Reflections on Philosophies of Education


Rick Segreda

For better or worse, Essentialism is the quintessential American approach to education. There is something inherently pragmatic about American culture that has its roots in the agrarian Puritans that settled New England in the 17th century. De Tocqueville noted that Americans were profoundly ambivalent about education, making it more widely available to the common man than in Europe, but more limited in its depth and scope, especially in the realm of fine arts and humanities, which have always been tainted in the American mind with the sin and decadence of elitist, European aristocracy. The late Allan Bloom could have carped about the closing of the American mind, yet when has it ever been especially open? Let's just stick to readin', writin', and 'rithmatec, et cetera.

An article entitled From Industrial Arts to Technology Education: The Eclipse of Purpose, by Dennis Herschbach makes the following point:


The Reagan administration came into office in 1980 with the declared purpose of restoring conservative influence and reforming education. To a large measure, it succeeded... Reform centered on returning to the "basics," de-emphasizing social objectives, and reducing electives. State followed state in undertaking to strengthen math, science, and language requirements, giving concrete form to what Bagley and the essentialists had argued for in the 1930s and to what Bestor and the Council for Basic Education had tried to accomplish in the 1950s.1

Canadian Member of Parliment David Kilgour makes the following observation in his essay, Whither Educational Thinking:

Historically, essentialism has had the greatest degree of influence in the North American educational system. Surfacing in the 1930s, late 1950s and early 1960s, and reemerging in the 1980s, essentialismís initial evolution as an educational philosophy paralleled the larger immigration movements to North America.2

Yet if we are to ask what is the educational approach that best serves students,Perennialism is it. If we cannot know ourselves, both as individuals and as a society, if we don't understand our past. And without self-knowledge, how much genuine autonomy do we really have? Which is to say, even with the most impassioned and gifted instructors, some students may still have absolutely no enthusiasm for Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Dante and Descartes, Sophocles and Shakespeare, as well as the study of history, but they will at least have a profound understanding of the forces that have shaped their world and their lives. Thus they will be capable of making informed choices of how they chose to be in society. Perennialism has its' shortcomings; experiential knowledge and developing problem-solving skills are also profoundly important.

From my experience as a student, I'd say Essentialism rules. In my high school days (or more appropriately, daze), electives like drama, art, and music were offered only two or three days a week, alternating with Phys Ed classes. That's what we used to call such curriculums: "no gym" classes. By contrast shop, or even typewriting was five days a week. Still, I do remember that my social studies and English classes did, on occasion, try to be "hip" and "relevant," making us read books like The Catcher in the Rye, that featured four letter words. Instructors even deigned to ask us for our opinions now and then. But for the most part, it was dull, rote, spiritually enervating memorization.

In my limited observation of what goes on in public schools at the moment, I don't get the impression that things have changed all that much. At a high school level math class I sat in on last recently, I noticed more than a few bored faces that reflected the student's alienation from "the learning experience." The teachers seemed indifferent. La plus ca change, la plus c'est la meme choses.

There are huge conflicts between my personal views and what I see happening in schools or being promoted by politicians and policy makers. I highly recommend Frank Smith's Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucrat Invasion of Our Classrooms. "Drill and kill" methods of teaching, designed to flatter the egos of bureaucrats and politicians, have nothing to do with how human beings actually learn anything in life (Mark Twain really was on to something when he said that he never let his schooling interfere with his learning), yet they are holding the minds of children (and their parents) hostage. Regrettably this nonsense is perpetuated in college as well. Dead institutions like American public schools do nothing more than rehearse students for the ritual of leading dead lives. Max Weber, the great 19th century sociologist, argued that the greatest threat to Western Civilization would be the "tyranny of bureaucracy" as society became increasing urbanized and industrialized. From the evidence Smith presents one might agree that Weber was right.



2 Kilgour, David Canadian Social Studies Magazine, Winter 1995, Vol. 30, No. 2


To e-mail with comments or questions

To return to Religion, Sex, and Politics

 To return to the Main Page