Education is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people is transmitted from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts. In its narrow, technical sense, education is the formal process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills, customs and values from one generation to another. The sociology of education is the study of how public institutions and individual experiences affect education and its outcomes. It is most concerned with the public schooling systems of modern industrial societies, including the expansion of higher, adult, and continuing education.
Education has often been seen as a fundamentally optimistic human endeavor characterized by aspirations for progress and betterment. It is understood by many to be a means of overcoming limitations, achieving greater equality and acquiring wealth and social status. Education is perceived as an endeavor that enables children to develop according to their unique needs and potential. It is also perceived as one of the best means of achieving greater social equality. Some take a particularly negative view, arguing that the education system is intentionally designed to perpetuate the social reproduction of inequality.
A systematic sociology of education began with Émile Durkheim's work on moral education as a basis for organic solidarity. It was after World War II, however, that the subject received renewed interest around the world: from technological functionalism in the US, egalitarian reform of opportunity in Europe, and human-capital theory in economics. These all implied that, with industrialization, the need for a technologically-skilled labor force undermines class distinctions and other ascriptive systems of stratification, and that education promotes social mobility.
Structural functionalists believe that society leans towards social equilibrium and social order. Socialization is the process by which the new generation learns the knowledge, attitudes and values that they will need as productive citizens. Although this aim is stated in the formal curriculum, it is mainly achieved through "the hidden curriculum", a subtler, but nonetheless powerful, indoctrination of the norms and values of the wider society. Students learn these values because their behavior at school is regulated until they gradually internalize and accept them. For example, most high school graduates are socialized to either enter college or the workforce after graduation. This is an expectation set forth at the beginning of a student's education.
Education also performs another crucial function. As various jobs become vacant, they must be filled with the appropriate people. Therefore, the other purpose of education is to sort and rank individuals for placement in the labor market. Those with high achievement will be trained for the most skilled and intellectually tasking jobs and in reward, be given the highest income. On the other hand, those who achieve the least, will be given the least demanding jobs, and hence the least income.
School serves as a primary site of education, including the inculcation of "hidden curricula" of social values and norms.