From educational Horizons, Fall 1993

What We Don't Assess
©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 8/17/11

In The Secret Pilgrim, one of John Le Carre's well-crafted novels about espionage, master spy George Smiley makes the following observation:

"...the privately educated Englishman -- and Englishwoman, if you will allow me -- is the greatest dissembler on earth. Was, is now and ever shall be for as long as our disgraceful school system remains intact. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skillfully or find it harder to confess to you that he's been a damned fool. Nobody acts braver when he's frightened stiff, or happier when he is miserable; nobody can flatter you better when he hates you than your extrovert Englishman or woman of the supposedly privileged classes. He can have a Force Twelve nervous breakdown while he stands next to you in the bus queue, and you may be his best friend, but you'll never be the wiser. Which is why some of our best [spies] turn out to be our worst. And our worst, our best. And why the most difficult agent you will ever have to run is yourself."

Smiley is highlighting the importance of the "hidden curriculum" -- those unacknowledged and unplanned lessons that are "caught rather than taught."

The hidden curriculum is seldom subject to formal assessment. Nevertheless, it "teaches" some of the most lasting (and important) lessons we ever learn in school. Although it has been many years since I was in fourth grade, for example, how well I remember the "lessons" inadvertently taught by Miss Reast, "the big fat beast." The Beast seemed to have no insight into the learning fostered by her own behavior. I imagine she thought she was developing a sense of propriety, even morality; but her classroom policies, procedures and standards, "taught" all in the class to avoid work, need compulsion, shirk responsibility, seek to be commanded, value security and lack ambition. She never SAID we should do that; but her behavior and the edge of her ruler taught us those lessons over and over. We also learned that protection from her domination could only be found in unity. Adopting a "don't care" facade, we carefully fostered a secret cabal against her. And after school we ruthlessly dealt with any quislings who dared collaborate. Yes, The Beast "taught" us a lot, but all that we learned from the hidden curriculum was never assessed.

Then there was Miss Pinta my seventh grade algebra teacher. She thought she was teaching only algebra; but the chief thing I caught from her was the perverse notion that work and play are utterly unrelated -- in fact, wholly at odds. It took me years to figure out she was dead wrong. By her cheerless bullying of those who didn't catch on right away, Miss Pinta also inadvertently "taught" me that algebra is odious, hateful, execrable, accursed, damnable and vile. (I know better now, but the damage is done.)

The most disconcerting example of the hidden curriculum I can think of can be found in the life of Adolf Hitler. In Realschule Hitler was taught religion by a Father Franz Schwarz. Short, fat, rather ugly, long-suffering to the point of irresolution, with an enormous blue snot-encrusted handkerchief protruding from the sleeve of his cassock, Father Schwarz evidently "taught" the young Hitler that Christianity was best left to old women and priests. How very different history might have been had Father Schwarz convinced him of the contrary. (In Father Schwarz's defense, however, he early concluded that young Adolf already was a lost soul, past hoping for.)

Of course, the hidden curriculum can be positive as well as negative. Consider my very favorite teacher, Dr. Frederick Fuhr. The good doctor's passion for antiquity was contagious and his seventh grade history class gave ancient times vitality and pertinence. But it was the hidden curriculum Dr. Fuhr "taught" for which I am most indebted. A childhood bout with polio had left Dr. Fuhr a paraplegic. Paralyzed from his waist down, both his withered legs were encased from hip to arch in cumbersome steel braces. I still remember how they clicked and squeaked oddly as, supported by crutches, he swung himself awkwardly down the hall.

Despite his obvious lack of mobility and resultant vulnerability, no one disrupted Dr. Fuhr's class. Ashamed to actively cooperate with anyone in authority, we students rationalized our good behavior on the grounds of physical intimidation. We assured one another that non-cooperation could be fatal because a lifetime of crutch use had caused Dr. Fuhr to develop phenomenal upper body strength. His shoulders were huge and it was rumored he could bend old-style steel soda bottle caps double using just thumb and forefinger; but Dr. Fuhr never touched a soul. The real reason we behaved was that most of us were awed, not by his physical strength, but by his moral courage. Reluctantly, we had concluded that such a brave man should not be troubled by our juvenile hijinks.

Yes, it was the importance of true grit that was the hidden curriculum of Dr. Frederick Fuhr's classes. I attended them more than forty years ago, but I still honor him for what he "taught" me though example. It was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned.

The assessments we commonly use do not reveal anything of the learning derived from the hidden curriculum; and that means many of the most important things youngsters "learn" in school completely escape assessment. If, for example, American schools match English public schools in turning out some of the best charlatans on earth, the assessments we ordinarily use would miss that entirely. Similarly, if, by some miracle, we could structure schools so that the hidden curriculum "taught" students to seek responsibility, master self control and acquire real self direction, that too would largely escape detection.

The fundamental issue here is that in seeking to assess the consequences of schooling we commonly measure only the "outcomes" of the overt curriculum -- and those inadequately. The present rage for student testing fails to take this into adequate account. Best not to put much confidence in a process that commonly does not even hint at the unhappy "learning" that takes place when traditional schooling separates leisure and labor, people and nature, mind and body, thought and action and the school from society. Best not be solely guided by assessments that give no hint of those sadly dehumanizing things children inadvertantly learn when they are forced to adapt to a "scholiocentric" system that tries to fit the child to the school instead of the school to the child.