Essentialism was an educational philosophy that was reacting to the superficiality of instruction that was associated with progressivism and the aristocratic air that was linked with perennialism. Essentialism was a call to teach the basics. This position of providing a no frill basic education for employment is the primary position of most educational positions in the world.
Starting in the 1930’s, essentialism is based on the philosophies of idealism and realism. Essentialism supporters have stressed the need to return to a more subject centered approach vs child centered position. Transmission of knowledge is more important than transforming society.
There were two major moments in American history that propelled essentialism to the forefront of education. The first, happened in 1957 when the Russians launch the Sputnik satellite. Critics of progressivism stated that all this child-centered teaching had crippled an entire generation who lacked basic skills in math and science to compete with the Russians. This was a major blow to progressivism as schools refocused on teaching math and science and having a subject centered curriculum.
In essentialism was not already triumphant it certainly was by the 1980’s when the article “A Nation at Risk” was published. This article stated that American education was mediocre and lead to schools needing to focus on the five basics. By the 1990’s such ideas as “core knowledge” or “common core” was being pushed. Such ideas demonstrate how there are basic truths and ideas that supposedly all students need to have.
School is a place where students master basic skills in preparation for working in society. This includes the three R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) and some of the humanities. The subject matter cannot always be interesting or even immediately relevant for students.
The mind needs to be trained and some memorization is required. However, there is less of a focus on raw intellectualism such as is found in perennialism. The center of learning is the teacher and the students are there to follow the teacher.
Essentialism has similarities to perennialism. However, there are differences such as the idea that Essentialism does not have a problem with adapting ideas from progressivism for their on own purposes. There is also a general indifference to time honor classics in the humanities for the training of the mind.
An essentialist teacher is going to focus on developing skills and competency rather the learning knowledge for the sake of knowledge. There will be a focus on the basics of education and the classroom will be subject centered. There will not be much tolerance for meeting needs or understanding differences among students.
Focus on job skills and training towards employment would also be stressed. The focus of the education is in training people to be equipped for the workplace and not for personal fulfillment. If students enjoy what they learn this is an added bonus but not necessarily critical for the learning experience.
Essentialism was in many ways a working-class version of perennialism. Stripped of the humanities and focused on developing job skills, essentialism is the engine of education in many parts of American education. As long as the economy and employment are most important to people we will continue to see a continued support for essentialism.