Teacher-Centered Philosophies (page 2)
Excerpt from: Teachers, Schools, and Society: A Brief Introduction to Education p. 200-207
Traditionally, teacher-centered philosophies emphasize the importance of transferring knowledge, information, and skills from the older (presumably wiser) generation to the younger one. The teacher's role is to instill respect for authority, perseverance, duty, consideration, and practicality. When students demonstrate through tests and writings that they are competent in academic subjects and traditional skills, and through their actions that they have disciplined minds and adhere to traditional morals and behavior, then both the school and the teacher have been successful. The major teacher-centered philosophies of education are essentialism and perennialism.
Essentialism strives to teach students the accumulated knowledge of our civilization through core courses in the traditional academic disciplines. Essentialists aim to instill students with the "essentials" of academic knowledge, patriotism, and character development. This traditional or back-to-basics approach is meant to train the mind, promote reasoning, and ensure a common culture among all Americans.
American educator William Bagley popularized the term essentialism in the 1930s,1 and essentialism has been a dominant influence in American education since World War 11. Factors such as the launching of Sputnik in 1957, the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, intense global economic competition and in-creased immigration into the United States have all kept essentialism at center stage. Some educators refer to the present period as neoessentialism because of the increased core graduation requirements, stronger standards and more testing of both students and teachers.
Whether they call themselves essentialists or neoessentialists, educators in this camp are concerned that the influx of immigrants threatens American culture. In response, they call for rigorous schools teaching a single, unifying body of knowledge for all Americans. One of the leading essentialists, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., authored Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know and The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. Hirsch provides lists of people, events, literature, historical facts, scientific breakthroughs and the like, lists that specify what students at every grade level should know to be "culturally literate."
Most of you reading this chapter have been educated in essentialist schools. You were probably required to take many courses in English, history, math, and science, but were able to enroll in only a few electives. Such a pro-gram would he typical in an essentialist school.
The Essentialist Classroom Essentialists urge that traditional disciplines such as math, science, history, foreign language, and literature form the foundation of the curriculum, which is referred to as the core curriculum. Essentialists frown upon electives that "water-down" academic content. Elementary students receive instruction in skills such as writing, reading, measuring, and computing. Even when studying art and music, subjects most often associated with the development of creativity, students master a body of information and basic techniques, gradually moving to more complex skills and detailed knowledge. Only by mastering the required material are students promoted to the next higher level.
Essentialists maintain that classrooms should be oriented around the teacher, who should serve as an intellectual and moral role model for the students. The teachers or administrators decide what is most important for the students to learn and place little emphasis on student interests, particularly when such interests divert time and attention from the academic curriculum. Essentialist teachers rely on achievement test scores to evaluate progress. Essentialists expect that students will leave school possessing not only basic skills and an extensive body of knowledge, but also disciplined, practical minds, capable of applying schoolhouse lessons in the real world.
Essentialism in Action: The Coalition of Essential Schools The Coalition of Essential Schools, headed by Theodore Sizer, offers several tangible examples of essentialism in action. The 200 coalition schools pledge to promote intellectual rigor, test students for mastery of information and skills, have teachers and students work closely together, and develop strong thinking skills across subjects. But is the Coalition of Essential Schools purely essentialist? Not entirely. Coalition schools recognize and promote individual student differences, a clear departure from a strict essentialist interpretation. In fact, schools in the coalition do not share a fixed core curriculum, but each school continually analyzes and can alter core contents. The coalition also stresses "less is more," since Sizer believes that teachers and students should focus on fewer topics, but go into them more deeply. In fact, these essential schools also incorporate components of perennialism, which happens to be the next teacher-centered philosophy that we will discuss.
Perennialism is a cousin to essentialism. Both advocate teacher-centered classrooms. Both tolerate little flexibility in the curriculum. Both implement rigorous standards. Both aim to sharpen students' intellectual powers and enhance their moral qualities. So what are the differences?
Perennialists organize their schools around books, ideas and concepts, and criticize essentialists for the vast amount of factual information they re-quire students to absorb in their push for "cultural literacy." Perennial means "everlasting" — a perennialist education focuses on enduring themes and questions that span the ages. Perennialists recommend that students learn directly from the Great Books — works by history's finest thinkers and writers, books as meaningful today as when they were first written.
Perennialists believe that the goal of education should be to develop rational thought and to discipline minds to think rigorously. Perennialists see education as a sorting mechanism, a way to identify and prepare the intellectually gifted for leadership, while providing vocational training for the rest of society. They lament the change in universities over the centuries, from institutions where a few gifted students (and teachers) rigorously pursued truth for its own sake, to a glorified training ground for future careers.
Those of you who received a religious education might recognize the perennialist philosophy. Many parochial schools reflect the perennialist tradition with a curriculum that focuses on analyzing great religious books (such as the Bible, Talmud, or Koran), discerning moral truths, and honoring these moral values. In the classroom description that follows, we will concentrate on secular perennialism as formulated in the twentieth-century United States by such individuals as Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.
The Perennialist Classroom As in an essentialist classroom, students in a perennialist classroom spend considerable time and energy mastering the >three "Rs," reading, 'riling and 'rithmetic. Greatest importance is placed on reading, the key to unlocking the enduring ideas found in the Great Books. Special attention is given to teaching values and character training, often through discussion about the underlying values and moral principles in a story. (Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett wrote a collection of such stories in 1993, entitled Book of Virtues.) High school marks an increase in academic rigor as more challenging books are explored, including works of Darwin, Homer, and Shakespeare. Few elective choices are allowed. In an extreme example, in his Paideia Proposal, published in 1982, Mortimer Adler proposed a single elementary and secondary curriculum for all students, with no curricular electives except in the choice of a second language.
Electives are not the only things perennialists go without. You find few if any textbooks in a perennialist class.
Robert Hutchins, who as president of the University of Chicago introduced the Great Books program, once opined that textbooks "have probably done as much to degrade the American intelligence as any single force." Because perennialist teachers see themselves as discussion seminar leaders and facilitators, lectures are rare. Current concerns like multiculturalism, gender stereo-types, or computer technology would find no place in a perennialist curriculum.
While critics chastise perennialists for the lack of women, people of color, and non-Western ideas in the Great Books they teach, perennialists are unmoved by such criticism. To them, "training the mind" is ageless, beyond demographic concerns and transient trends. As Mortimer Adler wrote.
The Great Books of ancient and medieval as well as modern times are a repository of knowledge and wisdom, a tradition of culture which must initiate each generation.
Perennialism in Action: St. John's College The hest-known example of perennialist education today takes place at a private institution unaffiliated with any religion: St. John's College, founded in 1784 in Annapolis, Maryland (www.sjcsf.edu). St. John's College adopted the Great Books as a core curriculum in 1937 and assigns readings in the fields of literature, philosophy and theology, history and the social sciences, mathematics and natural science, and music. Students write extensively and attend seminars twice weekly to discuss assigned readings. They also complete a number of laboratory experiences and tutorials in language, mathematics, and music, guided by the faculty, who are called tutors. Seniors take oral examinations at the beginning and end of their senior year and write a final essay that must be approved be-fore they are allowed to graduate.
Although grades are given in order to facilitate admission to graduate pro-grams, students receive their grades only upon request and are expected to learn only for learning's sake. Since the St. John's experience thrives best in a small-group atmosphere, the college established a second campus in 1964 in Santa Fe, New Mexico to handle additional enrollment.
Reprinted with the permission of McGraw-Hill Companies.
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