A hidden curriculum

Published on: Jan 18, 2018

I examine two related concepts: hierarchised identity formation and the enclosure of desire as a hidden curriculum.

A hidden curriculum is, I suggest the collection of assumptions, often about power (Brookfield 2017, chapter 2) that is communicated alongside and through the practice of overt curricula. A hidden curriculum is conveyed through implicit biases by teachers and education institutions. It is delivered alongside more overt curricular elements such as subject-specific knowledge and skills, as well as “transferrable skills” and “graduate attributes”. There may be many, indeed there are many hidden curricula which work with and against social norms beyond the institution and largely outwith the control of the institution or its agents. I will suggest that hierarchised identity formation is one of the hidden curricula of higher eduction. I hypothesise that this might be felt more acutely in the UK because of England’s tradition of a landed, aristocratic and military gentry related by ancestry to the head of state. But, it is felt elsewhere than Britain: “Rich man goes to college, poor man goes to work” (Charlie Daniels Band, “Long haired country boy”). In Britain the green and white papers leading to the current Higher Education Act 2017 declared universities to be engines of social mobility. Social mobility for these purposes is conceived primarily as a private (not public) good and is ranked in a categorical hierarchy consisting of education attainment, occupation type and lifetime earnings expectation, ranked in quartiles and centiles. The concept of social mobility is applied competitively as a finitely resourced, zero-sum game with winners and losers and movers.

Continue reading “A hidden curriculum”

Tinkering with algorithms

I read Franklin Foer’s Facebook’s War on Free Will the Guardian’s “Long read” for Tuesday 19 September 2017.

He recapped a familiar argument: you are Facebook’s product. But when he hit “data science” I turned up my sensors. He says, “There’s a whole discipline, data science, to guide the writing and revision of algorithms”. Then he picks up on Cameron Marlow, “the former head of Facebook’s data science team”:

Facebook has a team, poached from academia, to conduct experiments on users. It’s a statistician’s sexiest dream – some of the largest data sets in human history, the ability to run trials on mathematically meaningful cohorts. … Marlow said, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behaviour at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before, but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

The point the experimentalists miss is that the experiment is directed towards outcomes already. The ethics are, at least, sensitive. Continue reading “Tinkering with algorithms”

Pay gaps, gender gaps and other crap

Money is power. More particularly, money is patriarchal power. Now here is the rub. If you use the powerful’s form of power to overthrow the current power, you simply replicate power as it is. You do not transform it. OK, it is a little more complicated, but that is about it. If you use hierarchised authoritarian structures to overthrow an authoritarian hierarchy, you end up with an authoritarian hierarchy. The Czar => Lenin => Stalin => Putin is the classic example given. If money and banking are used to overthrow money and banking… You get my point. “Progressives” believe incremental change can be speeded up and that systemic benefits can be progressively more evenly shared, thereby, progressively reducing noxious aspects of the present. I suggest male-female iniquities are due to more than pay differentials and while closing pay gaps is necessary, I suspect that male-female iniquity will persist unless other things also change. Or perhaps the pay gap needs to be levelled down with the differentials redistributed by some transparent, democratic mechanism to all those currently dispossessed by the current power..

What to do about Rhodes and other evils

I recently read Joanna Williams’ piece in the Conversation, “Safe space hand wringers are attacking academic freedom – we must fight back“. I have also been party to both academic and dinner-table conversations that addressed freedom of speech and cultural representation, currently exemplified by the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) debate. A number of themes merge into a wider discourse of freedom: freedom of speech, academic freedom, cultural representation, the infantilisation of students, protection from hate speech and similar. Continue reading “What to do about Rhodes and other evils”

Usurpation of the University?

Transcendence – transgression – is the modality of human being in the world… The urge to transcend is the most stubbornly present … attribute of human existence (Bauman 2002, 222-23).

Last August I discussed a symposium to be held at the Australian Philosophy of Education Society with David Aldridge. That never happened but this note is what I was thinking of at the time.

Is transcendence as transgression a usurpation? We expect it is and is and is to be celebrated.

Continue reading “Usurpation of the University?”

Usurpation: the condition of the university?

Usurpation might better be seen as the condition of the university than as a problem for any particular aspect of that complex phenomenon: higher education today.

Taking Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) theoretical framework of social and intellectual closure we might see usurpation as – in parts and in places – an ameliorating response to both micro and macro-political movements that lead to closure. I suggest that we might take this further into a space which can only be opened and kept open (rejecting closure) by the usurper who by choice lays him/her self open to being ursurped and indeed facilitates the process of ongoing transformation, which is the driving energy of the academy.

In making this argument I draw on Popper’s (1996) positivism, Kuhn’s (1962) understanding of development in disciplines and Bhabha’s (2004) third space theory.

The pattern of usurpation described by Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) applies to any attempt to enter a power structure –  a university is a power structure – by agents desiring that power, whether to address wrongs done to them by that power structure and its relatives, or simply to seize more of whatever is going. When the usurpation is successful the usurper assumes the mantle of the power structure and then defends it against subsequent usurpation.

So we see entryism into disciplines of minoritarian or post-colonial themes: Women’s Studies, for example. We see traditional promotion routes to professorship usurped by teaching pathways (an interesting one Subramian et al spotted, which casts me as usurper!). We see the student experience usurping scholarship.

But as Kuhn should remind us: this is the way it works! The English curriculum which is so exercised by usurpation by Media Studies, itself was an entryist program usurping the Classics. And as Popper should remind us, this is to be celebrated. The problem is not usurpation but closure, which might be seen as resistance to being usurped.


  • Bhabha, H. (2004). The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Popper, K. (1996). The Myth of the Framework: In defence of Science and Rationality. London: Routledge.
  • Subramaniam, M., Perrucci, R., & Whitlock, D. (2014). Intellectual Closure: A Theoretical Framework Linking Knowledge, Power, and the Corporate University. Critical Sociology (Sage Publications, Ltd.), 40(3), 411–430.

Getting away with it (a blimage challenge)

Bounced off Steve Wheeler’s post, “Blimy its a blimage” and thought I could be a nay-sayer or a player (more on which somewhere else maybe).  The image was of old school desks shot from above.

School desks
Photo by Steve Wheeler

The challenge — for the Blimage is a challenge — is to write an education-related piece about the image. Two thoughts hit me about this. I’ll go off for a bit on one and then close with the last.

First it strikes me that there is much synthesised nostalgia about school days, despite many people not recalling them with joy. I expect these desks are in an antiques yard waiting to be picked up by parents who will put them in their children’s bedrooms as sweet little learning spaces all their own. I sat at desks like that. In my early school days they even had holes for ink pots, though the ink pots themselves had long gone. The desk was was a safe space in which I could seek to be ignored between the much more challenging negotiations to avoid being hurt in the times when we weren’t sat at the desks. But when I see them in my friends’ kids’ bedrooms I do come all over fuzzy with kawaii. The fact that my children appear to be happy in school and there is not a school-desk in sight slips from my mind. I am not saying that the desks are causal, or even necessarily instrumental in themselves in the emotional abuse that old-school sometimes colluded in but they are symbols of order and authority as well as something more insidious: deception. The liftable lids enabled any amount of clutter and contraband to be swept away. As long as the surface could be tidy and the content hidden or deployed tactically and even surreptitiously all would be fine. The covered desk taught as much about what you could get away with as any other lesson. Carving your name in the desk was a rite of passage even if being caught doing it merited a punishment. Even if our subversiveness was unoriginal: smuggling comic books inside exercise books, even if we never read the comic books in class, I remember the frisson of hiding things in my desk and getting away with it more than most (any?) more substantive or intended lessons. I remember the feeling and that is the thing. The feelings that are a deep part of me were inculcated at desks like that and I am afraid I do not remember many feelings of joy from my school days. I am sure I learned other things but even to this day the struggle between authentic learning and just getting away with it occupies me more than I would like.

The second thing those desks reminded me of was this:

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0): Photo by Graham and Sheila https://www.flickr.com/photos/grahamandsheila/74719450/sizes/o/

The dark, hardwood stain, the association with a disordered and anachronistic, rectilinear formality in learning and in their own way authority reminded me of the often repeated iconic image of punts lined up on the streams that flow past the two oldest universities in the UK. I saw a thread through the desks to Oxbridge. But again it is not the substance of learning that was drawn to my mind but something other: something about context, deception and subversion, something about the importance of a superficial order even if all was disordered beneath the surface; something about mastering that surface at all cost and if something deeper drifted by so be it.