The Covert Curriculum of College
As each semester starts, continues, and ends, I’m reminded of what students learn both in and outside the classroom. At least two sociological concepts, hidden curriculum and latent function, could be used to explain what students are learning by taking college classes and moving towards earning a degree or certificate.
People come to college to take classes, creating their status as student. A particular set of expectations come with being a student; foremost among them is that of matriculation. Matriculation means to enter a college program, but it also means that students will have the intent of completing a program.
There is a lot of pressure in our economic climate to ensure students progress through their programs and move towards completion in a timely manner. At most universities there are time limits on such progress, yet at community colleges there has been, historically, more of an open policy without time limitations.
How do students choose their courses? Most know that one has to refer to the requirements of the program in which they are participating and that they need so many credits or classes from different sets of categories. For example, to satisfy the state of California’s Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum (IGETC) requirements to transfer into a University of California campus include two English courses, one Mathematics course, three in Arts and Humanities, three in Social and Behavioral Sciences, two in Physical and Biological Sciences, and show proficiency in some languet other than English.
To succeed in a class, one has to meet the requirements of that class by completing the assignments and exams and earn enough points or grades to pass the class.
There are parallels between an entire college program and an individual class taken in a semester. Each has a set of requirements that one has to complete successfully.
We professors often focus most intently upon the content of the courses we teach. We set up the requirements of the class to provide opportunities to show progress and mastery in the material students are to learn.
From the student side, what do you see when you are taking college classes? Do you choose classes because they interest you? Or because you have to take them? For most, it is a mix of these two very different choices. Does it sometimes feel like jumping through hoops when you have to take a class you’re not necessarily interested in?
In any case, besides the information students learn within each separate class, what are students really learning by taking classes and moving towards graduation?
For one, students learn to identify what needs to be done (what class needs to be taken and what assignments need to be completed) and then actually doing it – and doing it successfully. This can be seen as knowing how to set goals, navigate a set of obstacles to reach those goals, and, eventually, achieving success in reaching those goals.
How might the two concepts mentioned above help explain what’s going on and is one of these concepts better than the other to explain this phenomenon?
The hidden curriculum is a by-product or otherwise unintended knowledge that is generated within an organization and that often reinforces systematic inequality.
In our example, students gain knowledge about how to navigate bureaucratic settings by following the guidelines of transfer, graduation, and/or course requirements. By taking the right classes and doing the assignments as specified and on time, students would succeed and move forward in their academic progress.
Some students may opt to challenge that system, perhaps by challenging prerequisites or applying for waivers of some course or requirement. But that too is part of the hidden curriculum of learning how to navigate a bureaucratic situation.
A related term, developed by sociologist Robert Merton is latent function. A latent function is an unintended consequence, usually of some social activity or organization. (This term exists in contrast with manifest functions which are intended.)
Is it really an unintended consequence that students who graduate from college or who finish courses are actually learning how to identify goals and follow through with them? It is not typically a conscious choice to set up a course, program, or the educational master plan specifically to help students learn such a generic skill. We typically start a course or program for specific purposes – to help students learn sociology, to prepare people for work in specific areas (teaching, business, social work, etc.) and to teach students to think and to contribute to society as a productive and active citizen (hence the general education requirements of breadth).
If we set up a course or program to help students simply learn to set goals and reach them, the content (and structure) might be very different. Additionally, there will be new latent functions emerging from those activities!
Would you agree that both concepts, hidden curriculum and latent functions, can be applied here? Which one do you think works better? Which one would you want to develop further?
How many students (or former students) do you know didn’t take the right type of classes to keep moving through a program or who didn’t pass their classes at all? How would you explain that situation? Is it simply that they didn’t participate in or benefit from the hidden curriculum of navigating bureaucracy or the latent function of setting and reaching goals? Or were they just not successful in setting and reaching goals?
Other than setting and reaching goals and navigating bureaucracies, what might another outcome be of taking college classes?