I like the term “hidden curriculum” a lot. It typically refers to the unspoken expectations in a given field that new entrants are expected to know, even if they were never formally taught. Someone not knowing the “hidden curriculum” can result in having a much harder time than the folks who do know it.
This weekend someone tweeted that part of the hidden curriculum of higher education is that if you don’t get full funding, you shouldn’t go to graduate school. I remember first hearing that in ninth grade from a classmate who was on her way to academic greatness. It brought me up short. The idea that you might be paid to go to school was shocking. I hadn’t really given much thought to graduate school at that point, being 14 at the time, but I probably assumed that it would involve tuition. I had heard of athletic scholarships for college, but the idea of being paid to go to graduate school was eye-opening.
Access to academia’s hidden curricula is uneven, though it tends broadly to correlate with race and parental backgrounds. Higher education isn’t the only industry with unwritten rules, though; part of the reason that so many professional athletes are the children of other professional athletes, I suspect, is that they’re raised knowing the unwritten rules. Others don’t. The recent concern about “nepo babies” in show business probably reflects their similar insider knowledge and, in that case, connections. When you grow up in an industry, you learn some of its rules by osmosis. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it helps.
Hidden curricula become noticeable when they’re missing. In my case, for instance, I never picked up some of the common knowledge about home repair that it seems like many other people did. I wish I had; it would have saved time, money and frustration over the years. I’ve figured out a few things, but typically through painful trial and error, and the gaps that remain are significant. The same is true of home decor. I remember first learning what a bed skirt was when TW asked me to straighten it as we were changing the sheets. I knew what a bed was, and I knew what a skirt was, but it had never occurred to me to put those words together as one word. (For those who don’t know, a bed skirt is the drape that hangs down from the top of the box spring to the floor.) She considered that common knowledge. I had no idea.
As educators, you’d think we’d be uniquely attuned to hidden curricula. You’d think we’d go out of our way to fill in those knowledge gaps, since sharing knowledge is the point of our industry. And sometimes we do. But we can do much better, and if we’re serious about equity and social mobility, we have to do better.
This is where access-oriented colleges have a different task than the elites. The most exclusive places tend to skew heavily toward the children of the rich and powerful. The cultures in those places reflect that. The students from elite backgrounds know the unwritten rules of the class they expect to (re)join upon graduation; they don’t have to be told. (Scholarship students often run into an uncanny sense that things aren’t quite what they seem, but it isn’t obvious why.) That allows elite colleges not to spend too much time or energy on these issues. But access institutions bring in students who haven’t been exposed to the same unwritten rules. The rules they’ve learned are often quite complex in their own ways, but they’re built around a different reality. This is where academic advising, career advising and informal asides from professors can make a world of difference.
Wise and worldly readers, which hidden curricula did you discover you were missing? And is there a reliable way to help students get what they need?
Program note: I have some significant travel over the next week, so the blog will be back on Tuesday the 23rd.