Basic Essentialist Philosophy:
- All students must be taught essential and basic knowledge (for example, American Essentialism emphasizes Western European and American history, literature, etc.)
- Essentialism curriculum includes traditional disciplines: math, science, history, foreign languages, and literature
- Only by mastering the basic content will the student be allowed to progress: lower levels are building blocks or scaffolding for higher levels of material
- Classroom should be centered around the teacher, in rows, and taught in masses
Essentialism defined 5 major problems in American Education:
- Effort vs. interest
- Teacher vs. learner initiative
- Race vs. individual experience
- Subjects vs. activities
- Logical vs. psychological organization
Bagley is considered the founder of Essentialism. Bagley went to college for education and earned both a Master’s and Ph.D. in psychology. In 1905, he wrote the Educative Process, which became a standard textbook for education on the basis of ‘the science of education’. He also is one of the co-founders of the Journal of Educational Psychology, a prestigious journal in the field of education, and Kappa Delta Pi, an honors society in education.
Bagley founded the Essentialist Education Society and wrote Education and the Emergent Man (1934).
Hirsch attended college as an English major at Colombia University and followed with a Ph.D in English at Yale University. He found that students lacked a foundation in basic history and that a basic comprehensive cultural history was needed in addition to formal decoding skills. Hirsch called this conceptual “cultural literacy”.
Hirsch founded The Core Knowledge Foundation. See our post on essentialist curriculum for examples of lesson plans from the Core Knowledge Foundation!
From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education under the Bush administration. She was responsible for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education. Ravitch led the federal effort to promote voluntary state and national academic standards.
From 1997 to 2004, Ravitch was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the federal testing program. She was appointed by the Clinton administration in 1997 and reappointed in 2001. From 1995-2005, she held the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution. Ravitch was a supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
She is the author of:
- The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010)
- Edspeak: A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords, and Jargon (2007)
- The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (2003)
- Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (2000)
- National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide (1995)
- What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? (with Chester Finn, Jr.) 
- The Schools We Deserve (1985)
- The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945–1980 (1983)
- The Revisionists Revised (1978)
- The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805–1973 (1974)
- An American Essentialist curriculum would include traditional disciplines such as math, science, history, foreign languages, and literature.
- “Core Concepts” in American essentialist education is typically based on the experiences of Western men. Therefore, lessons on history, philosophy, science, and literature rely heavily on Western cultural norms. A criticism of Essentialism is that “Core Concepts” are not inclusive of minority groups, women, and different religious groups, among others. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this and would love t0 discuss in the comment section!
- Students demonstrate through tests and writings that they are competent in academic subjects and traditional skills.
- 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.
Lesson plans identify core concepts to be covered and use a variety of media (readings, lecture, videos) to present material. Lessons for younger students emphasize learning and memorizing facts. Higher grade levels are introduced to more complicated material and asked to apply a critical lens to the interpretation and meaning of material. For example, compare the lesson plans on historical American events for 2nd graders and 8th graders.
While second grade lesson plans for American history (such as learning about the Constitution) are based on facts and include limited interpretation, eighth grade American history plans (such as the 1960s) include activities such as investigating Kennedy’s assassination, role-playing significant moments of the decade, and writing newspaper articles covering important events from that time.
The Essentialist Classroom
- The classroom should be centered around the teacher, emphasizing the teacher’s high expert power
- The students sit in orderly rows, emphasizing their respectful and passive roles as learners
- Classes are taught in large groups of peers
Here are some visual examples of essentialist classrooms – I’m sure they’ll look familiar!
The Role of the Educator:
- Methodological preference for the lecture method
- “Teaching by telling” (the expository method or direct instruction)
- Wants the students to master facts and information
- Uses demonstrations and laboratory exercises to display topics, recitation to determine absorption
- Utilizes textbooks and the chalkboard, marker board, or (more recently) Powerpoint presentations
The Role of the Student:
- Students should be taught hard work, respect for authority, and discipline.
- Essentialism gives teachers the power to choose the curriculum, organize the school day, and construct classroom activities. The students are viewed as vessels to be filled and disciplined in the proven strategies of the past.
- Students learn passively by sitting in their desks and listening to the teacher. An example of essentialism would be lecture based introduction classes taught at universities. Students sit and take notes in a classroom which holds over one hundred students. They take introductory level courses in order to introduce them to the content. After they have completed this course, they will take the next level course and apply what they have learned previously.
What does it look like for the Sexuality Educator?
- Facts about biological sexual functioning
- Information about common sexually transmitted infections and how to protect yourself from them (content may vary based on the attitudes towards sexuality valued by the school or community)
- Information about safe sex options (may be focused on traditional values, such as “no sex before marriage” if that is seen as the moral majority opinion)
An example of a Sexuality-focused Essentialist Lesson Plan:
A lesson in basic anatomy, which through labeling and evaluation, establishes past knowledge and corrects myths.