Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work
by Jean Anyon (This essay first appeared in Journal of Education, Vol. 162, no. 1, Fall 1980.)
It’s no surprise that schools in wealthy communities are better than those in poor communities, or that they better prepare their students for desirable jobs. It may be shocking, however, to learn how vast the differences in schools are - not so much in resources as in teaching methods and philosophies of education. Jean Anyon observed five elementary schools over the course of a full school year and concluded that fifth-graders of different economic backgrounds are already being prepared to occupy particular rungs on the social ladder. In a sense, some whole schools are on the vocational education track, while others are geared to produce future doctors, lawyers, and business leaders. Anyon’s main audience is professional educators, so you may find her style and vocabulary challenging, but, once you’ve read her descriptions of specific classroom activities, the more analytic parts of the essay should prove easier to understand. Anyon is chairperson of the Department of Education at Rutgers University, Newark;
Scholars in political economy and the sociology of knowledge have recently argued that public schools in complex industrial societies like our own make available different types of educational experience and curriculum knowledge to students in different social classes. Bowles and Gintis1 for example, have argued that students in different social-class backgrounds are rewarded for classroom behaviors that correspond to personality traits allegedly rewarded in the different occupational strata–the working classes for docility and obedience, the managerial classes for initiative and personal assertiveness. Basil Bernstein, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michael W. Apple focusing on school knowledge, have argued that knowledge and skills leading to social power and regard (medical, legal, managerial) are made available to the advantaged social groups but are withheld from the working classes to whom a more “practical” curriculum is offered (manual skills, clerical knowledge). While there has been considerable argumentation of these points regarding education in England, France, and North America, there has been little or no attempt to investigate these ideas empirically in elementary or secondary schools and classrooms in this country.3
This article offers tentative empirical support (and qualification) of the above arguments by providing illustrative examples of differences in student work in classrooms in contrasting social class communities. The examples were gathered as part of an ethnographical4 study of curricular, pedagogical, and pupil evaluation practices in five elementary schools. The article attempts a theoretical contribution as well and assesses student work in the light of a theoretical approach to social-class analysis… . It will be suggested that there is a “hidden curriculum” in schoolwork that has profound implications for the theory - and consequence - of everyday activity in education…
The Sample of Schools
… The social-class designation of each of the five schools will be identified, and the income, occupation, and other relevant available social characteristics of the students and their parents will be described. The first three schools are in a medium-sized city district in northern New Jersey, and the other two are in a nearby New Jersey suburb.
The first two schools I will call working class schools. Most of the parents have blue-collar jobs. Less than a third of the fathers are skilled, while the majority are in unskilled or semiskilled jobs. During the period of the study (1978-1979), approximately 15 percent of the fathers were unemployed. The large majority (85 percent) of the families are white. The following occupations are typical: platform, storeroom, and stockroom workers; foundry-men, pipe welders, and boilermakers; semiskilled and unskilled assembly-line operatives; gas station attendants, auto mechanics, maintenance workers, and security guards. Less than 30 percent of the women work, some part-time and some full-time, on assembly lines, in storerooms and stockrooms, as waitresses, barmaids, or sales clerks. Of the fifth-grade parents, none of the wives of the skilled workers had jobs. Approximately 15 percent of the families in each school are at or below the federal “poverty” level;5 most of the rest of the family incomes are at or below $12,000, except some of the skilled workers whose incomes are higher. The incomes of the majority of the families in these two schools (at or below $12,000) are typical of 38.6 percent of the families in the United States.6
The third school is called the middle-class school, although because of 5 neighborhood residence patterns, the population is a mixture of several social classes. The parents’ occupations can he divided into three groups: a small group of blue-collar “rich,” who are skilled, well-paid workers such as printers, carpenters, plumbers, and construction workers. The second group is composed of parents in working-class and middle-class white-collar jobs: women in office jobs, technicians, supervisors in industry, and parents employed by the city (such as firemen, policemen, and several of the school’s teachers). The third group is composed of occupations such as personnel directors in local firms, accountants, “middle management,” and a few small capitalists (owners of shops in the area). The children of several local doctors attend this school. Most family incomes are between $13,000 and $25,000, with a few higher. This income range is typical of 38.9 percent of the families in the United States.7
The fourth school has a parent population that is at the upper income level of the upper middle class and is predominantly professional. This school will be called the affluent professional school. Typical jobs are: cardiologist, interior designer, corporate lawyer or engineer, executive in advertising or television. There are some families who are not as affluent as the majority (the family of the superintendent of the district’s schools, and the one or two families in which the fathers are skilled workers). In addition, a few of the families are more affluent than the majority and can be classified in the capitalist class (a partner in a prestigious Wall Street stock brokerage firm). Approximately 90 percent of the children in this school are white. Most family incomes are between $40,000 and $80,000. This income span represents approximately 7 percent of the families in the United States.8
In the fifth school the majority of the families belong to the capitalist class. This school will be called the executive elite school because most of the fathers are top executives (for example, presidents and vice-presidents) in major United States-based multinational corporations - for example, AT&T, RCA, Citibank, American Express, U.S. Steel. A sizable group of fathers are top executives in financial firms in Wall Street. There are also a number of fathers who list their occupations as “general counsel” to a particular corporation, and these corporations are also among the large multi-nationals. Many of the mothers do volunteer work in the Junior League, Junior Fortnightly, or other service groups; some are intricately involved in town politics; and some are themselves in well-paid occupations. There are no minority children in the school. Almost all the family incomes are over $100,000 with some in the $500,000 range. The incomes in this school represent less than 1 percent of the families in the United States.9
Since each of the five schools is only one instance of elementary education in a particular social class context, I will not generalize beyond the sample. However, the examples of schoolwork which follow will suggest characteristics of education in each social setting that appear to have theoretical and social significance and to be worth investigation in a larger number of schools.
The Working Class Schools
In the two working-class schools, work is following the steps of a procedure. The procedure is usually mechanical, involving rote behavior and very little decision making or choice. The teachers rarely explain why the work is being assigned, how it might connect to other assignments, or what the idea is that lies behind the procedure or gives it coherence and perhaps meaning or significance. Available textbooks are not always used, and the teachers often prepare their own dittos or put work examples on the board. Most of the rules regarding work are designations of what the children are to do; the rules are steps to follow. These steps are told to the children by the teachers and are often written on the board. The children are usually told to copy the steps as notes. These notes are to be studied. Work is often evaluated not according to whether it is right or wrong but according to whether the children followed the right steps.
The following examples illustrate these points. In math, when two-digit division was introduced, the teacher in one school gave a four-minute lecture on what the terms are called (which number is the divisor, dividend, quotient, and remainder). The children were told to copy these names in their notebooks. Then the teacher told them the steps to follow to do the problems, saying, “This is how you do them.” The teacher listed the steps on the board, and they appeared several days later as a chart hung in the middle of the front wall: “Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Bring Down.” The children often did examples of two-digit division. When the teacher went over the examples with them, he told them what the procedure was for each problem, rarely asking them to conceptualize or explain it themselves: “Three into twenty-two is seven; do your subtraction and one is left over.” During the week that two-digit division was introduced (or at any other time), the investigator did not observe any discussion of the idea of grouping involved in division, any use of manipulables, or any attempt to relate two-digit division to any other mathematical process. Nor was there any attempt to relate the steps to an actual or possible thought process of the children. The observer did not hear the terms dividend, quotient, and so on, used again. The math teacher in the other working-class school followed similar procedures regarding two-digit division and at one point her class seemed confused. She said, “You’re confusing yourselves. You’re tensing up. Remember, when you do this, it’s the same steps over and over again–and that’s the way division always is.” Several weeks later, after a test, a group of her children “still didn’t get it,” and she made no attempt to explain the concept of dividing things into groups or to give them manipulables for their own investigation. Rather, she went over the steps with them again and told them that they “needed more practice.”
In other areas of math, work is also carrying out often unexplained fragmented procedures. For example, one of the teachers led the children through a series of steps to make a 1-inch grid on their paper without telling them that they were making a 1-inch grid or that it would be used to study scale. She said, “Take your ruler. Put it across the top. Make a mark at every number. Then move your ruler down to the bottom. No, put it across the bottom. Now make a mark on top of every number. Now draw a line from…” At this point a girl said that she had a faster way to do it and the teacher said, “No, you don’t; you don’t even know what I’m making yet. Do it this way or it’s wrong.” After they had made the lines up and down and across, the teacher told them she wanted them to make a figure by connecting some dots and to measure that, using the scale of 1 inch equals 1 mile. Then they were to cut it out. She said, “Don’t cut it until I check it.”
In both working-class schools, work in language arts is mechanics of punctuation (commas, periods, question marks, exclamation points), capitalization, and the four kinds of sentences. One teacher explained to me, “Simple punctuation is all they’ll ever use.” Regarding punctuation, either a teacher or a ditto stated the rules for where, for example, to put commas. The investigator heard no classroom discussion of the aural context of punctuation (which, of course, is what gives each mark its meaning). Nor did the investigator hear any statement or inference that placing a punctuation mark could be a decision-making process, depending, for example, on one’s intended meaning. Rather, the children were told to follow the rules. Language arts did not involve creative writing. There were several writing assignments throughout the year but in each instance the children were given a ditto, and they wrote answers to questions on the sheet. For example, they wrote their “autobiography” by answering such questions as “Where were you born?” “What is your favorite animal?” on a sheet entitled “All About Me.”
In one of the working-class schools, the class had a science period several times a week. On the three occasions observed, the children were not called upon to set up experiments or to give explanations for facts or concepts. Rather, on each occasion the teacher told them in his own words what the book said. The children copied the teacher’s sentences from the board. Each day that preceded the day they were to do a science experiment, the teacher told them to copy the directions from the book for the procedure they would carry out the next day and to study the list at home that night. The day after each experiment, the teacher went over what they had “found” (they did the experiments as a class, and each was actually a class demonstration led by the teacher). Then the teacher wrote what they “found” on the board, and the children copied that in their notebooks. Once or twice a year there are science projects. The project is chosen and assigned by the teacher from a box of 3-by-5-inch cards. On the card the teacher has written the question to he answered, the books to use, and how much to write. Explaining the cards to the observer, the teacher said, “It tells them exactly what to do, or they couldn’t do it.”
Social studies in the working-class schools is also largely mechanical, rote work that was given little explanation or connection to larger contexts. In one school, for example, although there was a book available, social studies work was to copy the teacher’s notes from the board. Several times a week for a period of several months the children copied these notes. The fifth grades in the district were to study United States history. The teacher used a booklet she had purchased called “The Fabulous Fifty States.” Each day she put information from the booklet in outline form on the board and the children copied it. The type of information did not vary: the name of the state, its abbreviation, state capital, nickname of the state, its main products, main business, and a “Fabulous Fact” (“Idaho grew twenty-seven billion potatoes in one year. That’s enough potatoes for each man, woman, and…”) As the children finished copying the sentences, the teacher erased them and wrote more. Children would occasionally go to the front to pull down the wall map in order to locate the states they were copying, and the teacher did not dissuade them. But the observer never saw her refer to the map; nor did the observer ever hear her make other than perfunctory remarks concerning the information the children were copying. Occasionally the children colored in a ditto and cut it out to make a stand-up figure (representing, for example, a man roping a cow in the Southwest). These were referred to by the teacher as their social studies “projects.”
Rote behavior was often called for in classroom work. When going over 15 math and language art skills sheets, for example, as the teacher asked for the answer to each problem, he fired the questions rapidly, staccato, and the scene reminded the observer of a sergeant drilling recruits: above all, the questions demanded that you stay at attention: “The next one? What do I put here?. . . Here? Give us the next.” Or “How many commas in this sentence? Where do I put them . . . The next one?”
The four fifth grade teachers observed in the working-class schools attempted to control classroom time and space by making decisions without consulting the children and without explaining the basis for their decisions. The teacher’s control thus often seemed capricious. Teachers, for instance, very often ignored the bells to switch classes - deciding among themselves to keep the children after the period was officially over to continue with the work or for disciplinary reasons or so they (the teachers) could stand in the hall and talk. There were no clocks in the rooms in either school, and the children often asked, “What period is this?” “When do we go to gym?” The children had no access to materials. These were handed out by teachers and closely guarded. Things in the room “belonged” to the teacher: “Bob, bring me my garbage can.” The teachers continually gave the children orders. Only three times did the investigator hear a teacher in either working-class school preface a directive with an unsarcastic “please,” or “let’s” or “would you.” Instead, the teachers said, “Shut up,” “Shut your mouth,” “Open your books,” “Throw your gum away-if you want to rot your teeth, do it on your own time.” Teachers made every effort to control the movement of the children, and often shouted, “'Why are you out of your seat!!!” If the children got permission to leave the room, they had to take a written pass with the date and time…
In the middle-class school, work is getting the right answer. If one accumulates enough right answers, one gets a good grade. One must follow the directions in order to get the right answers, but the directions often call for some figuring, some choice, some decision making. For example, the children must often figure out by themselves what the directions ask them to do and how to get the answer: what do you do first, second, and perhaps third? Answers are usually found in books or by listening to the teacher. Answers are usually words, sentences, numbers, or facts and dates; one writes them on paper, and one should be neat. Answers must be given in the right order, and one cannot make them up.
The following activities are illustrative. Math involves some choice: one may do two-digit division the long way or the short way, and there are some math problems that can be done “in your head.” When the teacher explains how to do two-digit division, there is recognition that a cognitive process is involved; she gives you several ways and says, “I want to make sure you understand what you’re doing-so you get it right”; and, when they go over the homework, she asks the children to tell how they did the problem and what answer they got.
In social studies the daily work is to read the assigned pages in the textbook and to answer the teacher’s questions. The questions are almost always designed to check on whether the students have read the assignment and understood it: who did so-and-so; what happened after that; when did it happen, where, and sometimes, why did it happen? The answers are in the book and in one’s understanding of the book; the teacher’s hints when one doesn’t know the answers are to “read it again” or to look at the picture or at the rest of the paragraph. One is to search for the answer in the “context,” in what is given.
Language arts is “simple grammar, what they need for everyday life.” The language arts teacher says, “They should learn to speak properly, to write business letters and thank-you letters, and to understand what nouns and verbs and simple subjects are.” Here, as well, actual work is to choose the right answers, to understand what is given. The teacher often says, “Please read the next sentence and then I’ll question you about it.” One teacher said in some exasperation to a boy who was fooling around in class, “If you don’t know the answers to the questions I ask, then you can’t stay in this class! [pause] You never know the answers to the questions I ask, and it’s not fair to me-and certainly not to you!”
Most lessons are based on the textbook. This does not involve a critical perspective on what is given there. For example, a critical perspective in social studies is perceived as dangerous by these teachers because it may lead to controversial topics; the parents might complain. The children, however, are often curious especially in social studies. Their questions are tolerated and usually answered perfunctorily. But after a few minutes the teacher will say, “All right, we’re not going any farther. Please open your social studies workbook.” While the teachers spend a lot of time explaining and expanding on what the textbooks say, there is little attempt to analyze how or why things happen, or to give thought to how pieces of a culture, or, say, a system of numbers or elements of a language fit together or can be analyzed. What has happened in the past and what exists now may not be equitable or fair, but (shrug) that is the way things are and one does not confront such matters in school. For example, in social studies after a child is called on to read a passage about the pilgrims, the teacher summarizes the paragraph and then says, “So you can see how strict they were about everything.” A child asks, “Why?” “Well, because they felt that if you weren’t busy you’d get into trouble.” Another child asks, “Is it true that they burned women at the stake?” The teacher says, “Yes, if a woman did anything strange, they hanged them. [ sic ] What would a woman do, do you think, to make them burn them? [ sic ] See if you can come up with better answers than my other [social studies] class.” Several children offer suggestions, to which the teacher nods but does not comment. Then she says, “Okay, good,” and calls on the next child to read.
Work tasks do not usually request creativity. Serious attention is rarely given in school work on how the children develop or express their own feelings and ideas, either linguistically or in graphic form. On the occasions when creativity or self-expression is requested, it is peripheral to the main activity or it is “enriched” or “for fun.” During a lesson on what similes are, for example, the teacher explains what they are, puts several on the board, gives some other examples herself, and then asks the children if they can “make some up.” She calls on three children who give similes, two of which are actually in the book they have open before them. The teacher does not comment on this and then asks several others to choose similes from the list of phrases in the book. Several do so correctly, and she says, “Oh good! You’re picking them out! See how good we are?” Their homework is to pick out the rest of the similes from the list.
Creativity is not often requested in social studies and science projects, either. Social studies projects, for example, are given with directions to “find information on your topic” and write it up. The children are not supposed to copy but to “put it in your own words.” Although a number of the projects subsequently went beyond the teacher’s direction to find information and had quite expressive covers and inside illustrations, the teacher’s evaluative comments had to do with the amount of information, whether they had “copied,” and if their work was neat.
The style of control of the three fifth-grade teachers observed in this school varied from somewhat easygoing to strict, but in contrast to the working-class schools, the teachers’ decisions were usually based on external rules and regulations–for example, on criteria that were known or available to the children. Thus, the teachers always honor the bells for changing classes, and they usually evaluate children’s work by what is in the textbooks and answer booklets.
There is little excitement in schoolwork for the children, and the assignments are perceived as having little to do with their interests and feelings. As one child said, what you do is “store facts up in your head like cold storage - until you need it later for a test or your job.” Thus, doing well is important because there are thought to be other likely rewards: a good job or college.10