Teacher-Centered Philosophies (page 2)

Updated on Oct 30, 2013


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.

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