The Hidden Graduate School Curriculum

By Steven M. Cahn

The term “hidden curriculum” refers to the unstated attitudes that are often communicated to students as a by-product of school life. While the phrase is usually employed in the context of elementary and secondary education, it also applies at the graduate level, where future professors are acculturated to careers in academia.

One implicit message is that prestige follows from accomplishment as a researcher, not as a teacher. For example, which candidate for a faculty position is usually viewed as more attractive, the promising researcher or the promising teacher? Which of the two is more likely to be judged a strong candidate for tenure? The answers and the lesson are obvious: excellence in research is judged far more important than excellence in teaching.

A second message is that faculty members are entitled to put their own interests ahead of those of their students. Consider how departments decide graduate course offerings. The procedure is for individual professors to announce the topics of their choice; then that conglomeration becomes the curriculum. The list may be unbalanced or of little use to those preparing for their careers, but such concerns are apt to be viewed as irrelevant. The focus is not on meeting students’ needs but on satisfying faculty desires.

Similarly, in a course ostensibly devoted to a survey of a major field of philosophy, the instructor may decide to distribute chapters of the instructor’s own forthcoming book and ask students to help edit the manuscript. Whether this procedure is the best way to promote understanding of the fundamentals of the announced field is not even an issue.

Another instance of professorial primacy is readers who take months to return a chapter of a dissertation, explaining the delay by pointing to publishing deadlines they themselves face. Apparently, the student’s deadlines for finishing the dissertation and obtaining a faculty position are not as important.

A third message is that when you listen to a speaker, you should pretend you understand what is being said, even when you don’t. How many times do faculty members and students sit through a presentation grasping little or nothing of it, yet unwilling to say so? Instead, they nod as if comprehending every word. In short, contra Socrates, the goal is always to appear knowledgeable.

But just the opposite ought to be the case. Professors should encourage students in class to indicate whenever they don’t understand what is said. And such admissions should be met not with a put-down but with a compliment for intellectual honesty. After all, those afraid to admit what they do not grasp are defenseless against others who indulge in obfuscation.

These days signs around the country tell us that if we see something, we should say something. Graduate students should be advised to follow an analogous rule: If you don’t understand something, say something.

Professors should be aware of the subliminal messages sent to graduate students, who learn from the hidden curriculum and eventually pass it on. Thus are unfortunate attitudes and practices transferred from one generation to another.

Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of the forthcoming book Teaching Philosophy: A Guide (Routledge).

4 thoughts on “The Hidden Graduate School Curriculum

  1. “The focus is not on meeting students’ needs but on satisfying faculty desires.”

    That’s a false dichotomy. Any program that values research-led teaching is going to promote and support the development of courses that align with the teacher’s research. This is often done precisely because research-led teaching is what will best meet the students’ needs. For what better way to learn how to do research than to work closely with the person doing the research, and be involved in their work? (If you think that graduate school is about teaching subject-specific content to the students, this seems to me to be sadly misguided.)

  2. Sara L. Uckelman presumes that the sole purpose of undertaking a doctoral program is to learn how to do research. I maintain, on the contrary, that graduate students planning on teaching careers also need to acquire the knowledge, skills, and values to be effective in the classroom. That success as a researcher guarantees success as a teacher is a misunderstanding found in the hidden curriculum.

  3. “Consider how departments decide graduate course offerings. The procedure is for individual professors to announce the topics of their choice; then that conglomeration becomes the curriculum. The list may be unbalanced or of little use to those preparing for their careers, but such concerns are apt to be viewed as irrelevant.”

    Is that really how it works in philosophy departments? I would have thought there’d be about a year’s worth of standard required courses for every PhD student and then a semester of standard field courses and only then another semester of “topics” courses. Is philosophy different from that?

  4. I know of no current doctoral program with the structure you describe but would welcome information about any such department.

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