The Metacurriculum: Guarding the Golden Apples of University Culture

By Dekle, Dawn | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Metacurriculum: Guarding the Golden Apples of University Culture


Dekle, Dawn, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, recently oversaw curricular changes that sparked much debate in the academic community. Many other universities are following his example of reexamining the relevance of their official curricula against current educational challenges. Unfortunately, there is a growing awareness of something inchoate in the standard approach to curricular reform, that perhaps only part of the university picture is visible to us. A deeper look at the metacurriculum may provide a more complete picture and lead to a more robust analysis of the keys to success in these endeavors.

The metacurriculum is the emergent curriculum of a university, the net effect of the interaction encompassing the official curriculum and the hidden curriculum. It is an important driver of the culture of a university because it contains the socially transmitted behavior patterns that we have adopted as a heuristic for distinguishing one university from another. More precisely, the official curriculum consists of the descriptions of the various degree plans, course syllabi, and graduation requirements set by the university. In contrast, the hidden curriculum refers to the knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and rules that students internalize about a university, both intended and unintended.

The hidden curriculum refers to how students "learn how to learn," the socialization process that they undergo upon entering and learning how to succeed in a tertiary environment. To survive, by trial and error, students learn the undisclosed norms and unstated rules of the university game, which takes as much energy and time as studying textbooks and attending class. Scholars such as Philip Jackson (Life in Classrooms), Eric Margolis (Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education), Pierre Bourdieu (Homo Academicus), and Benson Snyder (The Hidden Curriculum) have provided solid evidence that hidden curricula are alive and thriving at the tertiary level of education.

The most challenging aspect of the hidden curriculum is its elusive nature, which is abstruse even for scholarly study, as it is nearly impossible to ascertain all of the informal rules and values that must be obeyed at a university in order to succeed. The hidden curriculum is by definition an artifact of the university, but it is not merely a passive or stagnant phenomenon. …

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