Book: The Hidden Curriculum (1970)

A senior in an outstanding suburban high school recently turned down membership in the National Honor Society. He explained his decision in a letter published in the school paper.

"I have a few reasons for this action ... I see [the Honor Society], in general, as merely an indication that an individual has succeeded in a system that I feel wastes human potential, blunts and distorts natural curiosities, and de-emphasizes creativity, individualism, and responsibility, in order to render him more malleable. Furthermore, Honor Society, along with current grading procedures, can be seen as a goal that redirects students into an 'answer-oriented' versus a 'problem-oriented' outlook on education where answers become more important than the process of learning ..."

--Chapter 1, "The Two Curricula"

The Hidden Curriculum (1970) is a book by Benson R. Snyder, the then-Dean of Institute Relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Snyder advocates the thesis that much of campus conflict and students' personal anxiety is caused by a mass of unstated academic and social norms, which thwart the students' ability to develop independently or think creatively. These obligations, unwritten yet inflexible, form what Snyder calls the hidden curriculum. He illustrates his thesis with psychological studies and other research conducted at both MIT and Wellesley College.


In general, Wikipedia's summary of this book is pretty good. This book explores the way MIT students (in the 1960's) think about their self-worth, their futures, their workload, their grades, and their education. It explores the way professors think about their time, their students, their research, the classes they teach. It explores the way student mindsets change as they progress along at MIT, and contrasts them with the mindsets of Wellesley students.

At Snyder's MIT, students develop coping patterns to their workloads - they know they can't do everything, so they optimize, they min-max. They "neglect, selectively, certain aspects of the formal curriculum" in order to do the least harm to their grades, in order to scrape by. They gear their essays towards pleasing their professors rather than expressing their thoughts. But Snyder doesn't describe this as the result of professors being lazy in class design, or students being soulless. He looks at this as people getting "caught up in the system":

The fact is that, while most professors do want their students to explore ideas, generate new questions, and engage in intellectual risk-taking, they find themselves caught up in a trap that militates against these goals. Large classes, rigid testing methods, overextended scholars who derive their principal rewards from research, all reinforce the system...

Even when the student decides to court the risk, to possibly sacrifice the grade in order to pursue some intellectual problems that interest him, he is often beset by conflict. Many intellectual students find that their own self-esteem has become caught between the formal and the hidden curricula ... For some, the reward and the accompanying feeling of self-approval have replaced the excitement of learning.

On the other side of the equation, professors are split in the way they view their teaching responsibilities. Some professors, particularly in engineering, see their goal as to make sure that everyone who survives their class is "competent" - i.e. their bridges will not fall down. Some, in especially in science, explicitly don't care about any but the best and brightest, because they're interested in training their replacements. But a clear theme emerges from the way they talk about student behavior in their classes:

What I said to myself was, "Here I've been at Harvard, where in a junior- or senior- level course of thirty students, maybe four or five of them would get really interested. The rest would do the work, but the four or five who were really interested, were REALLY interested, and they'd go off for two days and do nothing but work on some remark that I had made in class or so, or anything that I suggested would be interesting to look at." So I got this feeling that at least some students were sort of able to marshal their forces and be interested in something that interested them. Here, after about two months, I was saying, "What's wrong? There's something wrong", and then I realized what was wrong, and that is that no one was getting really interested in what I was doing in class. They were responding and taking the quizzes but where were the students who would come up with their eyes shining and full of excitement and be interested? They weren't there. Why not? Too much to do. ... that's no way to become a good scientist.

This place is so pledged to quality that they [the faculty] take the stand that all students will seek out the most challenging course ... As I look at some of these M.I.T. students, they get so keyed up during the academic year that it takes them weeks to decompress.

Now, I don't drive my students hard, I don't drive myself hard. There are people who do ... when one fellow has a course which he lists in the catalog as a twelve-hour course and actually it takes twenty, and the students work twenty hours on his course and then neglect mine ... this bothers me ... and I don't know what to do about it. [Q: Do some people react by making their own courses tougher in retaliation?] I think this is what everybody does, and this comes right on top of the students.

This book touches on many other themes - in loco parentis and the way it affects the student psyche (at the time, w.r.t. coed policies, but today you might as well talk about drugs and alcohol) - the growing unrest at American universities in the '60's - burnout - career decisions - sources of faculty stress - Wellesley students - but I won't get into them. The book is excellent, full of anecdotes, quotes, and insight, and I highly recommend it.

Around the time this book was published, MIT changed a lot of things. We put freshman year on Pass/Fail. We introduced IAP and the UROP. All three of these things are cherished by the student body today. Do you think we've done enough?

Happy new year!


P.S. I was lent a copy of this book by Jeremy Sher, who, in the late '90's, was chair of The Committee Formerly Known As SCEP (the Student Committee on Educational Policy), which is now known as the UA Committee on Education. At some point when I'm back on campus, I'll try to dig up a report he wrote called "Academic Choices: Improving the Process of Choosing Majors at MIT" from the Institute Archives. I'm sure it'll show a lot of influence from this book. Thanks, Jeremy!

[UPDATE: Jeremy has uploaded a copy of "Academic Choices" at, along with the following message: Glad you liked the book.  To reduce your pace and pressure in 2016, I'm attaching a scanned version of "Academic Choices" so you don't have to search for it.  I maintain to this day that it was the origin (in 1998) of the idea of residence-based advising, and I believe the Colombo student-life office took a percolated version of what had been my idea and screwed it up.  Anyway, for your enjoyment.  Happy new year!]