Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor, La Salle University


Robert Merton, a trail-blazing 20th century sociologist, tells us that social institutions not only have intended and acknowledged functions, but unintended and unacknowledged ones. He called the later, “latent” functions. Let’s look at some of those functions with respect to schools.

Day-care is an easy one. Educators are not hired to be day care workers. Nevertheless, that’s one of the things they do. When women were less often employed outside the home, this was relatively unimportant. But now, with millions of women in the workforce, many families depend on schools for child care. In fact, for many families, public schools make two-parent employment possible. 

They do it 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 public school 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. Plus taxpayers pick up the tab.

Here’s another latent school function: keeping kids off the street. Schooling keeps them locked up for the better part of the day. And don’t under-estimate the impact. For instance, in our major cities many people avoid public transportation until most adolescents, at least those who aren’t truant, are in school. In fact, a major motive for starting public education was keeping industrial worker’s kids off the streets of the nation’s rapidly expanding cities where they were proving to be a major nuisance and hazard.

Reducing unemployment is still another of schooling’s latent functions. High schoolers are not on the unemployment rolls. For public officials, high unemployment is a political liability. Best, then, to keep those teens in school. Even when their behavior makes learning impossible for others.

Much socialization that takes place in school is also 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 far too many adult roles. But educators rarely acknowledge them. They are part of the subtext of schooling in a factory-like setting.

Another latent function involves learning to coexist with one’s classmates, both good and bad. We might, for instance, learn the hard way not to be a kiss up. Or we might at least learn not to be an obvious kiss up. Why? To avoid reprisals from classmates. We might also learn to pretend disinterest in things we find interesting. For example, the first time a youngster hears classical music it may not be wise for them to appear interested. They could be scorned as stuck-up, a pansy, or whatever. In short, we learn by coping with our classmates how not to make ourselves a target. Admittedly, some kids never learn. But they pay a heavy price. 

Still another latent function of schooling is learning to deal with people who are unreasonable, unfair, sadistic, just plain nuts, and so forth. You won’t find this skill in any published curriculum. But such learning is very important. I recall learning, for instance, how to deal with a woman we called “Miss Weast, the Big Fat Beast.” She was my 4th grade teacher and an out-and-out bitch. But learning to cope with her proved vital in later life. But surviving a shrew is not even hinted at in any stated school objectives.

Here’s a quick method for weighing the importance of those things that are caught rather than taught. Reflect on which type of learning, latent or manifest, was most important in your school life? Was solving an equation as vital for you as, say, learning to cope with bullies or to fit in socially? When you have finished your reflections, I’ll bet the latent “lessons’ you learned turn out to be far more important than anything in the official curriculum.