Teacher-centered philosophies of education require that children are educated using certain methods put into action by their teacher, as opposed to student-centered philosophies, in which teaching methods are formed according to the needs and learning styles of individual students. In short, teacher-centered philosophies force the student to adjust to the teacher; with student-centered philosophies, the teacher adjusts to the student. Essentialism and perennialism are the two teacher-centered philosophies that are prominent in the United States.
Essentialism is a teacher-centered philosophy that stresses rigorous practice with the traditional subjects: reading, writing, math, and science. An essentialist curriculum is structured to develop discipline and a common culture of knowledge. Essentialists value deep knowledge on a few core subjects, as opposed to more general knowledge on a wider array of subjects.
In 1938, education reformist William C. Bagley pioneered essentialism in America. As outlined in his publication Essentialist's Platform, he pushed for a strong, common core curriculum to help America’s school systems compete with higher-ranking countries. He believed that the influx of immigrants was threatening American culture by weakening the schools, and responded with his attempt to raise academic standards.
The Essentialist's Platform detailed three main components of essentialism in the classroom. First, students were to be taught by an essentialist teacher who is well-educated and knowledgeable in the core curriculum. In Bagley’s book Craftsmanship in Teaching, he framed the teacher as the center of the essentialist classroom. The teacher’s role in essentialism was to teach a strict curriculum with knowledge and authority, but the method was at the teacher’s discretion.
The second component was to weave community into the curriculum. The essentialist reform was set to promote the customs of American culture to each student regardless of the school, to ensure that all schools of varying demographics had a common foundation. This element of essentialism is in direct contrast to student-centered philosophies of education, which focus on the growth of the student as an individual.
Third in the Essentialist's Platform, Bagley pushed for a higher standard for all students in “the essentials.” He took a “pass or fail” approach to promoting students to the next educational level; the only way a student could progress was to prove knowledge of the required subjects through grades and testing. “If education abandons rigorous standards and consequently provides no effective stimulus, many persons will pass through twelve years of schooling to find themselves in a world in which ignorance and lack of fundamental training are heavy handicaps,” Bagley said.
Today, essentialist advocate E. D. Hirsch Jr. is the chairman and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Hirsch’s ideas of education reform begin with common cultural literacy. As stated on the foundation’s website, “Our society cannot afford a two-tiered system in which the affluent have access to superior education, while everyone else is subjected to a dull and incoherent classroom experience. Academic excellence, educational equity, and fairness demand a strong foundation of knowledge for all learners.”
Perennialism is a teacher-centered educational philosophy that focuses on everlasting ideas and universal truths learned from art, history, and literature. The curriculum of perennialism stems from the “Great Books,” a collection of literature deemed in Western culture to be foundational, significant, and relevant, regardless of the time period. These books include the works of Socrates, Aristotle, Homer, Plato, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare.
“The Great Books were the most promising avenue to liberal education if only because they are teacher-proof,” said prominent perennialist Robert Hutchins in 1973. “If there were a Socrates behind every teacher’s desk, you would not need to worry about the curriculum.”
Perennialism is similar to essentialism in that teachers guide the educational process. It is also closely associated with the Socratic method of teaching, which promotes an open dialogue between teacher and student. Perennialism in the classroom involves students gaining cultural literacy through the Great Books and proving their understanding through tests, writing, and behavior. A perennialism teacher has a duty to help students to become cultural citizens and to understand the principles of human knowledge.
Hutchins believed that students should be taught basic universal truths and an understanding of eternal ideals. Following the principles of perennialism, he implemented education reform at the University of Chicago, encouraging modern critical thinking of old ideals. He did away with traditional grades and requirements, instead focusing on a more broad curriculum and comprehension through exams. He sought to open up the dialogue between teachers and students, and to foster an environment of debate that could help students relate to these ancient values. “The purpose of the university is nothing less than to procure a moral, intellectual, and spiritual revolution throughout the world,” he said.
Teacher-Centered Philosophies in American Education
In his 2003 book Exemplars of Curriculum Theory, education professor Arthur K. Ellis writes that perennialism dominated the American education system from colonial times to the 19th century, but today the “back to basics” essentialist curriculum is prominent in American public education. The ancient and religious values of perennialism have been removed from the public school system in an effort to promote a separation of church and state. Perennialism is still popular in many non-secular schools and universities.
Critics claim that both educational theories are one-sided, only preparing students for one aspect of their future—essentialism is too pragmatic while perennialism is undemocratic. Both have the same goal of training up a student in a certain image, but those images are different. Perennialism aims to raise an enlightened citizen; essentialism aims to raise a knowledgeable student.