The Not-So-Hidden Curriculum


According the Louis Althusser (1970), capitalism is supported by two levels of state apparatus.  The first kind, he argues, functions by violence and hence refers to these institutions as ‘repressive state apparatus‘, for example, the army, the police, the courts and the penal system.  They are also public in nature and as such are unified in their support of bourgeois aims. The second kind do not need to have public status to function.  They are essentially private institutions, and include the family, education, religion, cultural ventures and the mass media.  Their purpose is to ‘function by ideology’.

Ideological State Apparatus

Althusser does acknowledge that the public and private spheres are not so distinct and separate.  There is a great deal of overlap between them, for example, the police are also ideological.  Examples of this in the UK, are lighter sentences for women, a higher number of stop and search actions are undertaken among the black male population, and the majority of crimes for which people are sentenced are crimes against property.  Similarly, ideological state apparatuses can be viewed as repressive.  For example, the institution of the family can be repressive, something which Frederich Engels (1884) commented on in ‘Origins of the Family’.  Anyone (male or female) who has experienced domestic violence, the pressure of a forced marriage, or child abuse, will testify to the repressive nature of the family, despite the claims of Anthony Giddens, in his Reith Lectures of 1999, that the family has globally become more democratised.

My purpose is to consider the role of education as a locus for capitalist ideology and its function as an ideological state apparatus.  But before I continue, I’d like to explain additional concepts.

Cultural Hegemony

The term hegemony was initially used to mean the indirect dominance of an imperial state over subordinate states.  Antonio Gramsci in his ‘Prison Notebooks’ extended the meaning of the term to refer to the prevailing norms and values of a society.  These, he argued, are not necessarily organic, as has been suggested by conservative functionalists, like Talcott Parsons, but are artificial social constructs which support the power of the dominant class (the bourgeoisie) over the subordinate class (the proletariat).  As members of the subordinate class, due to their powerlessness, engage in only their private concerns rather than public issues, they fail to intellectually challenge the dominant world-view.  Their subordination and exploitation is explained (and justified) in accordance with prevailing wisdom.  Cultural hegemony thus serves as a means to prevent the development of class consciousness and so inhibits revolution.

Althusser referred to Trade Unions (TUs) as one of the private institutions which operate ideologically.  It is hard to imagine why this might be when TUs represent the interests of the working class.  Haven’t they achieved better pay, working conditions and generally improved the lot of the proletariat?  However, as one writer put it, the working class has:

‘gained a larger slice of the pie, when the real issue is ownership of the bakery.’

Giving a larger slice of the pie is one means to maintain confidence in a system that thrives on the exploitation and subordination of the majority group in society, the workers and producers.  Even the conservative Disraeli recognised that  social justice is a means to maintain social order (One Nation, rather than two).

Legitimation Crises

A legitimation crisis is a term attributable to Juergan Habermas (1973).  It refers to a loss of confidence, for example, in a political party, system or even management of an organisation.  Legitimation crises occur within capitalist systems.  There are times when capitalism fails.  Economic recessions and depressions often lead to the kinds of civil protests that have been witnessed in Spain and Greece.  These are the times that Marx’s prediction of social revolution would occur – when the legitimacy of capitalism is questioned and the proletariat is not only a ‘class in itself’, but acquires class consciousness and becomes a ‘class for itself’.  These are legitimation crises.

As a result of a lunchtime discussion with my colleagues, it is apparent that we are now in a legitimation crisis.

The Hidden Curriculum

Louis Althusser argued that the function of education is to reproduce the workforce of the next generation.  Schools transmit the ideology that capitalism is a fair and just system and they also train obedient workers to submit to those in authority, namely capitalists and their representatives.  Bowles and Gintis (1976) extended Althusser’s ideas.  They suggested that in addition to the explicitly stated curriculum, there is a hidden curriculum, i.e. an institutional structure which mirrors that of the workplace.  There is a ‘correspondence principle’ between the social relationships in the classroom and those in the workplace.  There is little personal autonomy, obedience is rewarded, criticality and challenge is punished, and inequality is justified through rewarding the ‘deserving’.  However, inequalities in education persistently reflect social class inequalities, not inequalities which arise from a ‘fair’ meritocratic system.  Schools do not promote cooperation, but competition.

Why a hidden curriculum?

The dominant values and norms of a capitalist society are so intrinsic to individual and social consciousness that it appears as ‘common sense’.  Something only appears to be an ideology if it opposes one’s own world view.  But there is rarely a questioning of the dominant view.  If it is questioned, it is not overtly challenged.

The Not-So-Hidden Curriculum

In this blog, I’ve avoided talking about my role as a 6th form teacher within the education system of England and Wales.  The main reason being that I’m leaving the profession in July, and I’ve had no real desire to talk about something that I’ve found to be stressful.  I’ve found it hard to rationalise the source of increasing stress within the profession, but I believe that a fundamental values clash is one source that is chipping away at my sense of integrity.

In the UK, the academic year 2015-16 brings many educational changes.  The A-level Psychology program is one specification that is subject to this change.  My initial reading of the changes seemed positive, as they were closer to the ‘gold standard’ A-level that I was initiated into.  I continue to regard it as the gold standard as it was a thought-provoking course that enabled the development of critical thought and synoptic depth.

Despite not teaching the syllabus in the forthcoming year, I am involved in the department’s preparations for the change and have investigated the demands of the change.  One colleague shared the contents of the new curriculum while we discussed their implications for teaching.  Our discussion came to an abrupt halt when the normally hidden agenda of the approved curriculum is not so hidden:

“In order to gain Ofqual accreditation, we have added the following bullet to the ‘3.2.31 Scientific Processes’ content.

Implications of psychological research for the economy

… Students need to be able to explain the economic implications of the research.  Below are a few examples but there are many others.”

I will share just a couple of examples to illustrate the not-so-hidden curriculum and capitalist agenda:

“If  research shows that people with a disorder such as depression are less likely to suffer a relapse after having cognitive therapy then, even though cognitive therapy might initially be more expensive than drug therapy, in the long-term it might be more economically sound to offer cognitive therapy as people would have less time off work.

“Again, this would relate to people’s ability to work effectively.  Research showing how to cope with workplace stress could be useful to companies whose productivity would increase if members of the workforce are better equipped to deal with stress.

“How research has influenced educational policy and specific educational programmes is relevant to preparing the next generation for work and thus relevant to national productivity and the country’s economy.”

(AQA accessed 15-05-2015, emphases are my own)

I am so pleased that I’m not going to be party to the new curriculum agenda.


2 thoughts on “The Not-So-Hidden Curriculum

  1. This was an excellent read on a subject I have a lot of interest in. I have read John Taylor Gatto’s books on the hidden curriculum of schooling and Ivan Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society’ among others which discuss the fact that our education system institutionalises children into the capitalist workforce. It is also evident that once institutionalised, we then unconsciously perpetuate the problems by supporting the very structure that we grew up in, even though it oppresses us.

    You wrote: “As members of the subordinate class, due to their powerlessness, engage in only their private concerns rather than public issues, they fail to intellectually challenge the dominant world-view.” – This is so true… for me for many years, and now as I am what I would call more awake to the problem, I see it all around me. And the blindness to it is staggering! What to do about it? There’s the question.

    The latest free school meals scheme for infant children is just such an example – where of course the working/lower class families will welcome a saving of £400+ a year, and so we freely give away more of the responsibility for our children to the state. Creating more opportunity for government endorsed businesses to make more money. Not to mention driving another wedge between parents and children (we gain a larger slice of the pie, while forgoing our rights to a share of the bakery!).

    Putting our newborn babies in nursery/childcare and pressuring parents back to work is another example. We are all too busily focused on our immediate concerns, we are oblivious to the greater implications. It is not until our lives are in crisis that we are compelled to take action, if we can at all. And maybe there is not enough awareness of alternative choices to the current system that are valid, fulfilling, and sustainable ways of living. (I have been writing a book about this very subject [focusing on education] for the last couple of years, so it is something I am passionate about).
    Okay, I think I have gone on enough… thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I hope you enjoy whatever new direction life takes you. 🙂


    1. Thank you so much, Kim, for such a detailed and engaging response. I had no idea that this post would be so close to the heart. I’ve read ‘Deschooling Society’ many years ago, and it had a significant effect on me then. I must look out for John Taylor Gatto’s work.

      Interestingly, your comment, ‘Putting our newborn babies in nursery/childcare and pressuring parents back to work is another example’ was an explicit example given in the new syllabus for ‘implications of attachment research for the economy’. I’ve always taught about the political bias behind John Bowlby’s work, I’m not sure that my particular political slant is what is desired!

      I think you’ve posed an important question for the future: ‘What to do about it?’ I’ve tried many times to get my students to think outside of the box and imagine their ideal society. I’ve always found it disheartening when they say they wouldn’t change anything at all, as things are ok as they are. Fortunately this year’s politics students were a great deal more creative in their response, perhaps there is hope yet!

      Thank you for your good wishes. It’s going to be an interesting journey.

      Liked by 1 person

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