Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Educational Policy, La Salle University


Of course social institutions have functions that are both intended and acknowledged. Robert Merton, a trail blazing 20th century sociologist, labeled such functions “manifest.” But he also calls our attention to the unintended, often unrecognized, functions of social institutions. He labels these, “latent.” Let’s examine these latent functions with respect to schools.

Day-care is an easy to isolate latent school function. Educators do not intend to be day care workers, but they are. When women were usually unemployed outside the home, this latent school function was relatively unimportant. But now, with millions of women joining the money earning workforce every year, families depend on schools for child care. In fact, for many families, public schools make two-parent employment possible. 

They do it very cost effectively too. According to the 2017 Babysitter Survey, the average 2016 U.S. babysitting rate was $13.97 per hour. Let’s compare that with how much we pay teachers. reports average yearly pay for teachers to be about $66,000. At 7 hours a day, 180 days per year, assuming a classroom daily average of 25 students, that’s an hourly rate of $2.10 per child. So parents are saving $11.87 per hour; and their child is being taught in the bargain. Of course, in the case of public schools, taxpayers also are picking up that tab.

A related latent function of schooling is keeping kids off the street. Schooling does that for the better part of the day. And don’t under estimate the impact. On that basis some people decide when to go out. For instance, in our major cities many people avoid public transportation until most adolescents, those who aren’t truant, are locked up in schools. Indeed, a major motive for starting public education was keeping industrial worker’s kids off the streets of the nation’s rapidly expanding cities. They were proving to be a major nuisance and hazard.

Reducing unemployment is another of schooling’s latent functions. Conveniently, youngsters who are in school are not on the unemployment rolls. For public officials, high unemployment is a political liability and major source of embarrassment. Best keep them in school. Even they do make learning impossible.

There are many socialization type functions that also are latent. For instance: learning to take your turn; to raise your hand; to stand patiently in line; to tolerate the barely tolerable; to appear interested when you are  bored; to lie when necessary for self-protection; and to do what you are told when  you are told to do it, whether you like it or not. These traits are necessary, perhaps even invaluable, in fulfilling many adult roles. But educators rarely even acknowledge them. They are part of the subtext of schooling in a factory-like setting.

Latent functions also involve coexisting with one’s classmates. For instance, we might learn the hard way not to look like a kiss up. Or, alternately, we might learn not to be an obvious kiss up. Why? To avoid reprisals from one’s classmates. We might also learn to pretend disinterest in things we find very interesting. For instance, the first time one hears classical music it may not be wise to appear interested. You could be labeled a stuck-up pansy or as someone who thinks they are better than everyone else. In short, unless we do not learn from experience, we master not making ourselves a target. Of course, some kids never learn this; and they pay a heavy price often carries on into adulthood.

The last latent function of schooling we will consider, tough there are lots more you might think of, is learning how to deal with classmates, teachers and administrators, who are unreasonable, unfair, sadistic tormentors, or just plain nuts. You won’t find this skill in any published curriculum, but this learning is an almost inevitable, and very important, latent function of schooling. What does one do, for instance, when “Miss Weast, the Big Fat Beast,” is your 4th grade teacher? The learning that results, presuming you are smart enough to figure it out, is a vitally important latent function that could prove vital in later life. But it is not even hinted at in any of the stated school objectives.

Latent functions are caught rather than taught. So think back and ask yourself, which type of learning, latent or manifest, was most important in your school life?