Recently I read an article by Scott Samuelson called “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”. Either right now or as soon as you finish reading this post, you should go read the whole thing. It’s not terribly long. Basically it’s about the importance of schools teaching a wide variety of subjects, not for the sake of “future employment and technological progress,” but because we live in a society of free people who should all have access to a well-rounded liberal arts education.
Traditionally, the liberal arts have been the privilege of an upper class. There are three big reasons for this. First, it befits the leisure time of an upper class to explore the higher goods of human life: to play Beethoven, to study botany, to read Aristotle, to go on an imagination-expanding tour of Italy. Second, because their birthright is to occupy leadership positions in politics and the marketplace, members of the aristocratic class require the skills to think for themselves. Whereas those in the lower classes are assessed exclusively on how well they meet various prescribed outcomes, those in the upper class must know how to evaluate outcomes and consider them against a horizon of values. Finally (and this reason generally goes unspoken), the goods of the liberal arts get coded as markers of privilege and prestige, so that the upper class can demarcate themselves clearly from those who must work in order to make their leisure and wealth possible.
That quote helps set the stage, but this is the part that really resonated with me:
For the most part, the wealthy in this country continue to pay increasingly exorbitant tuition to private prep schools, good liberal arts colleges, and elite universities, where their children get strong opportunities to develop their minds, dress themselves in cultural capital, and learn the skills necessary to become influential members of society. Meanwhile, the elite speak of an education’s value for the less privileged in terms of preparation for the global economy. Worse yet, they often support learning systems designed to produce “good employees”—i.e., compliant laborers. Then, money for public education is slashed, and tuition soars. Those in the middle class, let alone the poor, have to fight an ever-steepening uphill battle to spend their time and money on the arts appropriate to free people.
This immediately brought to mind “Social Class and School Knowledge” by Jean Anyon. This was an article I read when I was in grad school back in 2005, and it has stuck with me ever since.
A second reproductive aspect of school knowledge in these working-class schools was the emphasis in curriculum and in classrooms on mechanical behaviors, as opposed to sustained conception. This is important to a reproduction of the division of labor at work and in society between those who plan and manage (e.g., technical professionals, executives) and the increasing percentage of the work force whose jobs entail primarily carrying out the policies, plans, and regulations of others. These working-class children were not offered what for them would be cultural capital – knowledge and skill at manipulating ideas and symbols in their own interest, e.g., historical knowledge and analysis that legitimates their dissent and furthers their own class in society and in social transformation.
All the way back in 1980 and 1981, Anyon was writing about the exact same issue that Samuelson raises today. She referred to this as the “hidden curriculum” of schoolwork. On one hand, her article is a fascinating read, and I highly recommend you take an hour or so to go through it, but on the other hand, it’s sad that this is an issue that has not only persisted for over 30 years, but one that shows little sign of changing anytime soon.
In an era of high stakes testing, teaching to the test, and college and career readiness standards, it appears the “hidden curriculum” is not only alive, but also doing quite well.