Sarah Hawkes & Ryan Heasley
What is Essentialism?
An educational theory that believes that the
purpose of schooling is to impart necessary
knowledge, skills, and attitudes to enable young
people to function as fully developed human beings
in the modern worlds.
Schools should be organized to transmit this core of
essential material.
Classrooms are teacher-centered.
Major Proponents
William Bagley
 An
influential member of the Essentialist Committee for
the Advancement of American Education
 Critical of Progressivism and sought to create a
philosophy of education stressing the basics
E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
 Believed
in the importance of cultural literacy and
extensive knowledge (facts, names, events, etc.)
Nature, Origin, & Motives
Essentialism began in the 1930s and 1940s.
It was a response to Progressivism’s overemphasis on a
child-centered approach to education.
There was a concern that schools were not helping students
develop an appropriate knowledge.
Essentialists believed schools should teach the basics (critical
core of information and skills) to students so that they could
be productive and contribute to modern society.
Essentialism has its roots from idealism and realism.
Principles of Essentialism
Learning involves hard work and discipline.
The teacher has the authority.
The core objective is for the student to learn the
essential subjects (which can change over time).
Schools should use traditional methods of instruction
(lecture, rote memorization, etc.).
Vocational courses are frowned upon.
An Essentialist Classroom
A place where where children come to learn what they need
to know.
The teacher is the person who can best instruct students, so
s/he does not let students’ interests determine what is
The student is to sit, listen, learn passively, and be respectful
while the teacher instructs.
Textbooks are frequently used.
Students’ desks typically arranged in rows.
Lessons involve thinking and reasoning rather than hands-on,
“learning by doing” activities.
There is an emphasis on standards and testing.
Relation to Social
Foundations of Education
Interest in Essentialism revived after the USSR
launched Sputnik in 1957.
 Congress
passed the National Defense Education Act of
 There was an emphasis on upgrading the teaching of
math and science.
“Back to Basics” Movement
“3 Rs”: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic
Relation to Other Philosophies
Similar to Perennialism, Essentialism rejects art,
music, physical education, home economics, and
vocational education.
Unlike Perennialism, Essentialism accepts the idea
that the core curriculum may change.
While Progressivism is student-centered, Essentialism
is teacher-centered.
Visibility of Essentialism Today
No Child Left Behind
State Standards
Tests, tests, and more tests
CAM (Character Academics Marketplace) High
School in Battle Ground, WA
years of English, math, science, and history
 2 years of a foreign language
 Electives are contracted outside of school
Hirsch, E.D., Jr. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs
to know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Kneller, G. (1971). Introduction to the philosophy of education (2nd
ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Sadker, D.M., Sadker, M. P. & Zittleman, K. R. (2008). Teachers,
schools, and society. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Sahu, B. (2007). The new educational philosophy. New Delhi: Sarup &
Starko, A., Sparks-Langer, G., Pasch, M., Frankes, L., Gardner, T., &
Moody, C. (2003). Teaching as decision making: Successful practices
for the elementary teacher (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice
Tozer, S., Senese, G., & Violas, P. (2009). School and society:
Historical and contemporary perspectives (6th ed.). Boston, MA:
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