Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see – Neil Postman

The hidden curriculum or how to do school

In future posts, I’m going to talk about the theory of the hidden curriculum. In effect, the hidden curriculum theory argues that there is an obvious set of knowledges that schools teach (for example, the overt curriculum of Math, PE, English etc) and, at the same time, there’s a covert set of knowledges that the school transmits (I referred to it here as the social order in line with Bernstein (2000)).

The theory of the hidden curriculum was made popular by Phillip Jackson who drew extensively on the work of Durkheim (cf. 1961) who argued, as I noted here, that

there is a whole system of rules in the school that predetermine the child’s conduct

(Durkheim, 1961, p. 147)

According to Jackson (cf. 1968) most of what goes on in a classroom concerns the hidden or covert curriculum. He asserted that schools used three tools to ensure that the child’s conduct was appropriate, stating that the crowds, praise and power were essential to teaching children their place in society. In similar terms, obviously because that’s who Jackson was drawing on, Durkheim (1961) argued that the place of schools was to teach children that they must commit to a collective social order, their cultural group. He stated that:

In order to commit ourselves to collective end, we must have above all a feeling and affection for the collectivity. We have seen that such feelings cannot arise in the family where solidarity is based on blood and intimate relationship since the bonds uniting the citizens of a country have nothing to do with such relationships. The only way to instill the inclination to collective life is to get hold of the child when he leaves his family and enters school. We will succeed the more easily because in certain respects, he is more amenable to this joining of minds in a common consciousness than is the adult. To achieve this tonic effect on the child, the class must really share a common collective life.

(Durkheim, 1961, p. 231)

In addition, Durkheim (1961) claimed that:

[There] is a great distance between the state in which the child finds himself as he leaves the family and the one toward which he must strive. Intermediaries are necessary, the school environment the most desirable. It is more extensive than the family or the group of friends,. It results neither from blood nor free choice but from a meeting among subjects of similar age and condition. In that sense it resembles political society. On the other hand it is limited enough so that personal relations can crystallize. It is groups of young persons more or less like those of the social system of the school which have enabled the formation of societies larger than the family.

(Durkheim, 1961, p. 231)

Thus, the crowd element of schools, keeping same age children together for a pre-determined period of hours per day over 13 years, is a formula devised to socialise children into their place in their cultural group. When this is coupled with rewards and punishments (in the form of grades, social recognition, social stigmatisation, detentions and exclusions) the second of Jackson’s (1968) tenants are in play, praise. Finally, the third is power. The power of the school is obvious in the sense that there are laws against truancy in Australia, as elsewhere. In follow up posts, I want to consider the power of praise as a school tool of control. I also want to look at how students’ behaviour is shaped by what is expected of them at schools.

Why, though, do we accept this from schools? Does it matter? Should be really be so trusting that the values of the school that, according to the theory, are going to taught to our children, are so innocuous? Do we really want to trust schools to teach our children a hidden message like this when they see them for most of the hours they are awake?


2 Responses to “The hidden curriculum or how to do school”

  1. sage_brush

    “Collectivity” seems to me to be a watered down term for communism. There is nothing to trust about government schools, in Australia, the United States, or any where else in the world.

    Secret agendas aside – (and there are many) kids are emerging from schools with less than half the education that was being achieved by much younger students 60 years ago. My home schooled kids were so far ahead of their pagan school counterparts – it would be no exaggeration to say it was a vast chasm of difference.


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