’ public education system, one wonders what norms are being taught in classrooms focused largely on test-prep and conformity to a universal standard of ‘achievement’. Perhaps we’ve yet to realize that as we narrow curricula to boost test scores, we hinder the development of norms and put students at a severe disadvantage when they finally enter the ‘real world’. Or, perhaps the oppression of teachers and students that can be seen in many underperforming public schools is demonstrative of the great lengths leaders will go to in order to teach a plethora of norms geared at maintaining an unequal and unjust social order. As Ken Osborne explains, schools

…socialize, train, and even indoctrinate the young, to induct them into the societies in which they would spend their adult lives as citizens, not to expand their intellectual horizons, sharpen their minds, and enlarge their capacity for thought and reflection, which are surely the three defining characteristics of any education worth the name. (Osborne, p. 27)

According to the liberal perspective on education, “the purpose of education is not to confirm us in some existing version of identify or culture, but to enable us to step outside of it, to view it with fresh eyes, and thus to enrich our experiences and enlarge our range of choice” (Osborne, p. 32). Given this purpose of education, it seems reasonable that many conceptions of norms be explored in schools, not just the status quo. As Lisa Delpit explains, “To provide schooling for everyone’s children that reflects, liberal, middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it” (Delpit, p. 285). Delpit elucidates that she

…prefer[s] to be honest with [her] students. Tell them that their language and cultural style is unique and wonderful but that there is a political power game that is also being played, and if they want to be in on that game there are certain games that they too must play. (Delpit, p. 292)

For the outliers in society, there is in many instances a gap between what you need to know to function successfully in society and your own cultural values/norms. This gap has the potential to harm individuals and stifle cultures. Certainly, it will always be important to understand certain societal norms; one needs to be able to communicate with others, hold a job, and ideally one will be able to participate in society as an engaged citizen. However, given the multicultural nature of our nation, it is time we begin to teach not just the values and norms of the majority, but the intricacies of the minority populations as well.

Norms have the potential to promote personal development and fulfillment and to maintain social order, yet they also have the ability to disempower certain populations and destroy minority cultures. While Delpit attempts to rectify this duality by pointing out students’ ability to maintain their own values while playing a cultural and political game, I would argue that the increasing diversity of our society calls for a shift in norms and a change in our social order. Much like Michael Apple, Paulo Freire, and other proponents of the critical and radical perspectives on education, I believe we should promote diversity within our schools and support education that constantly challenges the existing social order and calls for continual re-evaluation of societal norms.

Today we aren’t just faced with the problem of changing the ‘status quo’, but we are also faced with the daunting task of defining what it is exactly that we would like the status quo to be. This is where norms come into play. We must replace traditional norms with a diverse, constantly evolving set of 21st Century norms; we must challenge the status quo that oppresses teachers, students, administrators, and community members; and ultimately we must replace teaching to the test with the teaching of new, just societal norms. To do these things would be to improve public education for all students.



Apple, M.W. (1995). Education and Power. New York: Routledge.

Delpit, L. D. (2010). The Silenced Dialogue. The Teacher in American Society: A Critical Anthology, 97.

Dreeben, R. (1968). The Contribution of Schooling to the Learning of Norms. In On What is Learned in School. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Durkheim, E. (1956). Education: Its Nature and Role. In Education and Sociology. Glencoe, Ill: Free Press.

Osborne, K. (2008). Education and Schooling: A Relationship That Can Never Be Taken For Granted. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 107(1), 21-41.

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