Be Human in This Most Inhuman of Ages

All schools have an explicit curriculum, one that is intentionally taught and measured in some way. They also have a “hidden curriculum,” the curriculum through which students learn about things like the power structure of the school, who matters and who doesn’t, values, etc. Sometimes this hidden curriculum is addressed explicitly and consciously by schools and teachers, usually it is not. As schools move towards more standardization, more testing and more measuring, students are learning, via the hidden curriculum, that the power to make decisions lies with others; that is, choices about what is studied, how this is assessed, and even why it is important, are beyond their agency. Their ability to engage with content in a way that makes sense to them is beyond their agency. Their ability to choose content is beyond their agency. Students become trained in passively receiving bits of information rather than being creators of their worlds. Will Richardson recently addressed this concern here, and Yong Zhao here.

An additional, subtle, yet important, idea that is taught by the hidden curriculum is the message of what it means to be human. Although recently the idea of the hidden curriculum’s effect on relationships (which is the means through which we learn what it is to be human) has gone a bit out of fashion, this is because of the framing of educational topics by the corporate ed reform movement rather than any inherent truth. (And for a crucial analysis of this frame, see Paul Thomas’s “Giving Power a Pass”.) Relationships create the context for “instruction,” and context matters. As clumsy examples:  Students learn that it’s okay to bully when teachers use their power to manipulate students to do what they want. Students learn that who they are is clearly not important when teachers don’t know their names after a week in the classroom. Alternatively, students learn the value of being heard when teachers ask them how their day is going, and then stop to actually listen. After a recent surgery, my daughter learned the importance of consideration when her basketball coach stopped by the house to check on her. She knew that she was more than a “thing” to her coach.

Here is another example that I’m not proud of. A few years ago the schools where I work were under some pressure to pass AYP. We had some trouble with this NCLB measurement (you know you’re heading for trouble when the acronyms start popping up) because certain categories of students didn’t have a high enough percentage being tested. I was to make sure that our special education population was fully tested. Unfortunately, this put me into direct confrontation with the wishes of Crystal (a pseudonym), who had no desire to be subjected to 3 days of mandatory testing. Why? These tests were boring, and were a painful reminder of all of the things Crystal wasn’t good at. They were a source of shame for her, and she fought me. I was actually proud of her, but I wasn’t proud of myself. In order to get that AYP, I wheedled, begged and pressured Crystal into finishing the test. She did, and still resents me for it I’m sure (although we maintain a good relationships years after this incident), and Crystal promptly skipped the next week of school.

Who was going to benefit from Crystal taking the test? Not me. Certainly not Crystal. In fact, when you look at the shame she was put through combined with the loss of esteem from “giving in,” combined with the loss of the 3 days of learning, combined with the loss of the week of skipped classes, it’s easy to see that Crystal certainly didn’t benefit. The benefactor was this abstraction, the high schools trying to pass AYP.

So the hidden curriculum lesson for Crystal was that she had no value outside of the data that she could provide. The personal battles that she was fighting, the healing that she was attempting, her own sense of self-worth, none of this was important in the face of this data that needed to be collected. And I was a simple bureaucrat acting in support of a faceless institution.

The greatest danger of the corporate education movement may be in its tendency to encourage those in power to see abstractly, to see human beings as data, the way I saw Crystal. This may also be its most insidious effect. As Diane Ravitch writes,

“I was certainly influenced by the conservative ideology of other top-level officials in the Bush administration who were strong supporters of school choice and competition. But of equal importance, I believe, I began to think like a policymaker, especially a federal policy maker. That meant, in the words of a book by James C. Scott that I later read and admired, I began “seeing like a state,” looking at schools and teachers and students from an altitude of 20,000 feet and seeing them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans.” (Italics are mine.)  The Death of the Great American School System (2010)

One of the most important tasks for us mired in the struggle for a liberating view of education is make sure that maintain our humanity, and to act first of all from our humanity. One of my heroes is Thomas Merton, who wrote, “You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope…Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man (sic) for it is the image of God.”

Foregoing the religious reference, remember that, ultimately, we are in a struggle over what it means to be human.

Please add your story to the “comments” here. Show how abstract data affects concrete human lives.

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One response to “Be Human in This Most Inhuman of Ages

  1. At my first grade-level team meeting last year, I was horrified to hear one of my students being referred to by his failing end-of-year-test score from the previous spring. Not only should his information have been private, as he has an IEP, but these were teachers who would never have him in their classes, trying to figure out how to keep him from bringing the “team” test scores down. To him he was not a child who had actually surpassed his goals from the year before, but a failing number in their almost perfect system.

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