Critique of Essentialism in Education

Topic: Education Theories
Words: 1095 Pages: 4

One of the main fields of activity in everybody’s life is education. However, different ways to study and teach are used all around the globe. Education is a complex structure that is formed by many components. There are various teaching approaches available to reach the goal of knowledge. The philosophy of education highlights three types of education, including student-centered, society-centered, and teacher-centered philosophies. Constructivism, progressivism, and humanism are three types of student-centered educational philosophies. Society-centered methods are reconstructionism and behaviorism, while teacher-centered approaches are perennialism and essentialism. This work will focus on essentialism and its characteristics and distinctions as a teaching method.

Essentialism in education is an approach that draws on idealism and realism philosophical ideas. William Bagley that deservedly considered a father of essentialism because of its popularization in America, stated that “gripping and enduring interests frequently grow out of initial learning efforts that are not appealing or attractive” (Nicabas, 2022, para. 1). Instead of impractical subjects, educational essentialism is built on traditions. In the essentialism approach schools’ purpose is to acquaint and teach about the past. Subjects like mathematics, writing, reading, languages, history, music, and art are examples of academic knowledge essentials that a student can only comprehend through the wisdom of the world’s history. That way, “essentialist educators emphasize instruction in natural science rather than non-scientific disciplines such as philosophy or comparative religion to convey important knowledge about our world” (Nicabas, 2022, para. 5). The realistic approach to education also involves the foundation of traditional subjects. However, instead of asking what is real, the essentialists figure out what is needed (Philo-notes, 2020). It is also important that the curriculum cannot change according to a realistic point of view, while it can change slowly in essentialism.

American education lived through many drastic changes in the system, especially in the aspect of progressive and traditional approaches to pedagogy. However, essentialists have always been the ones to connect these two directions, rejecting the division. McKeown states in his book Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less that “it is not about how to get more things done, but it is about how to get the right things done” (2014, p. 16). In the middle of the Great Depression, in 1934, a book written by Bagley called Education and emergent Man: A theory of education with particular application to public education in the United States was published. Professor Demiashkevich complimented this book and it inspired him to write a section for his future book. An introduction to the philosophy of education played an important role in essentialism founding. According to Demiashkevich teachings, the essentialists looked toward permanent principles of behavior and stressed the moral responsibility of man for his actions (Null, 2007). Bagley and Demiashkevich, along with other figures like Shaw, Briggs, Monroe, and Russell have made a great contribution to the development of this method.

Essentialism in education is inherent in Australia mainly because of Multicultural Day. The schools were criticized because of their unwillingness to understand such problems deeper. This day is a classic example of essentialism and lazy multiculturalism in schools. Watkins and Noble (2019) state that “the simplifications and essentialisms that underline the Multicultural Day, however, produce a missed pedagogic opportunity: it is educationally lazy” (p. 13). The curriculum in Australia consists of eight areas, including mathematics, languages, science, English, arts, and physical education, but also humanities and social sciences, health, and technologies. However, elementary school uses educational essentialism in most countries around the world. It is vital for “all the children in elementary schools to receive a good grounding in reading, writing, and arithmetic” (Sahin, 2018, p. 197). Every child needs a good foundation to acquire knowledge in other particular subjects like humanities and sciences. According to this concept, core skills and subjects are essential because they train students and prepare them for progressive education.

Even though the educational essentialism approach is logical enough to organize the system of education, like every other concept, it has advantages and disadvantages. One of the biggest disadvantages of this method is its undemocratic nature (Howick, 1971, p. 53). It is clear that it may cause a delay between students and the world in a cultural field. Every student is an individual and it is incorrect to stereotype or generalize them. That can prevent the teacher from seeing their unique features and can cause discrimination. Evaluating the teaching methods is crucial, instead of only deliberating about the curriculum. This approach can limit the students’ and teachers’ potential and capabilities. In classical philosophy, the essence is something that remains constant throughout the entire process of change (Philo-notes, 2020). Even though it teaches children to obey older people, it causes abandonment of special characteristics.

Another major concern about essentialism in education is the amount of attention given to activities outside the educational institution. It puts students in the position of suspension from the educational process instead of unification. More than sixty-six percent of Australians from twenty to sixty-four years old received a qualification outside their schools (Angeles, 2022). It is essential that students’ motivation depend on the teacher’s focus on them (Ersek, 2008). It can also cause students to lack initiative because of the system where everything is decided for them. They can become more passive and less creative and unique in their education. Students of any age need to have a chance to differ and be creative while studying in various educational institutions.

Like any other concept, educational essentialism has ways to benefit from it. This mindset helps people to decide what things are important and to eliminate things that are not (Stanford Graduate School of Business, 2014). This approach makes selection and agreement more special and conscious because of a large amount of rejection. People can limit their options up front to create boundaries in their life and work within which they can feel a sense of freedom (Neill, 2018). A proper number of limits can release students’ imagination, creativity, and other important features. It teaches them to make tiny steps to reach the global goal.

To conclude, essentialism is a special approach with its specific pros and cons. It is a state of mind that helps students focus on what is important and not be distracted. It helps them to concentrate on fewer things to become better. Essentialism may be undemocratic, but it is logical and applicable in many areas of education. This method or mindset is not universal for anyone, but it is argumentative. Essentialism in education is not progressive but remains one of the biggest teachings because of its exemplary in the past.


Angeles, J. (2022). Education statistics around the globe. Upskilled. Web.

Ersek, V. (2008). Essentialism. Web.

Howick, W. H. (1971). Philosophies of Western education. Danville: The Interstate Printers & Publishers, Inc.

McKeown, G. (2014). Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less. Crown Business.

Neill, D. (2018). Essentialism by Greg McKeown – a visual summary. Youtube. Web.

Nicabas, E. (2022). Philosophy of education. PDFCoffee. Web.

Null, J. W. William C. (2007). Bagley and the founding of essentialism: An untold story in American educational history. Teachers College Record, 109(4), 1013-1055.

Philo-notes. (2020). Essentialism in education [Video]. YouTube. Web.

Philo-notes. (2020). What is essentialism [Video]. YouTube. Web.

Sahin, M. (2018). Essentialism in philosophy, psychology, education, social and scientific scopes. Journal of Innovation in Psychology, Education and Didactics, 22(2), 193-204. Web.

Stanford Graduate School of Business. (2014). Greg McKeown: Essentialism – The disciplined pursuit of less. YouTube. Web.

Watkins, M. & Noble, G. (2019). Lazy multiculturalism: cultural essentialism and the persistence of the Multicultural Day in Australian schools. Ethnography and Education, 14(3), 1-16.

Children’s Readiness for School
Theoretical Research Works and Instructional Design