Essentialism & Perennialism Research Paper Starter

Essentialism & Perennialism

(Research Starters)

An overview of Essentialism and Perennialism, their philosophical definitions, historical underpinnings, and their role and impacts on student learning in public school education environments is presented. Also presented is a brief overview of potential applications of Essentialism and Perennialism and their relationship to specific subjects, which are "basic subjects." Further analyzed are ways public education has been impacted by different philosophies. Applications of Essentialism and Perennialism that include roles and impacts on certain groups including students, teachers, and administrators are outlined. A conclusion is offered that analyzes current philosophical viewpoints and a solution is offered to teachers that frames present philosophical thought to inform and support teachers in creating a successful classroom environment aimed at promoting achievement for all students.

Keywords Education; Educational Foundations; Essentialism; Life-long Learning; Perennialism

Philosophical Overviews

Central to all academic disciplines and the formation of ideas are the philosophies that guide our values and beliefs regarding a given academic discipline. Public education in the United States is guided by five main philosophical viewpoints. These philosophical viewpoints include:

• Essentialism,

• Progressivism,

• Perennialism,

• Existentialism, and

• Behaviorism.

The guiding philosophies of education reflect not only the internal assumptions of the individual teacher, but they also construct the culture of schools and school districts. Clashes occur when guiding philosophies conflict. Philosophies are also tied to an individual's or organization's underlying values, which values are difficult to change, unless an internal transformation occurs within an individual or an organization. Another influence of change in a given school occurs when a new administrator brings their own philosophy to the educational environment that is different than previously held beliefs. However, the overarching determinants for philosophies that drive the public education system are derived from the university or college education program. Any real or substantive transformation in public education environments typically occurs, because of changes in higher education philosophies.

These philosophies are derived from the original philosophers who wrote about the philosophy and reflect a much earlier time and societal construct. In response to changing societal views and internal value systems governing philosophies that inspire the teacher's relationship with the student, philosophies for many educators and institutions have changed from teacher-centered to more student-centered beliefs. Essentialism and Perennialism are two philosophical viewpoints contributing to education foundations and these are examined in this paper.


William Bagley was considered the founding philosopher of the Essentialist movement. Bagley's philosophy of education argued that students should learn "something" in addition to the process of thinking. The philosophy also asserted that other philosophies over-emphasized the process of learning instead of content knowledge in the curriculum (Null, 2003). The movement "essentially" began with Bagley's deeply held value that education should teach knowledge from the past, because if students were separated from past knowledge the future of democracy would be endangered. Bagley and other Essentialists believed that education should be rich in basic curriculum content and the need for stricter discipline in the educational environment. The Essentialist philosophy became popular when the American society had been challenged by the Great Depression. Bagley argued that the duty of education should be to teach Democracy, and these teachings should offset the overemphasis on growth and individualism (Bagley, 1934, 123 - 126). In fact, in his writings, Bagley was resolute in reminding educational professionals that a healthy democracy was dependent on strong curriculum content. In his first book, The Educative Process, Bagley wrote,

The charge of "loose" schoolcraft and a demand for a return to the older and harsher educative methods frequently recur in contemporary educational literature. Under the present regime, it is asserted, drill and discipline have become obsolete terms, effort is at a discount, and the net result is a loss of stamina and a weakening of the moral fiber. The harsher methods, it is maintained, have been justly eliminated….Both parties to this controversy appear to have neglected some very important data that have been accumulated during the past ten years by the now unpopular and much-abused cult of "Child Study," and this neglect is the more unfortunate because the light that child study throws upon the main questions at issue renders these heated and speculative discussions quite superfluous (Bagley, 1905, 184 - 185).

Sadker and Sadker (1994) reported that present day American Essentialism accepts the social, political, and economic structure of American society and culture and is a fairly conservative philosophy. Essentialists believe that the role of educators is to instill traditional American values like “respect for authority, perseverance, fidelity to duty, consideration for others, and practicality” (p. 369). In the classroom, the educator's role may be impacted by these beliefs in two ways. First, in a classroom constructed by this philosophy, parents would potentially see traditional disciplines like math, science, history, foreign language, and literature being taught. Second, the teacher's role in the Essentialist classroom would be to serve as a model for the students in intellectual and moral capacities.

Based on these conclusions, the Essentialist educator's goal is that all students will possess basic skills, an extensive body of knowledge, and disciplined pragmatic minds ready to meaningfully contribute to a democratic society in America. The overarching theme of American Essentialist teaching is to center on learning and applying basic skills in the real world. Parents most likely will not see very much teacher creativity or student choice in the Essentialist classroom, because teaching is based on an information delivery model that students receive and apply. Essentialist instruction is teacher-directed and “lacks any inherent requirement for student understanding,” wrote Roberson and Woody (2012). Rather, a teacher delivers the required information, and students absorb then give back what was delivered (Roberson & Woody, 2012).

Also, parents would probably not see a proclivity toward differentiation for the diverse learner. In some Essentialist classrooms, educators have blended Perennialism into the framework of their instruction.


Perennialism is based on the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Rohmann (1999), Aquinas's primary goal was to reconcile faith and reason or philosophy and revelation (p. 23). There are also two types of Perennialists: those who maintain a religious approach to education like Aquinas, and those who follow a more secular view developed in the twentieth century by two well-known educational philosophers, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.

According to William F. Buckley, Jr. (2001), Mortimer Adler read Plato's works while working as a secretary to the editor of the New York Sun, and resolved to become a philosopher. Later, Adler partnered with Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago. Together these two philosophers advocated for a new way of thinking and embarked on a philosophical journey that ultimately changed the shape of public education (p. 54). Their philosophies extended a new way of thinking known as Perennialism. Specifically, Hutchins and Adler promoted the Secular Perennialist view. Secular Perennialists advocate education as a means of constructing a common foundation of historical thought and reason directed at transforming the student's paradigm or way of thinking. Secular Perennialist thinkers believe that in order to ensure societal survival, all citizens must be exposed to and taught ways of thinking that will secure individual freedoms, human rights, and responsibilities true to the nature of a Democracy. According to Hutchins, these beliefs do not come from textbooks. He stated:

The products of American high schools are illiterate; and a degree from a famous college or university is no guarantee that the graduate is in any better case. One of the most remarkable features of American society is that the difference between the "uneducated" and the "educated" is so slight (Hutchins, 1954).

To support this premise, Mortimer Adler wrote:

The two major obstacles to...

(The entire section is 3908 words.)