The Null Curriculum…. Say What?
The first time I heard the term “null curriculum” I remember thinking, “say what?”
Granted, that thought ran through my mind a lot back then. As any seminary student will tell you, the first semester of school is all about learning the “illyallyollgyisms” , ie. all the words that end in “illy”, “ally”, “ology”, and “ism.” Our professors threw these words at us and apparently assumed that we would figure out what they meant, or that we will live on in ignorance. Several of us started lists of these words and their definitions, and posted them in conspicuous places including refrigerator doors. The lists became proof of our indoctrination as well as an ongoing source of levity. (We had to laugh at something!) Still, hearing this term for the first time was just one more example of momentary confusion leading to learning. Learning what the term defined eventually lead me to review not only what we as an institutional church teach, but also how I teach it.
First coined by Elliot Eisner, the null curriculum is the information which educators intentionally or unintentionally leave out of the prescribed curriculum. All educators have to leave out something. Most of us know far more than we can share in the limited time we have with our students. Part of developing curriculum is determining what must be taught, what should be taught, and what will be taught. Eisner called the things we choose to teach the overt curriculum. In the midst of all of this, something, usually relatively minor or (supposedly) blatantly obvious will be left out of the curriculum. The information left out of the curriculum is the null curriculum. Sometimes educators mention in passing these excluded elements or the elements are part of the surrounding culture. This type of information is considered the hidden or collateral curriculum. In general, information left out of the curriculum, is never mentioned. The problem with leaving information out of any given curriculum is that students either never get the information or assume that the information is irrelevant or unimportant. Leaving out this information can have very interesting and in some cased detrimental implications, especially when dealing with race and gender issues. Sometimes what is NOT said is just as important, if not more so, that what is said.
Case in point, when I was a young child, my parents were very intentional in raising my brother and I to not be prejudice. Mom and Dad wanted to make sure that their children did not carry on the poisonous attitudes they saw in their elders and the community at large. For their generation, they were remarkably forward thinking and acting. They did their best to model these attitudes and behaviors, and encouraged us to have friends outside of our typical Anglo-Christian circles. The result was that from an early age I had friends who were Jewish, interracial, African American, Native Peoples, Latino/a and an assortment of Asian friends as well. All were welcomed into our home, at at our table, and vice verse. The message received was “race/religion are not determining factors in friendship.”
At the same time, Mom and Dad were very careful to instill in us the proper filters for people we would consider marrying some day. No mention of race was given, but we were told repeatedly that those who have the same cultural/religious back ground would be better choices, and we were “to look for someone who respects you, respects your family, treats you well, and most importantly, marry someone who can be your best friend.” The message received was, “marry someone who can be your best friend.”
I lived and loved under these two assumptions, “race/religion are not determining factors for friendship” and “marry someone who can be your best friend,” understanding that they were related and built upon one another. However, there came a point in my life were where it became clear to me that what I thought my parents meant and what they really meant were not one in the same. When I was 16, I became aware that one of my friends was interested in me romantically. I did not reciprocate. He was a nice fellow, and I did like him a lot, but I didn’t like him that way. I was trying to figure out a way to let the young man down gently, and I asked my dad for advise. My dad knew the young man, so I figured he would come up with some kind of gentle platitude that would work. Instead, he told me to tell my friend that I was not allowed to date him.
“Not allowed to date him?” I said, “What do you mean? I’m over 16, I’m allowed to date guys. He knows that.”
My Dad’s response, “Mel you are not allowed to date Black people.”
What?? When had that happened?
Turns out that what was not said by my parents, “Do not date or marry outside of your race,” ended up being a very big deal. I knew my parents had reservations about interracial marriage because of the “social impact on the children,” and I understood their reservations as a warning– interracial dating/marriage is difficult, but until that conversation, I never connected their reservations with a prohibition for interracial dating.
The message, “do not date/marry interracially” was the null curriculum, and it caused our family a great deal of anguish over the next 15 years. (Well, truth be told, I’m sure Mom and Gram still suffer worry, but it diminishes each year hubby and I stay happily married.)
The church is also a family, and we have to be very careful what we teach our children and new believers. The null curriculum is important, and when we devise our curriculum, preach a sermon, lead a bible study, or work in the mission field, what we do not say is as important as was we do say. When we only offer communion once a month or once a quarter, what are we saying about the importance and accessibility of the sacrament? When we have worship services, but do not offer access to the services for the blind, hearing impaired or disabled, what are we saying about them? When we insist by word or action that those who attend our services must be clean and dressed in special clothing, what are we saying about the poor and the downtrodden? What and who are we excluding?
Perhaps it is time to carefully consider what our null curriculum is and the message the null curriculum is sending to those with whom we are in ministry. Just as importantly, we need to carefully consider what the null curriculum is in our seminaries.