Although not the first sociologist to use the concept, the phrase “hidden curriculum” was originally coined by Philip Jackson to draw attention to the idea that schools do more than simply aid the transmission of knowledge between one generation and he next. Jackson argues that we need to understand “education” as a socialisation process.
That is, a process that involves the transmission of norms and values as well as a body of socially approved knowledge (that also involves socially-derived conceptions of what constitutes valid knowledge, acceptable levels of understanding and so forth).
We have to understand not just the social construction of knowledge (the way cultures define and produce what they consider to be valid forms of knowledge), but also the way the teaching and learning process is socially-constructed. In this respect, Jackson summarises this idea when he argues:
“The hidden curriculum refers to ways in which pupils learn to accept the denial and interruption of their personal desires and wishes.”
This is not, of course, the only – or even the main definition of the hidden curriculum, but it does encapsulate Jackson’s argument that pupils, if they are to succeed within the education system, have to “learn how to learn”. That is, they have to learn to conform not just to the formal rules of the school but also to the informal rules, beliefs and attitudes perpetuated through the socialization process.
The basic idea behind the concept of the hidden curriculum, therefore, is that pupils learn things that are not actually taught in the formal curriculum and, in this respect, the concept of a hidden curriculum refers to the way the learning process is organised.
Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis provide another look at the “hidden curriculum” by analysing the Meyer study. They suggest that the school system promotes conformist students who submit to authority by attaching achievement and value on those students who display a submissive consciousness. “Submission to authority” is a phrase identified by Bowles and Gintis to label students which encompasses various personality traits such as “consistent, identifies with school, punctual, dependable, externally motivated and persistent.”
Consciousness is defined as the “beliefs, values, self-concepts, types of solidarity and fragmentation, as well as modes of personal behaviour and development” that are instilled within a person through social interaction with family and outside institutions such as the school.
Teachers and administrators may justify their value placed on submission by asserting that it is their very submission which regulates who succeeds in the work place. Individuals who display the characteristics synonymous with the “submission to authority” label appeal to employers who wish to retain the prestige of that particular company because it is these individuals who are usually a part of the middle or the upper class. Schools can argue that they want to give their students the best advantage in the work place by ensuring they comply with the social demands of corporate American.
Bowles and Gintis identify the study as revealing that submission to authority is positively correlated to the attainment of higher status jobs, but unfortunately, the low-status students are the ones who most often reject or lack this personality and are thusly condemned to remain in the low-status jobs of their parents.