Politics & Policy

Yale’s ‘Hidden Curriculum’

What the attempt to keep the Army out of New Haven reveals.

Picture from an institution in the fall term of 2007.

Robert Burt, the Alexander M. Bickel Professor at Yale Law School, recently said that he was “disappointed” by an appeals-court decision that blocked the school’s efforts to ban military recruiters from its campus. “There’s no challenge left,” Burt told The Yale Daily News. “We fought [the government] as far and as powerfully as we could and we lost.”

The ruling Burt regretted followed the decision announced last year by the Supreme Court in Rumsfeld v. FAIR. (“FAIR” stands for Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights.) In an opinion that even the David Boies Professor of Law at Yale, Robert Post, conceded was “wickedly smart,” Chief Justice Roberts said that the Solomon Amendment, which obliges universities that accept research money from the U.S. government to permit representatives of the U.S. Armed Forces to recruit on their campuses, does not violate the universities’ First Amendment right to free speech.

Professor Post, however, was unconvinced by Roberts’s reasoning. The decision in Rumsfeld v. FAIR would, he said, have a detrimental effect on the universities’ “hidden curriculum,” a curriculum that is no less important, he maintained, than their “formal curriculum.”

Of course the fact that Yale Law School even exists today, as an institution dedicated to the rule of law, is due in part to the fact that American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen have stood up to tyrants, Hitler and Stalin among them, who have aspired to rule the world. But putting that aside, what exactly is the “hidden curriculum” of the universities, the purity of which will be sullied if men and women in uniform are allowed on campus? Some recent developments illuminate it.

‐ Harvard’s Roscoe Pound Professor of Law, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, demonstrated a core teaching of the “hidden curriculum” when, in September, he published Free Trade Reimagined, his latest diatribe against economic freedom.

‐ In the same month, Princeton’s Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion, Cornel West, stood up for the aesthetic side of the “hidden curriculum” when he released his new hip-hop recording, Hip-Hop CD Never Forget.

‐ The moral relativism of the “hidden curriculum” — its multicultural insistence that all cultures are created equal except for that of the West, which is suspect — was highlighted when, in September, a Harvard education Ph.D., Deborah Bial, was awarded a “genius” fellowship by the MacArthur Foundation for her educational work, which consists in banding students together in “multicultural teams, or ‘Posses,’” and dispatching them to colleges and universities.

‐ Stanford contributed to the multicultural component of the “hidden curriculum” when its Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity recently named its 2007-08 fellows, among them Roselyn Lee, whose contribution to knowledge is “Gendered and Raced ‘Bodies’ on the Net: Revealing and Challenging Social Identity Threat in Computer-Mediated Communication.”

‐ At Harvard, the historical approach favored by the “hidden curriculum” is on view this month in a Civil War exhibit at the Fogg Museum intended to coincide with the inauguration of Harvard’s new president, Drew Gilpin Faust, an historian. The exhibit consists of engravings from Harper’s Magazine on which an artist, Kara Walker, another MacArthur Foundation “genius,” has superimposed “black figures in silhouette.” “We’ve been taught that the Civil War resolved racial tensions in this country,” explained Harvard’s Susan Dackerman, who helped organize the exhibit. “But you can also argue that the Civil War and the way the war was written about and portrayed has institutionalized our fantasies about race, violence, and sexuality.”


What do these disparate strands of the “hidden curriculum” have in common? The best way to answer the question is to compare them to the teaching they implicitly reject, that of the ancient Greeks, who invented the theory of education that for more than two millennia prevailed in the West.

For the Greeks, a cardinal purpose of education was to tame the beast within. The Greeks believed that young people, with all their savage energies, could be civilized through exposure to harmony, order, and beauty. Young minds, Plato wrote in Protagoras (326a — b),

are taught the works of good poets which the teacher accompanies on the lyre, familiarizing the souls of the children with the rhythms and melodies. By this means the children become more civilized, and by advancing in rhythmic and harmonic grace become proficient in speech and action, for eurhythmia [proportion, order, gracefulness] and harmonious adjustment are essential to the whole of human life.

Such notions long defined teaching in the West; but in the 18th century intellectuals began to reject the idea that a principal object of education is to tame the Dionysian beast. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to do so: He exalted the natural, Dionysian man, and he criticized not only schools but other educative institutions (like the family) that make civilized order possible. (Rousseau abandoned his own out-of-wedlock children to a foundling home.)

Rousseau invented the Dionysian idea of education as a form of disorder: He foreshadowed the Animal House intellectuals whose spirits preside over the “hidden curriculum” which is supposedly threatened by Army recruiters today.

The “hidden curriculum” bears the impress of John Dewey, who sought to overthrow the “autocratic” authority of the teacher with “child-centered schools” designed to turn children into little Dionysian anarchs. It bears the impress of Isaiah Berlin, who prepared the way for multicultural relativism with his theory of value chaos. It bears the impress of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who brought anarchy to the art of interpreting literary and legal texts by claiming that language, being inherently ambiguous and “indeterminate,” cannot create stable meaning. It bears the impress of Andy Warhol, who in Dionysian works like Blow Job (1963) rejected the notion that Apollonian order has a place in art.

Why do the scholars and intellectuals who dominate higher learning adhere to a curriculum that promotes not order but anarchy, not civilization but barbarism, not beauty but fantasies of violence and sexuality, as Harvard’s Dackerman phrases it? Partly, I suspect, because intellectual power is a form of will and ambition: it lusts for mastery. Faust (Goethe’s and Marlowe’s that is, not Harvard’s) was a professor. The intellectual is a statesman manqué, an emperor in embryo: he longs to stamp his image on society, to impose on the people his own ideal res publica.

But it has become more difficult for the intellectuals to rule. Market order, when it began to be understood in the eighteenth century, rendered obsolete the clerisy’s daydreams of contriving a new and superior form of civil order. Le doux commerce — the gentle commerce — tamed unruly passions and created order and wealth far more satisfactorily than any of the intellectuals’ utopian schemes could. Vanquished in the contest to promote benign forms of order, legions of thinkers followed Rousseau in rejecting order altogether and promoted disorder instead.

In the 1960s Rousseau’s disciples in America imposed disorder from above; the “hidden curriculum” of the universities became overt. Where they could not command democratic majorities, the Ivy League avatars of anarchy turned to the courts. The Warren Court aspired to become the nation’s arbiter of morals with a jurisprudence of anarchic fantasy stressing the “penumbras” of the Bill of Rights; the entitlements of the Great Society undermined market order. The mayhem and misrule of the Seventies was born.

Ronald Reagan came to power with a mandate to end the saturnalia and restore order, not least market order. The country embraced his program; but the clerisy that dominates the universities never did. Even as Professor Burt struggles to keep the Army out of Yale Law School, his colleague, Professor Bruce Ackerman, struggles to elaborate a constitutional theory that proves that Reagan’s was a “failed constitutional moment,” a constitutionally illegitimate one.

The presence on campuses of representatives of the U.S. Armed Forces, charged as they are with defending ordered liberty, clearly cannot be reconciled with the idea of disorder that prevails at New Haven — as well as in Cambridge, Princeton, Palo Alto, and Morningside Heights. Half a century after William F. Buckley Jr. first drew attention to the problems of the professors in God and Man at Yale, a “hidden curriculum” continues to flourish in the universities.

Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor at City Journal. His book, Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, will be published later this month by Free Press.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published this year.


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