Josh Franklin // As I walked to the library one morning this week, I could tell that the campus was beginning to fill with the inevitable buzz of students returning for the fall semester. I felt a rush of expectation and excitement, and I was reminded of the powerful and subtle feelings that academic rituals can evoke. And I wondered, as they arrived here for the first time or returning for another year, what is it that all of these students and teachers hope for education to be? What are the dreams and fears we invest in learning and teaching?
These questions were taken up in an interesting way over the past months by academics on Twitter in an ongoing conversation about the hidden curriculum. As a recent post by Dick Powis on Anthrodendum summarized the conversation, the #hiddencurriculum is “all the things that you’re expected to know but are never formally taught or the hidden tricks and hacks to help you succeed in academia.” On Twitter, professors shared mistakes that they had made, which were at times amusing in retrospect and at times painful to read. From conference etiquette to publishing conventions to knowing the idiosyncratic meaning of pieces of academic jargon, the theme that ran through all of this was that the necessary knowledge one needs to succeed in academia is often never taught explicitly. Further, withholding this essential knowledge represents an obstacle for students from marginalized communities, who do not have the privilege of access to insider networks. As Powis put it, “The problem with the #HiddenCurriculum is that it readily reveals itself to those in positions of privilege through their access to professional networks, mentorships, and family, legacy, or alumni connections. That is to say, keeping the #HiddenCurriculum hidden disproportionately benefits wealthy White people.” He offers his own experiences as lessons for prospective anthropology graduate students.
I was initially excited and a little bit puzzled. I had often heard the term hidden curriculum invoked in medicine. There, too, it meant the things that one is expected to know, but with an altogether different connotation. Anthropologists used #HiddenCurriculum to give helpful advice about the often counterintuitive rituals of academia, but in medicine it connotes the harmful implicit training received in medical school and residency. It stands for the sexism, racism, and other forms of disregard that are consistently conveyed by medical training, even as they are simultaneously contradicted by the explicit values to which we commit ourselves. It is perhaps nowhere represented as poignantly as in Samuel Shem’s The House of God, which, as James Belarde astutely observed in his post this week, attempts to make sense of the pain and cynical humor of medical stories. Literature about the hidden curriculum in medical education has proliferated, generating important conversations about health professional wellbeing, and becoming incorporated reflexively into formal curricula to allow students to practice an awareness of their own implicit learning.
The hidden curriculum is, of course, a broad concept with a long history. I don’t mean to suggest that either of these meanings is the right one. It can refer both to the hidden but necessary informal knowledge one needs to thrive as well as the values and stories that are received without a moment to consider their ambivalent consequences. In a sense, the use of the term in anthropology and in medicine encodes a revealing assumption in each discipline about the meaning of learning. It is a contrast between learning craved and learning feared.
There is no single lesson to take from this juxtaposition of conversations about hidden curricula in different fields. Of course, the simple – and correct – conclusion is that there are positive and negative forms of implicit learning that occur in all kinds of educational settings. Moreover, the notion of a straightforwardly positive or negative form of learning is suspect to begin with. I don’t mean to turn any discussion of the hidden curriculum into a caricature or a straw man argument.
But I do think that there is something that we can learn from this, which is to be mindful of the hopeful dimension of our relationships with education. There is a connection between education and vulnerability, because education has the power to change who we are. This is what is at stake when we talk about a hidden curriculum – not only what we hope to learn and to do but also who we hope to become.