Rituals of Failure: What Schools Really Teach


225 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-921284-70-5
DDC 370'.971





Reviewed by Michael Kasoian

Michael Kasoian is an elementary-school principal in Burlington,


This is a book about exposing the “hidden curriculum” and bringing
about radical school reform. The hidden curriculum, which originated in
Egerton Ryerson’s plan in 1846 for a school system in Ontario, is
based on shaping student behavior, maintaining middle-class values, and
shackling the human spirit to support the status quo. These practices,
in Contenta’s view, are the rituals of failure. His beliefs were
reinforced by three years of extensive research, talking with children
and teenagers, observing classrooms, and interviewing parents, teachers,
school administrators, and education researchers across Canada.

Contenta writes about how students either resist school (by rebelling
or dropping out) or resign themselves to fitting in and performing the
way the system expects. He touches on a number of factors that have
influenced student attitudes and performance: the home environment,
streaming in schools, the competitive push to succeed, the rigid
structures and the linear sequencing of education. It is at this point
that he addresses the “crisis of literacy.” Reformists agree on the
need to develop literate students, but differ on the best methods and
strategies to use. Proponents of the “back to basics” approach are
at odds with those who believe that literacy comes from “holistic”
language development. Contenta falls in the latter camp. His central
premise is that awareness of a hidden curriculum—one that segregates,
allows inequalities, and streams students into their “appropriate”
places in our society—will come about only through a program of
holistic study that nurtures independent thought and respect for human


Contenta, Sandro., “Rituals of Failure: What Schools Really Teach,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 13, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/13519.