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.”