Hidden Curriculum Essay

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Hidden curriculum is a subset of theories of socialization that investigate how society reproduces culture from generation to generation. Primary socialization encompasses the teaching of children by parents who use direct instruction and modeling to inculcate language, moral beliefs and values, social roles, and so on. At the end of the 19th century, Emile Durkheim noted that schools had become central institutions helping the child to transition from family to society, from primary to secondary socialization, where socialization is increasingly accomplished by contact with adults and peers. Durkheim also advanced the notion that more is learned in schools than is specified in the official curriculum of books, manuals, and mission statements. Researchers from both the conservative structural-functional and radical critical traditions agree that schools accomplish social reproduction, both in formal curricula, where history, literature, and other forms of cultural capital necessary to fully participate in society are taught, and in informal or hidden curricula, which inculcate equally important elements of social reproduction, particularly discipline and stratification along the lines of intelligence, race, gender, and social class.

The Structural-Functional Approach

In a germinal 1959 article, Talcott Parsons described school classes as agencies of “manpower allocation” where academic achievement and ascribed qualities like family class background contribute to the reproduction of social stratification. In U.S. schools, he argued, children had to be inculcated with particular views of “achievement” and “equality of opportunity.” Parsonian structural-functionalism contended that schools must teach that inequality is the legitimate consequence of differences in educational attainment. Following Parsons, qualitative researchers observed public grade school classrooms in efforts to identify the actual practices that accomplished socialization and sorting. Philip Jackson described values, dispositions, and social behaviors that were rewarded by teachers, and coined the term hidden curriculum to describe disciplines that were essential for school progress, for example, waiting quietly, exercising restraint, trying, completing work, keeping busy, cooperating, showing allegiance, being neat, being punctual, and being courteous. Other hidden elements of curriculum are embedded in mechanisms and apparatuses, including the built environment of the school and classroom; textbooks; uniforms; gender roles enacted by students, teachers, and administrators; tracking systems; the hierarchy of knowledge and school subjects; and the competitive/cooperative lessons of sports, contests, and academic performance.

The Neo-Marxist Approach

Beginning in the 1970s, neo-Marxist educational researchers reexamined hidden curricula. Social reproduction, they contended, includes the reproduction of illegitimate inequalities including social class, race, and gender. Two economists, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, wrote an influential study showing how school norms “corresponded” with capitalist class structures of workers, managers, and owners. Students from different social classes are subject to different curricula, scholarly expectations, types of schoolwork, and treatment by teachers. Schools send silent but powerful messages to students with regard to intellectual ability, personal traits, and occupational choice. Here also, qualitative researchers examined how students in upper-class communities were inculcated with the drive to achieve, whereas those in working-class schools rehearsed disciplines appropriate for low-skill, low-autonomy work.

Resistance Theory

By the 1980s both functionalist and Marxist structuralist accounts were challenged by a group of critical theorists who criticized the concept of hidden curricula for assuming that students were passive recipients and failing to acknowledge their ability to contest socialization or to make meaning of it for themselves. Moreover, school curricula were the location of struggles and conflicts between students, teachers, administrators, and the citizenry. Hidden curriculum was thus an incomplete theory because it ignored human agency and conflict. The notion of “resistance” was proposed to challenge the oppressive nature of schooling.

Resistance theorists developed a theoretical framework in which students and teachers were conceptualized as active agents able to subvert, reject, or change socialization agendas. The hidden curriculum did not constitute a coherent structure but rather a variety of conflicting and contradictory messages. Thus the plural hidden curricula was a better descriptor. Resistance theorists attended not only to how students produced meaning and culture but also to how students and teachers challenged even deeply hidden structures, creating their own hidden curricula. Resistance theory thus countered reproduction theory by emphasizing human agency, resistance, and contestation.

Some theorists have also attended to “hiddenness” itself. Noting that the socialization agendas of discipline—following abstract rules, submerging personal identity, being consigned as a member of a group, and so on—have been repeatedly exposed by educational researchers, these theorists ask, “Who are the curricula hidden from?” Interrogating the various types of hiddenness—intentional, undiscovered, hiding in plain sight, known to some but not others—they inquire about the consequences of revealing these pervasive structures of schooling.

There are still fertile fields for social research into the intended and unintended consequences of schooling. Particularly now, when the issues of privatization, vouchers, and charter schools promise to offer choices, it seems important to consider the hidden curricula of schooling in relation to socialization.


  1. Anyon, Jean. 1980. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” Journal of Education 162:67-92.
  2. Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 1976. Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Durkheim, Emile. [1925] 1961. Moral Education. New York: Free Press.
  4. Freire, Paulo. 1973. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.
  5. Giroux, Henry. 1983. “Theories of Reproduction and Resistance in the New Sociology of Education: A Critical Analysis.” Harvard Educational Review 53:257-93.
  6. Jackson, Philip W. 1968. Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  7. Martin, Jane R. 1976. “What Should We Do with a Hidden Curriculum When We Find One?” Curriculum Inquiry 6(2):135-51.
  8. Parsons, Talcott. 1959. “The School Class as a Social System: Some of Its Functions in American Society.” Harvard Educational Review 29:297-313.
  9. Portelli, John P. 1993. “Dare We Expose the Hidden Curriculum?” Pp. 171-97 in Reason and Values: New Essays in Philosophy of Education, edited by J. Portelli and S. Bailin. Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Detselig.
  10. Willis, Paul. [1977] 1981. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.

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