Reading Against the Grain and Learning about Embedded Values – An educational reflection

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought as a child; I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish things. Even now we see in a glass dimly but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully even as I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13)

These verses are among my favourite in the biblical narrative. Of course, they have a specific meaning for the conflicted Corinthian congregation and are to be understood in terms of Paul’s overarching goal to avoid a split within the community. But even so, in our context, they are powerful words for educators.

I’m sure I have cited them in every course I’ve taught over the years – probably more than once - a constant reminder to me and hopefully to my students as to the partial nature of our knowledge. In my many years in theological education, this has been one of the more difficult lessons to impart to students and to be mindful of myself. How often I would find myself interjecting as students moved to, what I thought was, a too hasty conclusion as to the meaning of a particular biblical text:

“What about the Egyptians, I would ask as students triumphantly declared God’s activity in the crossing of the Red Sea, clearly aligning themselves as one with the fleeing Hebrews.”


“What about the other sons of Abraham who play no role or are given no ownership of the promise given to all Abraham’s offspring?”


“What about Vashti who refused to be a sexual object at her husband’s command. Why is Esther the hero – she who at another man’s command did become a sexual object?”

In all educational enterprises, but especially in theological education, one of the more difficult things is to teach or to model for students what it means to read “against the grain.” How do we form readers who question the author or the teacher’s intention – conscious or unconscious - to lead in a particular direction toward a particular conclusion. Difficult as this is, I believe, related and just as difficult for an educator is the development of an awareness of the power of what is called, the hidden curriculum.

When I was in primary school one of our first reading books was the story of Dick and Jane. Every day we learned to read the stories of Dick boldly venturing out into his neighbourhood over Jane’s protests. Many times, he got into difficulty only to be rescued by Jane, the nurturing one who bandaged his wounds and comforted him. Years later these books were replaced by others as educators realized belatedly, that many generations of girls and boys had learned much more about themselves – their gender identity, their place in the world, than about how to read. has been working through the various requirements of the accrediting process, a process that is about assessment, the quality of resources - books and journals, the credentials of faculty or the learning goals of the written curriculum with its expectations of students – yet much more. As we all know, excellence in education is also about what is not there, what is left unstated or unwritten.  It’s about the students’ experiences of those unspoken yet embedded values such as trust, respect, inclusion, and fairness.

Much has been written over the years about the nature of this hidden curriculum and the challenge it unintentionality presents to the explicit curriculum. It’s about what is “caught” rather than what is “taught,” that is, those sociological and psychological dimensions of learning such as I experienced through the Dick and Jane stories – dimensions that embed themselves deeply within the student, influencing their attitudes and behaviours in significant ways. Perry Shaw in a 2006 article states, without qualification, that if there is a conflict between the explicit and the hidden curriculum, the latter wins out every time.[i]  This is an important warning of the imperative to pay as much attention to the hidden curriculum, perhaps even more than to the explicit curriculum, in any accrediting process.

How do the hidden and the explicit curricula work together to enhance the mission “to form students as leaders educated in, informed by and actions according to ethical values thus contributing to building sustainable, just and peaceful societies”?  Surely this means, but is not limited to, the behaviour of teachers in their interaction with students. It also means giving equal attention to what is being “caught” in their practices, in the resources used, in the ways in which both teacher and student analyse, synthesise, and evaluate theory and complex life situations.

So, what about the Egyptians who drowned in the sea, or the other sons of Abraham whose share of the promise remains unfulfilled, or an interpretation with Queen Vashti as the hero?

“Now I know in part as in a glass dimly.” Isn’t it our vocation to continually polish that glass while at the same time recognizing with humility that we live between the limits of present knowledge and what is yet to come?

Dr J. Dorcas Gordon
Principal emerita Knox College, University of Toronto, Canada Academic Committee and Global Pool of Ethics Member

[i] Perry Shaw, “The Hidden Curriculum of Seminary Education,” Journal of Asian Mission 8:1-2 (2006), 23-52.

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