The Disconnect

Orenstein defines the hidden curriculum as “the running subtext through which teachers communicate behavioral norms and individual status in the school culture, the process of socialization that cues children into their place in the hierarchy of larger society [and also] ways in which schools help reinforce gender roles.” (5)

What she finds, in my opinion is simply horrifying, sad, and in need of a major revolution. Although this study is refined to two middle schools in California in the early 90’s, the findings are just as relevant today. One middle school is Weston, a middle school located in an old small town area of California. The girls Orenstein interviews at this middle school are all white, middle class, and able bodied. The second middle school is Audubon, a middle school located at the “junction where a tidy residential neighborhood slides into the industrial gloom of a warehouse district in a Northern California.” (135) The girls Orenstein interviews at this middle school are all people of color, poor, and socially disadvantaged.

Ideas of femininity vary widely between the girls at each school. At Weston perfect femininity is characterized by submissiveness, thinness, helplessness, and being sexually desirable without being sexually promiscuous. At Audubon, there is no perfect femininity for these girls to strive for. They are a group of girls who already know how unperfect the world is and how being a woman of color in a low social class leaves them with very little room to dream. However femininity here is characterized by either being quiet and unseen or boisterous and observed. Both roles are survival tactics.

The girls at Weston are overshadowed by male participation mostly because they understand a few key things about girlhood. To appear smarter than a boy is unattractive, to be as loud and outspoken as a boy is unladylike, to appear too interested in academics is to be a nerdy school girl and that is social suicide, and social climbing is a key element in navigating femininity in the world. While appearing to be ‘a perfect girl’ is the main goal of most of the girls at Weston, surviving is the main goal of most of the girls at Audubon. Orenstein makes the observation that “in the classrooms at Audubon, issues of gender are often subsumed by issues of basic humanity, often secondary to enabling a student…to go through a school day without feeling insulted, abused, or wronged by her peers or by her teachers.” (137)

Every decision that the girls interviewed at Audubon make during their schooling is a choice designed to help them survive in the way that they see to be most beneficial to them. They make these choices from an array of examples that have varying levels of bleakness.

  • Use all of your adolescent energy and effort to attend a school that doesn’t seem to value its students. While at that school create your own motivation to succeed because the administration certainly is not working to motivate you. While working to succeed ignore all other external home problems that you are experiencing, and don’t expect any of the administration to act as a safe haven to communicate your problems. If you are a girl who happens to be black look forward to being ostracized by your own racial group for adhering to “white standards” of intelligence and communication. And last but not least try to ignore the fact that many of the people you know who graduated high school are still living in poverty and did not get good jobs after completing general education.
  • Show up to school and because the environment is not stimulating, sit quietly and fail under the radar. Be passed to the next grade even though you have not learned enough information to actually be competent in the next grade. Continue this until you get to High school where you may eventually flunk out school altogether anyways.
  • Show up to school and because the environment is not stimulating, become loud, disruptive, and confrontational out of a desire for any attention at all even if it is negative. Become targeted by the administration because you happen to be a disruptive female rather than a disruptive male and eventually get kicked out of school altogether.
  • Don’t show up to school because you have no role models who stress why attending school is important. Stay at home and help take care of the family unit, work to help put food on the table, join a gang to become socially accepted to feel like you have the family structure that you lack at home, become sexually active not because you are in tune with you sexuality, but because in the ghetto women are sexually available to the men that they like.

It would be too easy to say that the girls at Weston are experiencing first world problems encompassed by privilege of class and whiteness, although it is true. These girls do not have any true barriers stopping them from being academically successful other than the socially constructed ones that encourage conformity. Their choice not to consume food at lunchtime, and to gain attention of boys by acting less smart is simply a result of a weak backbone reiterated by various institutions of family, school, and media. But these girls have not had to face any other problems and so, at this point in their lives they really cannot be held accountable for their lack of resilience. The problem only becomes detrimental when these girls go throughout the rest of their entire educational lives not encountering any other types of life problems that minimalize these societal ones and cause them to see that living in a way that makes them happy is greater than living to please a system that caters to white, wealthy, men.

The girls at Audubon must battle an administration that doesn’t think they are worth teaching, helping, motivating, or saving. The approach the administration takes with teachers speaking inappropriately to the girls and issues of serious sexual harassment are to sweep the matter to the side because “the students here are from a culture that talks [and acts] a certain way and there’s nothing you can do.” (151) While the hidden curriculum at Weston has most to do with enforcing ideas of femininity the hidden curriculum at Audubon enforces ideas of social class disadvantage, and lack of opportunity. It perpetuates a cycle that is repeated over and over again where the students are repeatedly characterized as their social background and demonized unless they happen to be overly resilient and highly motivated. Not once does Orenstein mention the girls at Audubon being concerned with standards of beauty such as the girls at Weston are. They have bigger fish to fry and at the end of the day the little girls of color can’t possibly adhere to the white standard of beauty anyways.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.