Essentialist Philosphy

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

Albear, G.D. (2013). Essentialism.

Essentialism defined 5 major problems in American Education:

  1.  Effort vs. interest
  2.  Teacher vs. learner initiative
  3.  Race vs. individual experience
  4.  Subjects vs. activities
  5.  Logical vs. psychological organization

Read more here!

Main theorists


William Bagley (1874-1946) from Detroit, Michigan

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). 

Current advocates

E.D. Hirsch


E.D. Hirsch (1928- Present) from Tennessee

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!

Diane Ravitch


Diane Ravitch, 1938-present, from Houston, TX

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.) [1987]
  • 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)

Read more here! 

  • 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 groupswomen, and different religious groups, among others. I’m  eager to hear your thoughts on this and would love t0 discuss in the comment section!
Reading Writing Arithmetic

Reading and Writing and Arithmetic!

  • 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.

Black and white pictures of a hand writing on a test

Lesson Plans

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

Albear, G.D. (2013). Essentialism.

Here are some visual examples of essentialist classrooms – I’m sure they’ll look familiar!

Layout of classroom
Drawing of a grade school classroom

Grade School Classroom

Teacher in front of blackboard, teens sitting in desks

High School Classroom

Professor at podium in front of a college lecture hall full of students

College Classroom: Lecture Hall

Doctor in front of lecture hall of med students

Medical School Classroom

The Role of the Educator:

Black and white old fashioned picture of female teacher at a blackboard

  • 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:

Old black and white picture of students in lecture hall

What does it look like for the Sexuality Educator?

Time magazine cover "Sex Education"

  • 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:

“Reproduction 101”- Advocates for Youth

A lesson in basic anatomy, which through labeling and evaluation, establishes past knowledge and corrects myths.

3 responses to “Essentialist Philosphy

  1. Wow! My initial/gut response to this type of education is how unlikely it is to facilitate a joy, love eagerness and motivation for learning! It also doesn’t seek to take advantage of the natural curiosity children or people have about the world they observe around them. It doesn’t seem to encourage exploration and experimenting, nor does it seem at all to stimulate out of the box thinking. I’m guessing it’s aim is to strictly maintain a status quo or have control over how students develop and think?

    While I am sure an Essentialist approach has value in teaching facts or processes (some things I believe may be easier learnt or taught via rote, routine, or passively), this seems to exclude the usefulness of affective learning. It also denies learners the multiple and just as valuable contributions and perspectives of persons who are different from them (gender-wise, culturally, etc.). It feels like its producing dualist rather than relativist view of the world. Very uncomfortable for me.

  2. I was against the essentialist philosophy, especially as it relates to sexuality education, until I arrived on the part about biological information, STDs, and protection. I never realized that in teaching a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum, I embody an essentialist philosophy especially when teaching about HIV and STDs. It’s quite a stark contrast from the more progressivist standpoint with which I approach gender, sex, and communication, and I think it’s because there are so many myths to dispel in such a short amount of time.

    Just last week I had a student non-consensually co-teach and challenge every aspect of the lesson on reproductive health. Finally, I told her,”You have a lot of information, but you also have a lot of misinformation.” After teaching for awhile, I can imagine moving more towards essentialism thinking that I as the educator am the beacon of knowledge and these children need to listen. After reading more about the philosophy and reflecting on my practices, I’m wondering if we should switch our approaches depending on the topic? For now, I don’t think we should. I don’t think essentialism belongs in sexuality education, and that we need to find more creative ways to discuss HIV, STDs, protection, and biology.

    Thank you for this One El – I did not think of this before!

  3. The essentialist theory suggests that there are distinct categories for things. For example, one is either heterosexual or homosexual and never the twain shall meet. Like Kinsey (1948), I believe that orientation is on a continuum. Such a belief is not substantiated by the essentialist paradigm. In the same vein, modern essentialism would purport there are two genders, male and female. Being gender queer or transgender does not seem to fit into the essentialist paradigm. I would be concerned about facilitating a class with such a conservative mode of thinking.
    While essentialism is useful in terms of the explanation of the triangle, deconstructing why people are the way they are requires more than a scientific formula. Hyde (1998) uses the theory of evolution to pose how sexual orientation challenges essentialism. “If evolutionary forces are the key to human sexuality, exclusive homosexuality with no reproduction should not exist, and even bisexuality, with decreased heterosexual mating and reproduction, should not be favored. Natural selection would quickly weed out individuals and genes leading to these tendencies” (p.4).
    I agree that there are essences and in science and biology and with communicable diseases, there are hard and proven facts. A combination of social constructionist and essentialist would likely give a student the most well-rounded experience possible.

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