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Essentialism. 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.

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Sarah Hawkes & Ryan Heasley

What is essentialism
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
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
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 essentials (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
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
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 taught.

  • 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
Relation to Social Foundations of Education

  • Interest in Essentialism revived after the USSR launched Sputnik USSR in 1957.

    • Congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958.

    • 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
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
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

    • 4 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 & Sons.

  • 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 Hall.

  • Tozer, S., Senese, G., & Violas, P. (2009). School and society: Historical and contemporary perspectives(6th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.