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The Invisible Curriculum

GUEST COMMENTARY

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Each year, millions of young people in this country attend college. What they learn will shape their future and the quality of the nation. Although some stress always accompanies the transition from late adolescence to young adulthood, conditions in society and on campus often create special problems for today's students. The collegiate environment itself demands a special set of intellectual, social and personal adjustments. The causes and the consequences of the strains of contemporary college life must concern college administrators interested in both the personal and academic adjustment of their students.

The most recent comprehensive studies of student life were done in the 1960s, when explanations were sought for the explosive events on college campuses. The major studies in that era, such as The College and the Student, edited by Lawrence E. Dennis and Joseph F. Kauffman, emphasized the importance of "the relationships and responsibilities in undergraduate education and college governance." The central theme of that book, as of others, was the exploration of new sources of campus conflicts and the rights and responsibilities of the student and the college.

A new generation of students is indeed in college today, with new attitudes about themselves and their institutions. It is important, therefore, not to draw false analogies to an earlier and different student environment, but rather to understand the problems and promise of today's youth, reflected in how they face challenges in themselves and in the college environment.

The college experience is shaped by both curricular and extracurricular activities. This essay presents a third dimension. Often the curricular factors have been perceived as dominant, but to give a complete picture of college life it is essential to understand the context in which a generation of students experiences college. These personal issues and problems have an impact on the quality of college life and thus on the whole experience.

The average student attends college while living in a private world of concerns quite different from the university's or the public's view of education. The issues and stresses of this world, the student's individually perceived program, have been called the "invisible curriculum." For example, how a student sees his private curriculum in light of the official one can be seen in his approach to classwork.

As Benson R. Snyder said in an essay in The College and the Student, "The student goes to a lecture and hears from his professor that the course in question is exciting. Much independent thought will be demanded. He is urged to think about the subject, reflect on what he reads, and develop a habit of skepticism. The first quiz, in the student's eyes, calls for the playback of a large number of discrete facts. The message some students hear is that reflection or original thought is for the birds, and memorization will get the 'A.'" Possible student responses to such dissonance "include alienation, cynicism about the academic enterprise, a determination to play the academic game with shrewdness, or conformity to the tasks" established by the faculty.

The strategy a student adopts for one course in not certain to work in another. Both within the same institution and between institutions, strategies have different survival values.

Various factors are involved in the formation of the invisible curriculum. They include not only the selection of methods for coping with the university and with peer expectations, but also the relationship, often contradictory, between the expressed values of the university and of the students.

Certainly students ask a number of questions of their environment to help them determine the best survival strategies in terms of both means and ends. "What hurdles must one jump?" "Is it enough barely to clear the hurdle?" and "Does the style or form matter?" The strategies chosen by students express their individual approaches to competition. For some students, self-imposed strict rules must be followed to achieve high grades. For others, peer relations have a special role and power in academic performance, for they help to determine the socially acceptable choice and what price would be exacted in the face of peer pressure or a reward given in peer support.

The college years can be particularly stressful for students; they are often the best of times and the worst of times. Nostalgia for those years may indeed stem from the remembrance of formative challenges--some met well, some not at all. In college years, students experiment with adult roles, develop identities and plan for future careers. Although individual personality and cultural and ethnic background have roles to play, recent studies show that the means used to adjust to college present their own problems.

To begin with, despite the increased choice granted to elementary and high school students by parents and schools, college life offers an unprecedented amount of freedom. The first year of college is analogous to introducing a student into a darkened room with all of the shutters closed, and then opening the shutters suddenly to let light stream in on all sides. The reaction to this flood of light can produce a college experience that distorts reasonable development. Some students are stunned and blinded by the light. Others maintain continuity in attitude and behavior with the past, especially with family and community values. It is in any case difficult to predict the length and kind of reaction by students to this new freedom and to the often constructive challenge that may be associated with facing it.

In the aftermath of the 1960s and '70s, it came to be widely believed that in loco parentis was no longer an apt model for authority relations in college. Students were to be treated as adults with negotiated rights and responsibilities. Many students insisted on a "consumer university" where due process was a supreme value. They challenged disciplinary procedures and established a dichotomy between "us" and "them." As a result, the social fabric of institutions was transformed and the communities that comprised their scholarly life came to be constructed from adversarial relationships.

Students face many choices in college from among the myriad of issues interwoven in the fabric of youth culture. While these issues are not faced by the majority of students, the minority who do experience them often raise alarm among roommates, family, faculty, and administration. In many ways the success of those responsible for their care should be measured by the extent to which the profile of these students can be transformed into a more healthy one. Certainly, their problems reveal the impact of modernity with its complex messages about uncertainty and doubt: the surviving elements from the drug counterculture, the drive for success (now highlighted by the human potential movements), the preoccupation with weight and food and the overriding narcissism of contemporary American society. Some argue that a "new cognition" has played an important role in the evolution of the contemporary student: a cognition that helped one understand the world without providing a way to find meaning in the world. It prompted a search for alternatives. These alternatives included a desire to exercise control over one's daily life by an emphasis on personal freedom and an urge toward experimentation. In the 1960s and '70s, this world view was shaped further by the promise of utopian communities. Today it has found expression in the growth of religious activity on campuses and the quest for order, especially among upwardly mobile young professionals.

The college, through its helping agencies, can play an enormously important role in reducing some of the factors that weigh upon students. This could be done by increasing students' ability to communicate with each other, first by conveying to them that they are still flexible, young, and able to modify their style of coping with stress. Through a consideration of the whole person, the college can also convey the importance of things that enhance intellectual achievement.

Of course, many issues faced by the college student become less stressful later on as they move into a way of life that allows them more control over their lives. We know that to a substantial degree, student status involves being constantly judged and evaluated. While evaluation and judgement are essential to maintain standards in scholarly life, some students are devastated by their application. Yet as we saw earlier, many seek more challenge and the exacting vision of scholars. Indeed one might ask whether the problems discussed in this essay would recede if the college were more clearly centered in its academic mission, and thus more different from society.

College have a mission, in theory at least, that involves commitment to basic rights, to action based on intelligence, to rationally oriented achievement, and to moral authority. To complement these goals, an individual student should strive toward an increased cognitive capacity and competence, a sense of personal integrity, and competence with moral values. It is important, therefore, to understand clearly the significance of the dissonance between the university's expectations and the students' actual experience. When the goals are similar and achieved through a college experience that involves a commitment by the college and its members in their minds and lives, then both parties will have achieved a common grace.

Archie C. Epps III is dean of students in Harvard College.

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