The Hidden Curriculum (book)

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The Hidden Curriculum (1973 edition)

The Hidden Curriculum (1970) is a book by Benson R. Snyder, the then-Dean of Institute Relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Snyder advocates the thesis that much of campus conflict and students' personal anxiety is caused by a mass of unstated academic and social norms, which thwart the students' ability to develop independently or think creatively. These obligations, unwritten yet inflexible, form what Snyder calls the hidden curriculum. He illustrates his thesis with psychological studies and other research conducted at both MIT and Wellesley College.


The Hidden Curriculum is a book in seven chapters. The title is a phrase coined by Philip Jackson in a 1968 essay entitled "Life in Classrooms". Jackson argues that we must understand education as a socialization process; Snyder elaborates upon this thesis with studies of particular institutions. In the first chapter, "The Two Curricula", Snyder advances the proposition that

The assignments given in the classroom and the rewards for superior work are not limited to the formal curriculum. While many tasks are cast in explicit terms — "Do problems 1 through 8 on page 67," "Read Chapter 3 and be prepared to discuss the period 1792-94 in French politics" — there is another set of less obvious tasks which bears a most interesting and important relationship to the formal curriculum. The question for the student is not only what he will learn but how he will learn, and when he will learn. These covert, inferred tasks, and the means to their mastery, are linked together in a hidden curriculum. They are rooted in the professors' assumptions and values, the students' expectations, and the social context in which both teacher and taught find themselves.

Snyder then continues to address the question of why students — even or especially the most gifted — turn away from education. Even honest efforts to enrich curricula frequently fail, says Snyder, thanks to the importance of the tacit and unwritten understanding. He observes that while some students do not realize there is a disjunction between the two curricula, almost all students must resort to ploys and stratagems to cope with the requirements they face. For example, within the first month of classes, many (or perhaps most) students discover they cannot conceivably complete all the work assigned them; consequently, they must selectively neglect portions of the formal schoolwork. Attempts to beat the "competitive game", such as compiling "bibles" of solutions to be passed from one generation to the next, often only worsen the situation. Professors become locked into the competition, and only a determined effort can change the behavior pattern on either side.

No part of the university community, writes Snyder, neither the professors, the administration nor the students, desires the end result created by this process.

In the second chapter, Snyder investigates the question of "selective negligence" more deeply, using a psychological study which began in 1961. He reports the (pseudonymous) comments made by five students, discussing their career at MIT. For Moore, MIT is a "huge beast", where competitive social roles lead professors into "wreaking [their] vengeance" on his classmates' grades. He notes that, when his friends make even trivial mistakes in class, they respond by shutting off their senses of wonder and curiosity. He used the terminology of game theory to describe his attitude, and that of his classmates, to the stressful life they led. Jones, also aware of the unwritten demands placed upon him, perceived less irony in the situation, and his high grades became "very nearly the most important basis" of his individual self-worth. His only (relatively minor) academic troubles were with a freshman humanities subject and an unstructured, experimental engineering class he took as a junior, classes where it was more difficult to tell which answers the professors considered "correct".

By contrast, Smith was an example of academic failure. He had performed admirably well in high school, exerting almost no serious effort, but at MIT he began to fail quizzes. During an exam in his freshman year, his memory blanked after half an hour and he froze. He then placed his faith in osmosis, sleeping with books under his pillow. Eventually, after two years, Smith was academically disqualified and left MIT. In his interview, Smith revealed aspects of his personal and family history which prompted Snyder to write, "Only a relatively few students have problems as extreme as this, but many have passed through a period in which they respond in such a manner. However, Smith's case does not explain the bulk of withdrawals from college. Most are not caught up in such extreme distortion or such severe neurotic restriction in their adaptive choices."

Other students managed to adapt. One such student, Brown, hailed from the Midwest. In both the school's estimation and his own, he was one of his class's lower-ranking students; in fact, on the basis of his College Board test scores, he expected to be denied admission. By mastering selective negligence, Brown was able to raise his grades and make the dean's list. The last student, Robertson, began with the belief that by learning scientific skills at MIT, he would benefit humanity at large. "The necessity for becoming a 'ruthless' competitor posed a special threat to his image as a 'good person.'" He responded by moving across the Charles River to a fraternity, where he could direct his energy into helping his younger fellows to adapt.

The third chapter, written by Martin Trow of the University of California, Berkeley, discusses patterns of stress in the MIT lifestyle, and describes some reforms instituted to ameliorate these problems. Trow notes that MIT's nature is inherently conflicted or paradoxical, for it is at once a university for scientists — who must learn ingenuity and creativity — and a professional school for training engineers, who must focus on technical competence. These two roles, not entirely distinct, reflect themselves in conflicting demands which the students must resolve. Even though "it is really quite impossible" to train a good engineer in four years, Trow observes, the sheer mass of knowledge which the students are expected to learn tyrannizes over their lives, robs their leisure time and prevents them from exploring other interests, even those not far removed from professional training.

The professors, too, are distracted and pressured, whether by the need to maintain institutional prestige or by the sheer frenzy of activity interrupting their creative cycles.

Chapter 4 broadens the conclusions beyond MIT by comparing that school's situation to Wellesley, a liberal-arts college which at the time had just under two thousand female students. Unlike at MIT, the professors at Wellesley described education as "cultivation", "providing nutrients" for intellectual growth, monitoring the "bad seeds" — heavily agricultural imagery. In a deeper sense, Snyder observes that change was viewed as cyclical, rather than progressive, in a way reminiscent of agricultural societies. He found that both students and faculty interacted with politeness, containing anger or directing it inward. Students facing academic difficulties mocked the image of the student as a cultivated plant, he observed, but they reinforced it by blaming their own mentality before blaming the college.

Examining the 10 percent of the students who consulted the campus psychiatrist, Snyder found that their sense of depression frequently stemmed from harsh judgments inflicted upon themselves, which were reinforced by faculty and classmates.

A large group indicated that their self-worth was based on knowing some aspect of culture in depth, and then in communicating that depth to others. "Many students said explicitly that their function in life was to provide the continuity of tradition."

In both environments, students seeking the psychiatrist's services reported depression as the most frequent problem. At Wellesley Snyder found harsh self-deprecation within the troubled students, and at MIT the primary cause seemed often to be students' placing expectations far beyond their reach.

The final three chapters are the most overtly "political", and they are the least cited by later publications. These chapters explore the role of education in the broader world, where ever-accelerating rates of technological change combined with the 1960s' social upheaval make "education for complexity" a crucial requirement. Snyder addresses the breakdown of trust between students and faculty, from militant movements to the failure of students to grasp a seemingly simple demonstration of probability — a failure brought about because the class was too fixated on finding the "trick" to the problem. The epilogue concludes with a warning: increasing numbers of students view their education as an exercise in gamesmanship, a study in alienation. Because the hidden curriculum is so resistant to change and exerts such a strong influence on the effectiveness of education, it must be examined thoroughly if higher education is to have any relevance at all.


Some of Snyder's descriptions of college life sound dated in the early 21st century. For example, the issues of co-educational dorms and male guests in female rooms seem less relevant in most, but certainly not all, colleges. It is also perhaps telling that Snyder describes all of his pseudonymous test subjects as male.

On the other hand, some passages about MIT in particular read almost like a satire of the Institute in later years. Snyder's epilogue, for example, describes how since 1961 the tightly interwoven stresses of the freshman year had been loosened. "Now a freshman has pass/fail with specific comments from the faculty," but in 2002 the pass/fail grading was reduced to the first term of freshman year. A little later, he remarks that most of the students visiting the Psychiatric Service turned out to be "reasonably healthy individuals" who were seeking a neutral forum for working out their personal issues. As of 2004, MIT Mental Health is proverbial among students for sending depressed patients to McLean Hospital, and for occasionally refusing to let them return after McLean's staff believes they are healthy. This habit has drawn both commentary [1] and derision [2].

In November 2001, the "Mental Health Task Force" released a report describing the psychological condition of the student population [3]. The Task Force report relates a survey, conducted in the spring of 2001, whose results they found troubling:

Of the students who responded to the survey (half undergraduate and half graduate), 74% reported having had an emotional problem that interfered with their daily functioning while at MIT, while only 28% had used the MIT Mental Health Service. Even more worrisome, 35% of students reported a wait of 10 or more days for their initial appointment with the service, and 80% of the students were not aware of the daily afternoon walk-in hours. While nearly two-thirds of students rated their experience with the MIT Mental Health Service as satisfactory to excellent, only half would recommend the service to a friend, and overall, students saw the service as having a mediocre reputation.

Interestingly, Snyder reports that in the early 1960s only about 10% of the student body sought out the Mental Health services during their time at MIT.

In 1992, Todd Riggs published a survey on the interactions between doctoral students and their thesis supervisors [4]. After interviewing four MIT professors, he concluded,

The parallels between what Snyder wrote and what my subjects commented upon, despite over two decades of time intervention, is stunning, astonishing, even frightening.

Trow's contention that MIT is in some way inherently paradoxical foreshadows an observation James Burke would later make in the book and television series The Day the Universe Changed. In the series' first episode, "The Way We Are", Burke argues that when human beings find they enjoy or appreciate some aspect of life, they "institutionalize" it and protect it from further change. What was once a rational response to social need becomes a ritual, performed without regard to its origins. This leads to a puzzling contradiction when a society learns that it can benefit from technological change: scientific discovery becomes a kind of ritual. In this view, scientific research laboratories are the institutionalization of change; they are the facilities set up so that "tomorrow can be better than today". (Burke's show Connections illustrates the point with the DuPont motto: "Better things for better living through chemistry.")

Other education commentators such as John D. Wilson have summarized Snyder's observations, noting that no matter how hard a first year MIT student may be prepared to work, the expectations of staff usually exceed a student's capacity to fulfill them.[1]

See also[edit]


The following links were last verified 26 June 2006.
  1. ^ Student learning in higher education. John D. Wilson. Taylor & Francis, 1981. ISBN 0-7099-0238-7. pp.47-48, 175-186