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Much has been written about college’s “hidden” curriculum: the institutional culture and unspoken norms and expectations that influence academic and post-graduation success.

This hidden curriculum consists of terms and unwritten rules undergraduates are expected to know, the presumed rules of conduct, and the implicit assumptions and tacit rules that faculty members expect students to recognize.

No one signs up for the hidden curriculum, but it’s just as important as the academic curriculum. It exists alongside the courses that students take and the requirements they are expected to meet.

The term “hidden curriculum” was introduced by the University of Chicago professor and president of the American Educational Research Association Philip W. Jackson in a 1968 book entitled Life in Classrooms. He argued that one of the tasks students face in college is to master a series of implicit values, beliefs, norms and expectations.

Of course, as psychiatrist D.P. Birkett observed in his review of the Margolis book mentioned below, “It has long been known that schools for children did more than teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but this used to be considered a good thing—building up character or teaching citizenship or whatever.” But increasingly, the hidden curriculum came to be viewed more negatively—as an obstacle to student success, and something much worse: as a way to privilege certain attitudes and modes of behavior and force students to fit into certain prescribed molds.

Psychiatrist Benson R. Snyder, then an MIT dean and previously chief of psychiatric services at MIT and Wellesley, built on Jackson’s concept in a 1970 study entitled The Hidden Curriculum. Dr. Snyder, like his colleague social psychologist Kenneth Keniston, was interested in the reasons why a significant number of gifted, privileged college students became profoundly alienated during their undergraduate years and viewed the university with cynicism. Dr. Snyder attributed this to “a major cause of campus conflict: the overwhelming, nonproductive mass of unstated academic and social norms that divert the student from creative intellectual effort and from the attempt to define and reach” their goals.

Many undergraduates regarded college as little more than a worthless game rather than as an intellectual rich experience and growth opportunity.

Snyder’s argument—that campus unrest and protest were, in large part, a response to the failure of colleges to tap into students’ idealism and their yearning for an education that is relevant and meaningful—is, of course, especially timely today.

In his 2001 book, The Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education, sociologist Eric Margolis, went further. His edited collection discusses the way colleges and universities produce race, class and gender hierarchies and reproduce conservative ideology.

An important 2014 book, Mentoring At-Risk Students through the Hidden Curriculum of Education by sociologist Buffy Smith, describes how a fear of appearing stupid or a sense that they don’t belong in college discourages low-income, underrepresented and first-generation college students from getting the kind of support and mentoring that they need or taking advantage of the kinds of opportunities that colleges offer. As she points out, academic advising “is important, but it’s not enough.” To master the hidden curriculum requires mentors to show students how to overcome various psychological barriers to success and advocate for themselves.

A recent study—Dr. Rachel Gable’s 2022 The Hidden Curriculum: First Generation Students at Legacy Universities—examines experiences of first-generation students on elite campuses. Gable, now an academic administrator at the College of William & Mary, draws on in-depth interviews at Harvard and Georgetown universities to describe the disorientation that many first-gen students experience when they encounter the unspoken academic norms and social rules at these institutions and the “roller-coaster” ride that they undergo during their college years as they struggle with the expectation that they will acculturate to upper middle-class cultural norms and strive to figure out whether they are adequately prepared to succeed in the most demanding college majors.

Gable’s book emphasizes the diversity of first-generation students, notes the similarities in the experiences of first-gen and non–first-gen students’ experiences, and disputes the argument that these first-generation students face severe problems “fitting in” to these institutions. But like Rob Henderson in his raw, unvarnished account of his experiences at Yale, who decries the “luxury beliefs” and class blinders of his more privileged classmates, Gable does argue that these campuses could do much more to work with students on all sides of the class, ethnic, gender and racial divides.

I should note that many of the more recent books on the hidden curriculum target those on the autism spectrum or those with sensory processing issues, providing advice about how to navigate social interactions, avoid social blunders, understand unsaid social rules and present oneself publicly.

To be sure, some colleges offer noncredit College 101 workshops that discuss study skills and test-taking strategies. But the hidden curriculum involves much more than those things. It’s also about self-advocacy, self-presentation, juggling multiple responsibilities, coping with frustration and failures, and building meaningful relationships with faculty members.

I just had an absolutely thrilling opportunity: to deliver a commencement address at New Mexico Highlands, a mission-driven, Hispanic-serving public university in the northeastern part of the state. As we all know, the best commencement addresses are brief. After you congratulate the graduates, welcome their parents, relatives and friends, and express gratitude to the faculty, there’s not much time left.

Also, it’s hard to get beyond the clichés, which despite their predictability, are meant to inspire graduates as they transition to the next phase of their lives. We’re all familiar with these cliches:

Follow Your Passion: Encourage graduates to pursue careers and lives driven by their deepest interests and passions.

The World Is Your Oyster: Tell the graduates that they have limitless opportunities ahead of them, and can achieve anything they set their minds to.

Change the World: Urge them to go out and make a positive impact on the world.

Never Give Up: Exhort the graduates to persevere through challenges and setbacks.

This Is Not the End, but Just the Beginning: This is the idea that commencement is not just the conclusion of their education but the start of their professional and personal journeys.

You Are the Future Leaders: Emphasize that the graduates are expected to be the next generation of leaders in various fields, from business and politics to science and the arts.

Take Risks: Encourage the graduates to take risks and step out of their comfort zones, as this is seen as essential for growth and success.

Make a Difference: Urge graduates to contribute positively to society and to focus on leaving a legacy.

Embrace Failure: Remind graduates that failure is a natural part of life and a critical component of success, teaching valuable lessons that lead to personal growth.

Remember Your Roots (and) Never Forget Where You Came From: Encourage graduates to stay grounded and maintain connections with their past, including their alma mater, family and friends.

The challenge is to go beyond the clichés and delivers fresh, novel advice. That requires focusing on the less conventional but equally important lessons learned outside the classroom.

Lesson 1: Recognize the skills you acquired outside the classroom during your college years. Graduates have acquired self-discipline. demonstrated persistence, pushed through difficulties and overcome many obstacles to reach this moment. They’ve learned how to actively listen, multitask and meet deadlines. They’ve demonstrated resilience and an ability to cope with adversity. They have a proven work ethic and have, we hope, internalized high standards.

Lesson 2: Think about the relationships you formed during college and how these are deeper, richer and more meaningful than those you established earlier in life. The relationships we make in college will last for the rest of our lives. These relationships differ sharply from those one had in the past. College students have learned how to collaborate and interact meaningfully with people from diverse backgrounds, with diverse experiences and diverse viewpoints. Their interactions were more intentional and more intellectual. They’re also deeper and more stimulating, and more consequential.

Lesson 3: Consider how you have learned to be a professional. As a professional, you don’t view your work simply as a job, but as a vocation or calling. By graduation day, a student should now be committed to a field, and have become part of a community of practice. Being a professional is a big part of graduates’ identity and will influence the way that they interact with clients and colleagues. They must also adhere to that field’s ethical standards and professional expectations.

The Wizard of Oz had it wrong when he gives the Scarecrow a diploma and says:

"Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning—where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts—and with no more brains than you have. But! They have one thing you haven’t got! A diploma!"

A diploma is not just a symbol, a token, a placebo, or a piece of paper. Yes, you don’t need a diploma to signify innate intelligence or practical wisdom or innate cleverness. But the reality is that a college diploma represents several deeper accomplishments and attributes.

It signifies that a degree holder has successfully acquired specialized knowledge in various subjects taught over the course of their study. Beyond theoretical and disciplinary knowledge, a college education helps develop critical skills such as analytical thinking, research capabilities, problem-solving and effective communication.

Earning a diploma also demonstrates that an individual has the persistence and dedication to complete a long-term goal. This includes managing deadlines, collaborating with peers and fulfilling all requirements set by the educational institution. In addition, the college experience, ideally, provides a valuable environment for socialization and maturation.

A college education isn’t simply about academics—courses, majors and graduation requirements. Yes, a graduate has learned discipline-specific knowledge. But college is about more than that. It’s ultimately about becoming a professional and a mature, sophisticated adult.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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