Education philosophies fall in two broad categories: student centered and teacher centered. Student-centered philosophies of education focus primarily on students’ interests, needs and learning styles. Teacher-centered philosophies revolve around the teacher disseminating specific information to students in a systematic way. Essentialism is one of the most prominent teacher-centered philosophies of education that's practiced in modern American classrooms.

Essentialism's Beginnings

In 1938, William C. Bagley popularized essentialism in his book "An Essentialist’s Platform for the Advancement of American Education." Bagley felt that to compete globally, the U.S. must concentrate its public education system on the basics. Teachers should teach a rigid curriculum to all students, regardless of the students' ability. Bagley founded essentialism primarily to oppose progressivism, a philosophy of education he felt was responsible for the lowering of academic standards and relaxing of students’ morals.

Core Curriculum

In an essentialist classroom, the teacher must be highly knowledgeable in the academic content. In the elementary grades, the content areas are primarily math, writing and reading. In secondary education, literature, natural science, math, language and history make up the core curriculum. The arts and social sciences -- or "soft sciences" -- are not considered important in an essentialist education, except as a means for transmitting American cultural values. Student interests are not considered in an essentialist classroom. Bagley believed that young people often develop interests in subjects they did not like at first. He felt it was the duty of teachers to expose students to important subjects, and students’ interests would eventually follow.

Morality in the Classroom

Teachers in an essentialist classroom must be role models for moral behavior. The goal of essentialism is to produce academically educated students who are well-versed in American culture and morality. This includes such traditional values as perseverance, respect for authority, pragmatism and consideration for others. Teachers are expected to embody these traditional virtues outside the classroom, as well as inside.

Essentialist Discipline

Adults are also responsible for imposing discipline in an essentialist classroom. Teachers must guide students by using strict, external discipline with fair and consistent consequences. Self-discipline, according to essentialist philosophy, will eventually develop from this outwardly imposed discipline. It is the obligation of teachers and school administrators to promote student self-discipline through daily guidance.

Student Outcomes

Essentialism is based firmly on a pass/fail system of education. Students must master grade or course content before being promoted to the next level. Essentialist educators place emphasis on standardized test scores as a means of determining mastery. Bagley himself was a proponent of failing students when they could not meet the accepted grade or test score standards. He felt that democracy required all students to meet the same level of achievement. In an essentialist classroom, students of various ages and abilities would be taught the same curriculum. Students who have disabilities or limited English proficiency are taught with the same techniques and materials. Essentialists believe it is unfair to give students a different or less rigorous education based on their special circumstances.