Establishes the school’s primary or essential function as maintaining the achievements of human civilization by transmitting them to students as skills and subjects in a carefully organized and sequenced curriculum. William C. Bagley (1872–1946), a leading essentialist professor of education, believed that schools should provide all students with the skills and knowledge needed to function in a democratic society. Failure to transmit these necessary skills and subjects puts civilization in peril. This essential knowledge includes the skills of literacy (reading and writing), computation (arithmetic), and the subjects of history, mathematics, science, languages, and literature. Because there is much to learn but only a limited time to learn it, the curriculum needs to emphasize essential knowledge, and teaching needs to be efficient. For effective learning, the curriculum needs to be sequential and cumulative. It is sequential when lower-order skills generate and lead to more complex higher-order ones. It is cumulative when what is learned at a lower grade level leads to and is added to by knowledge in succeeding grades or levels.
Bagley crafted a finely tuned program of teacher education that moved teachers forward from preservice to professional classroom practice. Teachers need a knowledge base in the liberal arts and sciences, mastery of the skills and subjects they teach, and a repertoire of professional education experiences and methods that enables them to transmit essential skills and subjects efficiently and effectively to students. The successful passage from preservice to practice means that teachers can competently organize skills and subjects into units appropriate to students’ age and ability levels and competently teach them.
Arthur E. Bestor, Jr., a professor of history and a leader of the Council on Basic Education, reconceptualized essentialist principles into the theory of basic education. Bestor argued that schools should provide a sound education in the intellectual disciplines, which he defined as the fundamental ways of thinking found in history, science, mathematics, literature, language, and art. These intellectual disciplines were historically developed as people searched for cultural understanding, intellectual power, and useful knowledge.
Essentialists charge that often popular and supposedly innovative methods that neglect systematic teacher-directed instruction in basic skills of reading, writing, computation, and the essential subjects have caused a serious decline in students’ academic performance and civility. Social-promotion policies, which advance students to higher grades to keep them with their age cohort even if they have not mastered grade-appropriate skills and subjects, have further eroded academic standards. These policies caused a serious decline in student achievement scores on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT. In addition, a morally permissive environment in the schools has weakened fundamental values of civility, social responsibility, and patriotism.
The post Existentialism
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