Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Hidden Curriculum and the Truth About Schooling

"We don't need no education. We Don't need no thought control. Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone." Pink Floyd, in their iconic song Another Brick in the Wall 


Sometimes, I wonder if it would have made what I have to say about school more credible if I was a dropout (rise-out, opt-out...) myself, instead of a lifelong unschooler.

Because as such, it's assumed quite often that I must have no clue what I'm talking about.  School doesn't really teach obedience to authority, conformity, and all that jazz.  I just think it does, because I've never been to school to see how nice it is, and instead have been turned against this fine institution by my prejudiced parents.  Or so the idea goes, at least.

It's true that I can't ever know from personal experience what elementary or high school is like (besides kindergarten, of course), but I feel very confident making the statements I do about school.  Why?  Because all the research I've done shows not only that school really does teach obedience and conformity, but that the educators in the schooling system are well aware of that fact.

Open any mainstream/used in university classes sociology or education text, and I can almost guarantee that it mentions something called "the hidden curriculum."

I found this description of the hidden curriculum in a book called Sociology of Education: An Introductory View From Canada that we picked up a while ago secondhand (I posted briefly about it when I first discovered the passage): 
"The fundamental patterns in any society are held together by tacit ideological assumptions.  In schools, some rules are not overt, but they serve to organize and legitimate the activities of teachers and students.  Much of what the school teaches and the students learn does not appear in the formal curriculum.  Successful school performance requires that the student learn what are considered important and useful skills and knowledge.  But students must also have the skills to uncover the hidden rules and expectations that affect their dispositions, identities, and personalities.  For example, schools emphasize conformity, deferred gratification, achievement, competitiveness, and obedience to authority [emphasis is mine].  Students must understand the social and other dimensions of this hidden curriculum.  The hidden curriculum refers to the tacit teaching of norms, values, and dispositions that occurs through student's social experiences in routine school activities."
In another book, Society: The Basics (Canadian edition), it's noted that:
"...the school's so-called hidden curriculum, subtle presentations of political or cultural ideas, imparts important cultural values.  School activities such as spelling bees and sports encourage competition and showcase success.  Children also receive countless messages that their society's culture is both practically and morally good."
Taught to think our culture is both "practically and morally good," is it any wonder that things continue to be so bad?  If our culture is good, then there's obviously no need to change things in any real or radical way.  The same book also goes on to say that "schools further socialize young people into culturally approved gender roles," something that, as a person who often chooses to identify as a feminist, and has a good handful of queer friends, disturbs me on multiple levels.

I find it funny that so many people consider writers like John Taylor Gatto (who wrote, among many other things, this essay, which I think is great) to be so shocking, considering he's really just framing what the education profession knows to be true in a different light.

This is all just to say that not only do I consider myself justified in my dislike of the schooling institution, but also that the people who claim these things are untrue don't seem to have done much research themselves.  It seems they react in automatic defensiveness, and out of a desire for it simply not to be true, not because they've actually thought about or researched the possibility that, well, it is true!  Now if only more people could start seeing that truth, things would start changing faster...


  1. As usual, Idzie, awesome post!

  2. I love this post. I went to public school and yes they do teach all those things that you mentioned. Most people that go to public school just follow what they learn and that is sad, my parents knew better and have taught my brothers and I more than what school alone would teach us, because they did not have the ability to school us at home.

  3. thank you for this post, I do agree too, I am German and in Germany the kids HAVE to go to public School by law ( a law that was put in place in 1938 by A. Hitler!)
    I wish they would get rid of this ridiculous law :((((

  4. Herd Mentality - The Schooling System

  5. Hi Idzie,

    I find it kind of weird that anyone *wouldn't* see the hidden curriculum, once it was pointed out. Today it seems like many (or most?) people instinctively recognize regular advertising for what it is, and look for the weasel-words and deliberate omissions of fact; and it seems to me we've become more aware of those things over time. I'm hopeful that someday soon, we'll all develop the analogous ability to see the hidden agendas behind the various institutions in our societies. But maybe this is just a crazy dream.

  6. I think most of school-goers know about the 'hidden curriculum' even if they do not use this term explicitly. Certainly I and my friends knew about it all throughout our schooling. But if I mentioned it to anyone, family or other adults, I'd get: 'don't exaggerate', 'school should teach good manners and attitudes', 'school should make good citizens, not only good students'...Everyone seems to think it great that schools teach obedience to authority and competitiveness, because the market and society at large values it. There seems to be a strong conviction among most society that you have to FORCE people to school, then FORCE them to work, to pay taxes and not to be a nuisance - or otherwise they'll stay lazy and useless and depend on the social benefit system.
    I hate this agenda and the way it tries to shape kids into others' expectations and values, forces them to conform with the way they think, see and act.

  7. Some of it is very disturbing.

  8. The teachers at a local school here in Florida had the students raise money to give to a Cancer Hospital. The children raised $1,000, which is an average doctor's Starbucks bill for the month.
    The "hidden curriculum" of course is that our US healthcare system is perfect.

  9. Fantastic post. It is what I learned when I was still in school as a girl and one of the many reasons I chose to educate my children myself and away from a school building. I have a hard time calling it homeschooling when we do not stay home for school but adventure into the world.

    Keep up the awesome posts. As a mom of 4 kids that are learning without restrictions of any set standards its nice to see a grown unschooler succeed.

  10. Here's something Alan Moore wrote on the subject of school, and its covert functions:

    “The real curriculum is punctuality, obedience and the acceptance of monotony... those skills we shall require in later life; oblique aversion therapy to cure us of our thirst for information, and condition us so that thereafter we forge an association between indolence and pleasure.” (Taken from ‘The Birth Caul’)"

    Thanks for the post.

  11. I attended public school. I have no fond memories of curriculum, assignments, tests, rules or grades. I do have fond memories of individual teachers and students. None of these fond memories were generated as a result of curriculum. All of them were created after making a personal connection to each person. When it came to teachers, the fond memories were the result of great stories, field trips, extra-curricular activities and delightful eccentricities. These experiences were unique and unscripted...they were life experiences. Extra time on the computers, free use of the TV studio, spelunking, trivia from history, trips to the library, book fairs were all great fun and everything I learned during those moments is a part of me today.

    Most of my friends were constantly getting into trouble for talking, not paying attention, day-dreaming, drawing, reading & writing unrelated material and "disrespect". So basically, we were getting into trouble for being ourselves and exploring things that were important to us. School rules teach you to conform or suffer, that's all there is to it.

    I sympathize with teachers that are stuck in that system as well. Some of them are such great people with so much to offer and the system slowly drains it away from them. The best of them see the truth and try to work around the system, but it gets harder to do each year.

    This may be unrelated, but I had a drafting teacher in 8th grade. He had supervision detail in the cafeteria on one of the many days that my friends and I were assaulted by a bully. I lost my temper and went after the kid. My drafting teacher had to drag me off of the kid because I had been pushed by this kid on a daily basis and was overwhelmed with anger. This teacher knew what had happened. The bully was suspended and I was sent to the drafting lab to play computer games to calm down. In today's school system I would have been suspended along with the other kid for fighting. Luckily, I had a teacher that made a call based on what he knew to be happening. Chances are he would be reprimanded at best in today's system. The public school system isn't only ruining kids, it's ruining teachers too.

    Can you imagine an institution where people that wanted to be teachers simply meet to collaborate on projects with young people (or any people for that matter)? A kid shows up and wants to build a go-kart and one of the adults just happens to be an avid mechanic. Both would show up every day, BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO! That kid may end up designing real cars when he grows up instead of doubting his ability after flunking out of English because he hates writing research papers. More importantly, he would be great at it because of the intense immersion in the subject.

    All of this just seems so obvious to me.

    Sorry for the long post. I can get carried away.

  12. Hello!
    I just came across your web site today and I have only read your latest post as I don't have much time so I'm sorry if this subject has come up before. Hypothetically, if schools didn't exist and it was up to parents to educate their own children and we didn't have anything to teach us obedience and conformity, wouldn't this country be in complete anarchy? I am fascinated by the concept of unschooling but I am curious as to how kids turn out which is how I came here. I think back to my Political Science classes in college and talking about how it's hard enough to govern a country democratically but god-forbid we give everyone the freedom to learn what they want? This country would be even more difficult to govern.
    Anyway, just wondering what you all would think if you looked at it this way. I would love to hear your opinion.

  13. @Megan: I think it's terrific your parents did that for you! I don't mean to say that the values school attempts to teach are actually accepted by everyone who goes to school, because that's obviously not the case... Just want to make sure I'm clear about that! :)

    @Anonymous #1: Yeah, that really does suck. :( Things definitely need to change!

    @Andini: Thanks, love that video!

    @JK: I, too, find it weird that so many people don't see it. And if it's a "crazy dream" that someday everyone will see it, then it's one I share. :-)

    @Sumaya: Wow, I think it's great that at least many people you know see it (though it's not so great that they don't see there's a problem with it). I've had multiple people currently in school say I have no clue what I'm talking about and school really doesn't attempt to teach those things, but then again, that reaction might just be because I'm an unschooler, and they've felt the need to justify why they go to school to me because of that. *Shrugs* Anyway, thanks for your comment!

    @Crystal: Thank you very much! Glad you liked the post.

    @Simon: Great quote, thanks for sharing!

  14. @Ryan: Thanks for sharing your experiences! I know, isn't the idea of a "school" based on free choice, and learning from people passionate about their subjects, wonderful? That's why I love the idea of freeschools so much, and wish very much that there were more places like that, and that they weren't private...

    Anonymous #4 (or 5? Last Anon comment before this comment...): Well, if you look at the tagline of my blog, you'll see that I'm an unschooling vegetarian green anarchist hippie child, which probably answers some of your question right off. ;-) I believe an entire population that learned in freedom would be impossible to govern, but to me that's a very good thing. Instead, a population used to freedom and cooperation could come up with a much better way of living.

  15. As a high school drop/rise-out, I have to say that you are ALWAYS right on about school. You see it in a way that people immersed in the system can't.

    In fact, I'd even say that you have more credibility, having never been blinded by the conformist school culture.

  16. L'équipe du Journal JOSE said...
    Thank you, Idzie, for this important blog. I am mother of two unschooled teenagers and proud of it. The most important thing for me is that I'm happy and they are happy because they are free. It is not easy to be free in this kind of society, but in my opinion, it is impossible to know and appreciate life if we are not free.

    Thank you for the song too. We listened to Pink Floyd so often, my brother, my friends and I, forced to go to school when we were young.
    It allowed us to express ourselves and keep hope.

    Anecdotally, one day at a bookstore, my 12 year old son and I heard The Wall on the radio and started to sing it in the shop and there, we saw that people seemed to find us weird ... mother and son singing: We don't need no education !

    To anonymous who is talking about governance, I suggest this video:

    And if there are some francophone readers here, you can visit our family blog. We also publish some videos in English.

  17. I'm one of the many where the schooling system failed me miserably; and this wasn't because I was I couldn't keep up, it was because a part of me was beyond the high school arena.

    Mathematically,I was screwed from the very beginning. When I was very young, I took a massive seizure and the maths part of my brain died and never recovered; so therefore, I never understood maths of any kind. But I did teach myself to read aged 4; and it lead me down the road of a lucrative life of advanced reading, books reviewing online and enjoying the internet in such a way I'd never thought possible.

    When I was in high school (which I never graduated from) - and failing it with flying colours - I took night classes at TAFE (college) and learned AUSLAN, sewing, Secretarial Law and other courses that would help me in life; and pretty much let some of my classes fall my the wayside where they were going anyway. But I never let my English slide; as I knew I was going to enjoy writing. I actually taught my self - through reading more and more books from the library in the Reference Section and non-fiction section - how to write books and how to get published and I joined a Writers' Guild.

    Life hasn't been good to me, but being somebody who has had to teach themselves almost everything they know; it's second nature to not go to college now. Currently, I'm 37 years old and have just gotten into teach myself how to play the piano in about a year... using my left hand for the first time ever! And this piano has been in my family for my whole life; I just haven't had the use of my left hand because I never knew how to get it going.

    Learning things that schools won't/don't teach you is something that will expand minds. The sooner we teach our kids that school isn't the only place they can learn things, the better and more balanced they'll end up being.

  18. Thank you for the link to John Taylor Gatto's essay! My husband has recently gotten on board with my intention to homeschool, but has been on the fence about unschooling. He's reading this essay and saying "Wow. Wow." This could push him onto my side of the fence ;)