Curriculum Trauma

Abdimalik A. Buul, San Diego City College
Kisha Quesada Turner, Las Positas College
Ebony Tyree, San Diego City College

Curriculum Trauma (CT) is by and large an academic theory that critically examines the ways in which academic systems (i.e., curriculum) directly harm students’ ability to become independent and healthy social agents. To fully grasp CT, it is essential to define both curriculum and trauma. Curriculum in its broader sense can be defined as what students have the opportunity to learn in schools (Eisner,1994). Eisner mentions the three dimensions of curriculum; implicit, explicit, and null. Therefore, it begins before any student or teacher steps into the class or publishes an online course. The preparation that instructors take to prepare course content as well as the processes that staff and institutions conduct to facilitate the student enrollment process entails the broader sense of curriculum. This includes but is not limited to course offerings, content selection, modalities of instruction and the matriculation process. It also includes what is null and absent, and thus, what is not taught is a lesson to learn as well. On the other end, trauma, according to Dr. Brenda Ingram, Ed.D, LCSW (2019),is an “event(s) that overwhelms the body’s, mind’s, and spirit’s ability to be in balance.” She lists eight general dimensions. Among the dimensions in which we see the manifestation of Curriculum Trauma are the psychological, developmental, racial, intergenerational/historical, and social collective domains. Hence, Curriculum Trauma is the ways in which educational institutions damage students and impede student success from matriculation to graduation. In the subsequent body of this paper, we will encapsulate various traumatic triggers that most educational institutions have created that foment CT.

How Curriculum Trauma Affects Environment

We begin formal/structured education at age six, and in some cases, earlier. All throughout our developmental years, schooling helps to inform our ideologies of race, gender, sexuality, power structures, relationships, bonds, etc. Therefore, our educational experiences play a crucial role in our worldview, including how we see ourselves as citizens in the world. However, when student experiences are not considered in curriculum, it invalidates their identity. One of the manifestations of this type of curriculum-inflicted trauma is the erasure and neglect of cultural capital in the classroom. The erasure and lack of acknowledgement of culture/experiences lead students to feel that they are not valued in a space that we deem one of the most revered in our culture: school. This all weighs on students’ abilities to see themselves as whole beings and feel fully accepted by the communities they come from. Such sentiments create feelings of social ineptness in their own communities.

Since we place a lot of value on school/formal education, educational experiences that traumatize our students often lend them incapable of participating as “whole” citizens in their own communities and larger environment. This systematic practice and socialization (Steele and Aronson, 1995) which devalues student experience can make students feel that they must assimilate in order to be considered “useful” or “worthy” as people in society: This is a textbook example of stereotype threat and has long-lasting impacts on self-esteem. Therefore, Curriculum Trauma manifests in students feeling the need to abandon parts of themselves and/or their communities in order to feel valuable and worthy. Sadly, this form of trauma is how grass-roots, community-based leadership is lost.

How Curriculum Trauma Affects Instruction

Curriculum Trauma harms all instruction and learning. A specific example that has broad implications can be seen in the field of English Composition. In California community colleges, generally speaking, students must complete rhetoric courses followed by critical thinking or literature courses before they can elect courses that study literature of various periods, groups, or specific thinkers. However, these elective courses often reflect diverse experiences, and their status as optional could have damaging impacts, especially on non-English majors whose identities are marginalized. Hence, the assumption that English Composition’s current course sequence is optimal should be examined for its contribution to CT. That is, what if the sequence started with critical thinking and literature before or in place of rhetoric courses? Or, what if the literatures of the marginalized were central to the sequence rather than elected? And fundamentally, what if English course sequences showed that their educators prize creative thinking and creative writing as much as they prize critical thinking and expository, rhetorical, and research writing?

Critical thinking helps students understand why they believe what they do; it teaches them strategies for thinking and coming to an opinion about controversies. It is the prime and most logical setting in which to learn and apply decolonized, non-Eurocentric theories. It also teaches them strategies for reading and writing: If a student can analyze another person’s argument and recognize serious errors of thinking, it gives them a model of what to avoid in their own writing and helps them develop their own beliefs when writing and debating. Having critical thinking as a base rather than as an end point in the sequence could therefore help students crystallize a world vision that they could use as a base to opine in subsequent rhetoric classes.

Along with deciding whether to make critical thinking foundational, those who create English course sequences should investigate that their sequences do not imply biases about the lives of non-white people. That literature of marginalized groups are electives rather than required implies that marginalized people do not matter. In a historical context, the barring of non-English majors from deeply studying literature that centers marginalized viewpoints reflects the barring, sometimes with the threat of death, of Black people from literacy. This compounded barring not only invalidates minoritized people’s literature; it threatens their literacy. This enables the harm of intergenerational/historical trauma in a “polite racist” way (Davis as cited in Villarreal, 2020).

Writing departments also ought to question preferences toward requiring expository, rhetorical, and research modes over creative writing. Implementing course sequences that foster the minds of creatives could be as optimal and rigorous as the established sequence is to those who are less “creatively-inclined.” Instead of stifling creativity, instructors could mentor it with courses like Advanced Storytelling, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, and Advanced Myth Writing.

How Curriculum Trauma Affects Matriculation 

Curriculum Trauma also presents itself in the bureaucratic structure of student services, as students are often neglected in the cumbersome process of matriculation. Intentional or unintentional, navigating the matriculation process from admission to enrollment in their first course has often resulted in multiple traumatic experiences culminating in various exit points for students to disembark their educational journey. To counter this, most colleges have created a step-by-step guide consisting of taking a placement exam upon enrollment, filling out financial aid, registering for courses, and seeing a counselor and completing an educational plan. Assembly Bill 705 was landmark legislation and a direct output of the deleterious impact on students of color by placing them in bottleneck English and math courses. These traumatic experiences were a result of inaccurate placement tools and non-equity-minded policies hindering students from completing a college-level transferable course within their first year.

The mere fact that the governor and state legislature had to legislate policy to counter the traumatic experiences of primarily students of color speaks volumes of the inept and archaic models that inflicted so much harm to students. Furthermore, the ping pong effect of the federal and local financial aid systems on students has resulted in a litany of traumatic experiences, triggering abandonment and trust issues. This, compounded with conflicting information, creates a high level of anxiety and stress for students who often qualify for aid due to their socio-economic status. The anxiety levels of waiting for assistance with applying for financial aid is often reflected in financial aid offices having the longest line prior to the start of school. Further, the counselor-to-student ratio for students who make it past the aforementioned steps is inconceivable. Although the Student Success Act of 2012 attempted extrinsic remedies by incentivizing the hiring of counselors and staff to mitigate these traumatic experiences, the paucity of equity-minded personnel and lack of intrinsic empathic care and validation for students experiencing this form of Curriculum Trauma was void from most implementation models. Currently, Guided Pathways attempts to provide some wraparound solutions in developing completion teams; however, more training and buy-in is needed from many colleges.

Curriculum Trauma: A Call for Changes

Curriculum Trauma lends our students false feelings of inadequacy not only in school, but at home and in their communities. In all areas of instruction and matriculation, stopping to question our processes for every generation should be routine. In what case would it ever be acceptable not to audit a system for effectiveness? Students and instructors grow and change, and each generation adopts new learning norms and tools. Curriculum lurks as one of the last pillared bastions that remains resistant to fundamental changes: Why don’t we sufficiently interrogate, innovate, experiment, and take big risks?


Ingram, Brenda. (2019, April). “Becoming a Trauma Informed Campus.” [Microsoft PowerPoint file].

Eisner, E.W (1994). The Educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs. New York, NY: MacMillan.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African-Americans.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.

Villarreal, Daniel. (2020, June 11). “Gucci Mane Leaves His Label, Calls Atlantic Records ‘Polite Racist.’” Newsweek. Accessed 17 June 2020.

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