Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

edited 8/17/16

In The Secret Pilgrim, one of John Le Carre’s novels about espionage, master spy George Smiley makes the following observation:

“…the privately educated Englishman — and Englishwoman, if you will allow me — is the greatest dissembler on earth. Was, is now and ever shall be for as long as our disgraceful school system remains intact. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skillfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool. Nobody acts braver when he’s frightened stiff, or happier when he is miserable; nobody can flatter you better when he hates you than your extrovert Englishman or woman of the supposedly privileged classes. He can have a Force Twelve nervous breakdown while he stands next to you in the bus queue, and you may be his best friend, but you’ll never be the wiser.”

Smiley is highlighting the importance of the “hidden curriculum” — those all-important but unacknowledged and unplanned lessons that are “caught rather than taught.”

The results of the hidden curriculum are never assessed. Yet it “teaches” some of the most lasting (and important) lessons we learn in school. For example, it has been many years since I was in fourth grade. Still, I remember the “lessons” inadvertently taught by Miss Weast — whom we secretly called: “the big fat beast.” The Beast seemed to have no insight into the latent learning she fostered. Perhaps she thought she was developing a sense of propriety, even morality. But her classroom policies, procedures and standards, “taught” us to cave in to injustice, accept compulsion, shirk personal responsibility, expect to be commanded and, most importantly, to hate school. She certainly never SAID we should learn any of this; but her behavior and the edge of her ruler taught us anyway.

We also learned that in unity there is strength. Adopting a cooperative facade, we nurtured a secret cabal against her that led to delicious covert acts of rebellion. Yes, The Beast “taught” us a lot, but the lessons we learned were hidden from public view.

Then there was Miss Pinta my seventh grade algebra teacher. She thought she only taught algebra. But the chief thing she taught me was that work and play were utterly unrelated — indeed, wholly at odds. She had a poster that was posted just in front of me that said: ‘WHEN YOU PLAY, PLAY HARD. BUT WHEN YOU WORK, PLAY NOT AT ALL.” It took me years to figure out that the best, most enjoyable work is also play.

This wasn’t the extent of Miss Pinta’s hidden curriculum. By virtue of her cheerless bullying of those of us who were slow to catch on, Miss Pinta also “taught” us that algebra was useless, hateful, execrable, accursed, damnable and vile. (I know better now, but the damage lingers.)

A particularly frightening example of the hidden curriculum can be extracted from the life of Adolf Hitler. Hitler was taught religion by a Father Franz Schwarz. Described in Mein Kampf as short, fat, ugly, long-suffering to the point of irresolution, with a snot-encrusted handkerchief protruding from the sleeve of his cassock, Father Schwarz accidentally “taught” Hitler that Christianity was disgusting and best left to old women and inept priests. How very different history might have been had Father Schwarz convinced him otherwise.

Happily, the hidden curriculum can also be positive. Consider my very favorite teacher, Dr. Frederick Fuhr. The good doctor’s passion for history was contagious; and his seventh grade class gave ancient times vitality and pertinence. But it is the hidden curriculum Dr. Fuhr “taught” for which I am most indebted. A childhood bout with polio left Dr. Fuhr a paraplegic. Paralyzed from his waist down, both his withered legs were encased from hip to arch in cumbersome steel braces. I still remember how they clicked and squeaked as, supported by crutches, he swung himself awkwardly down the hall.

Despite his obvious lack of mobility and resultant vulnerability, however, no one disrupted Dr. Fuhr’s class. Ashamed to actively cooperate with anyone in authority, we students rationalized our good behavior on the grounds of physical intimidation. We assured one another that non-cooperation could be fatal because a lifetime of crutch use had caused Dr. Fuhr to develop phenomenal upper body strength. His shoulders were huge and it was rumored he could bend steel soda bottle caps double using just thumb and forefinger, But Dr. Fuhr never touched a soul. The real reason we behaved was that most of us were awed, not by his physical strength, but by his moral courage. Reluctantly, we had concluded that such a brave man should not be troubled by our juvenile hijinks.

Yes, it was the importance of true grit that was the hidden curriculum of Dr. Frederick Fuhr’s classes. I attended them more than fifty years ago, but I still honor him for what he “taught” me though example. It was one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned.

Educational assessments, high stakes tests if you prefer, reveal nothing of the learning derived from the hidden curriculum. And that means we know very little about the most important things youngsters “learn” in school. If, for example, the “best” American schools match English public schools in turning out charlatans, the assessments we use would miss that entirely.

The fundamental issue here is that in seeking to assess the consequences of schooling we commonly measure only the “outcomes” of the overt curriculum — and those inadequately. The present rage for student testing fails to take this into account. Best not to put much confidence in a process that does not even hint at the unhappy “learning” that takes place when traditional schooling separates leisure and labor, people and nature, mind and body, thought and action and the school from society. Best not be guided by assessments that give no hint of those sadly dehumanizing things children inadvertantly learn all to well in school.